Conflict can be both bad and good. This article focuses on the positive value of conflict in relationships.
Each of us has a voice, a set of core beliefs, and a mode of expressing those beliefs that form our core selves—our identities. This voice is a combination of innate traits, values, and experiences. Without this identity, we, as individuals, cease to exist. In a conflict, this unique identity often becomes evident when we speak. When couples communicate in conflict, the intention in speaking is to be part of the conversation, to matter, and to be afforded the respect of being heard. However, too often, expressions of individuality are perceived as a threat by the partner, leading couples to constantly communicate from self-defensive postures. Self-defensiveness keeps both individuals on guard, unwilling to open up and communicate effectively.
Numerous studies have been done on the value of conflict in organizations. More recently, researchers have also attested to the value of conflict in relationships. Researchers have found that couples who avoid conflict do not grow. Why? Because in an attempt to avoid the discomfort associated with conflict, couples fail to harness the hidden potential. As a conflict resolution expert, I have seen couples at a place of stagnation spend an enormous amount of time avoiding conflict, creating stagnation within their relationships. When both individuals in a couple can learn to respectfully express their ideas and use these ideas to facilitate growth, the relationship will move forward.
There are moments in our lives when an epiphany occurs, making it clear what we believe in; these moments clarify what we long for and what we hold dear. Conflict can bring on an epiphany. Conflict can be a galvanizing force that quickens the mind to the idea that I, as an individual, matter, and what I believe matters. Relationships can force us to confront these important beliefs regarding our personal stances in such areas as finances, parenting, roles and responsibilities, sex, careers, recreation, and spiritual beliefs. In the face of opposition, each individual is forced to take a position and clarify what is important to him or her.
In a conflict, some may choose to withdraw or avoid the situation while others may choose to face conflict head-on. Those who are willing to face conflict directly have the opportunity to harness the potential growth that results from conflict resolution. Learning negotiation skills and deal-making can help to harness the potential in relationships. A few basic components are required to successfully address a conflict head-on:
In the same way that conflict reveals strongly held beliefs, it also reveals our fears. In fact, I would argue that it is the intensity of feelings of fear that leads to conflict. Let me explain. Conflict can awaken feelings of vulnerability and a need to protect deep-seated. When confronted with beliefs and values that are different from ours, the fear of losing something dear to us can trigger defensiveness and, sometimes, aggression. The alternative position is to recognize that defensiveness is fear. In a healthy relationship, the couple can talk about feelings of fear and find ways to ensure that needs do not go unmet. Over time, the conflict often can yield positive growth and change.
Couples should recognize that conflict carries a message: “It is time for a change.” Conflict is a call to action. It is a revelation that someone in the relationship does not like the way things are, and, therefore, a change within the relationship needs to occur. If you accept the idea that change promotes renewal and enthusiasm and keeps the relationship fresh, then conflict is a call to produce that change.
Conflict can stir engagement in conversation by interacting with one another and addressing the concerns appropriately. When attempting to deal with a conflict, people have a tendency to either isolate or attack. This reaction occurs primarily because conflict triggers a primal instinct to preserve what currently exists, the status quo. Conflict is, therefore, perceived as a threat. This perception of a threat is a misinterpretation of the role of conflict. Conflict within relationships can promote honest communication, vulnerability, and emotional risk-taking that, if respected, can empower the couple to engage and take action to grow the relationship.
When faced with a conflict, couples have three basic choices: (1) accept that the relationship remains the same, (2) avoid conflict and confrontation altogether and never address issues, or (3) decide to confront the conflict and make a change. If the couple decides to confront the conflict, then the parties involved will have the unique opportunity to innovate around the problem. They will have the chance to engage in healthy discussion, look at their options, and come up with solutions that meet the needs of the individuals and the couple. The result will be that over time, the couple will learn valuable lessons in how to find solutions to solve problems.
Dr. Carlos Todd, PhD