Making Peace With Conflict

Conflict isn't fun, but that doesn't mean it's useless.

(Posted Jan 18, 2018)


In the world of intimate relationships, conflict has a bad reputation. If you ever heard someone say, “I love conflict with my romantic partner!” you’d probably give them a baffled side-eye. 

Conflict isn’t fun or delightful. It runs the gamut from mildly annoying to immensely distressing, and it can damage relationships. But is it intrinsically harmful?

In a relationship between two human beings, each with their own minds, personal histories, opinions, habits, tendencies, and preferences, conflict is natural and inevitable. They’re going to disagree, and it would be kind of creepy if they didn’t. (It would be like the movie The Stepford Wives. There wasn’t a whiff of conflict among the couples in that town, and why? I’m not a fan of spoilers, so I won’t say more than I have already, but let’s just say it isn’t good.)

And the journey through conflict isn’t always unhealthy or destructive. Partners can emerge from it feeling closer. The vital key is how they approach their differences. Partners can either intensify conflict or foster intimacy through their responses to each other. It’s like standing in front of a fork in the road, with one route leading to distance and the other winding toward connection. It’s not always a cinch to take the thoughtful road: The journey from feeling upset and distressed to responding in a compassionate, considerate way can feel like an upstream swim at times. 

How can you be your better self, even when it doesn’t come easy? Here are a few strategies to consider:

1. Borrow your partner’s eyes.

It’s reasonable to see a conflict from your own vantage point. It’s the one you have, right? But what this view doesn’t give you is a window into how your partner is feeling and what the conflict means for them. It’s common for people to zero in on their own perspective and prepare a rebuttal to whatever their partner has to say, but this rarely, if ever, leaves couples feeling heard and connected. If anything, the more someone feels like they aren’t being listened to, the less inclined they’ll be to listen in return. So before you do anything else, start by listening and trying to understand where your partner is coming from. And if you’re in doubt about what your partner is saying, don’t hesitate to ask clarifying questions. You might be surprised by what you learn and by how much smoother the conversation feels. And if it’s too tough to take your partner’s point of view, try envisioning your differences through the eyes of someone who is unbiased and impartial, and wants you both to be happy. This can be someone you know or someone you create in your mind’s eye.

2. Dish out what you want.

I’m just going to go ahead and assume that you’re like most people, and that you want your partner to be kind to you. If your partner responds to you by lobbing hurtful or belittling comments your way or pointing the finger at you, you’ll understandably feel more guarded and wary of being open about issues with them in the future. The same is true for your partner. If you don’t want to shut the door to intimacy, give yourself permission to pause and ask yourself an essential question: How would I feel if my partner reacted to me in the same way I’m about to react? If it would shut you down, don’t do it; if you need to take a break to collect yourself, that’s perfectly fine. And then think about what kind of words, tone, body language, and willingness to listen you’d want from your partner, and try it. Yes, this is basically the Golden Rule, and it works in the world of romance, too. 

3. Build your reservoir of goodwill.

One of the best things you can do to try to avoid unhealthy conflict and protect your relationship is to build goodwill with your partner by being an encouraging, helpful presence in the relationship. A study found that if partners don’t offer each other care and understanding when they open up and share during tension-free conversations, they’re also more likely to react to moments of conflict in ways that can erode connection over time. Instead, when your partner reaches out for support or lets you in on another part of their inner world, focus on being attentive, validating, comforting, and accepting.

Holly ParkerComment