Ask couples what challenges them most, and many say that it is conflict - the frequency, the intensity, the predictable triggers, its debilitating effect on other parts of their lives. In this, there is often the assumption that there is little or no conflict in ‘healthier’ or ‘more successful’ relationships, adding shame to the pain these couples already feel with their strife. So let's air this one out.
Some of the issues couples fight over are actually the type that can be resolved once-and-for-all. These are fewer than most people expect though. The fact is, as compatible as we may be as partners, we are still distinct people with different tastes, values, and histories, and these rub up against each other as we go about our life together. Difference is the magic at the center of relationship that frustrates and enriches us. As a culture we seem to have picked up a belief that with enough earnest effort, we can (and should) resolve this tension that lives between us. The effect of this belief is that people become disheartened at the appearance of this friction in their relationships, and exhaust themselves working against it. Many set about on elaborate strategies to prevent the squabbles - by avoiding charged topics or modes of interaction (sexual, playful, or assertive, for example), almost always at the cost of intimacy and trust in the relationship.
What if you leaned into conflict as a way of listening for the unmet needs it is actually pointing to?
Conflict is a source of connection, after all. When pushed away, it can become automatic and toxic. On the other hand, with careful attention, it can illuminate opportunities for deeper connection. Rather than tiptoeing away from charged issues, partners can face each other with a sense of dignity and respect, and actually come out enlivened by the ‘heat’ of conflict done beautifully.
“Violence is an absence of conflict,” says storyteller and healer, Martín Prechtel in his teaching Grief & Praise. The relevance here for couples is something I’ve marinated with over the past few months, since I realized that I didn’t have a clear distinction between the two. In so doing, I’ve seen where it is learning to do conflict well, not trying to eliminate it, that stands to actually build relational health and make violence irrelevant. When we meet each other in loving conflict (no, it’s not a contradiction!), we honor the diversity alive in our relationship.
‘Violence’ in its broadest sense is what does damage to the ecosystem of a relationship, depleting the health and energy we have to offer ourselves, each other, and what we touch in world. Conflict in a relationship can be part of a regenerative cycle where a couple clash over an issue, address whatever need is being surfaced, and then tend to any strain their connection has experienced. A couple can build or sustain healthy connection in this way. Violence, on the other hand, is what leaves trust, resilience, and connection worse off. It is a spectrum stretching from the very obvious into the very subtle, where it can evade acknowledgment but still do damage.
What confuses things is that much of what couples go through muddles violence and conflict together. We work toward a collaborative need at the same time as we’re pulling the rug out from each other. A useful litmus test is to ask yourself if your agenda in an argument could fall into what Non-Violent Communication originator, Marshall Rosenberg calls a game of ‘Who’s Right?’. Are you working to prove your rightness (and on the flip-side, your partner’s wrongness)? If so, you’re working against the need you’re trying to address, and harming your relational health in the process. And you’re in good company. We live in a society that highly prizes being right and winner-take-all competition. Where it might make a good game show, it’s bad news for our relationships.
What’s the difference, then, between the type of clash that leaves you depleted and the type you could actually be invigorated by?
Care. Believe it or not, it’s actually possible to fight with care. You know your partner’s tender spots. They know yours. You could reduce each other to an emotional puddle or smoldering crater (depending on your personality), as most couples have done at least a few times. Or you could skip the cheap shots and treat your partner as the noble and worthy adversary they are for the moment. One fair fight is worth days or weeks of smooth sailing in terms of building the trust that you have each other’s backs even when you’re polarized.
Perspective. Getting clear on what you are each fighting for will leave you less prone to fighting against each other, which ultimately leaves you both in worse shape. This is where you need to look underneath whatever reaction bubbles up to see what need is asking for attention. Is it a boundary? More connection? More space? An agreement? Repair around a broken agreement? The energy that gets stirred up in conflict can not only show you where these needs are, but can actually be harnessed in working to meet them.
Play. It’s when we take conflict too seriously for too long that the real damage is done. Our brains start creating memories that our partner is a threat, leaving us more on-edge for the next encounter. So shaking things off in a connected way will allow you to regulate the intensity so your relationship can actually ‘digest’ the material that’s already been stirred up. If humor hasn’t already fled the room, crack a joke, just not at your partner’s expense. If you’re a couple who dance, dance! If you take walks, take a walk (ideally together). Come up with an idea or two together when you’re not in the heat of battle so you have it when you need it. Then, intersperse these playful moments frequently in arguments - every few minutes is ideal.
With all this, it is my hope that you can embrace whatever shows up in your relationship as an opportunity for deepening your connection and paving the way for creativity, fulfillment, and health. If you have additions for the list above, questions, or stories of conflict done beautifully in your relationship, please leave a comment or contact me, as you see fit.
*An important disclaimer here is that this article is not therapeutic advice. If you are in a relationship where abuse (physical or emotional) is happening, please seek the appropriate support. Contact us if you need help identifying resources available in your area.