“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.” ~R.D. Laing, M.D.
I don’t know when it started or why, but we’ve become conditioned to believe that the happiest of couples are the same ones who never fight. Maybe it’s because all social media wants us seeing are the “cheeriest” of moments in coupledom. So, naturally, when we scroll through our feed, it bleeds from one perfect post into the next with smiling, happy couples.
Yet, underneath the social facade, what we aren’t seeing is how the relationship is unfolding behind closed doors. Because we’ve been conditioned into posting our brightest and shiniest moments to our friends and family, many of us have also been conditioned into believing that if we have a disagreement with our partner, that it’s the beginning of the end…
…which is the exact misinformation that keeps us stuck in a perpetual loop of conflict avoidance.
In an attempt to avoid differences of opinion that may trigger an argument, couples may find themselves dancing around anything that has to do with tough conversations or the issues they’re trying to avoid. And, while this may be a satisfying band-aid in the moment, research suggests that couples who avoid conflict are associated with a greater amount of relationship distress and dissatisfaction, including poorer mental health (Du Rocher-Schudlich, 2013; Gottman, 1994).
The more that couples try to avoid important issues within their relationship, the more anger and resentment can build up over time.
If a couple expects lasting power in their relationship, conflict will inevitably need to be faced head-on. Relationships that are built on conflict resolution instead of conflict avoidance are also the ones who, statistically speaking, have a greater shot at lasting.
Attachment Theory & Conflict
Most everything in our adult relationships point back to how we grew up — including our earliest attachments to others and how we learned to resolve conflict. If you’re among the lucky few, you grew up being taught a solid sense of self-worth, were taught to voice your perspective and to respect others’, and learned the fine art of conflict resolution.
…if you’re like the rest of us, you’ve probably had to hack your way through it as trial and error.
If we grew up being handed an insecure attachment style, then how we approach relationship conflict will be based on insecurity.
For example, relationship highs and lows tend to be more extreme when partners have an avoidant or anxious attachment style. Relationship satisfaction often hinges on the effects of men’s overall intimacy. Men’s attachment style has a strong relationship impact and plays a significant role in predicting their own and their partner’s sense of emotional, intellectual, and recreational intimacy — and whether conflict is resolved (Du Rocher-Schudlich, 2013).
However, studies on women who displayed an anxious attachment found that if they were more emotionally intimate with their partner, then there was a higher chance for conflict resolution. Yet, women displaying an anxious attachment style can also struggle with ambivalence towards their partner, increasing the chance of conflict without resolution.
So, nothing gets resolved.
Factors such as both males and females with an avoidant attachment style can also impact the quality of conflict resolution; whether issues are resolved are based on how well partners are able to discuss a solution (Shirvani & Prager, 2013).
If no one is talking, nothing is resolved.
Another factor that influences conflict resolution has an overarching (unfair) social influence and double standard. For example, because ‘anxious attachment’ is often identified as seeking reassurance, being worrisome or clingy, males with a more anxious attachment style often experience shame, thus pushing their partner away and denying themselves intimacy.
Again, nothing gets resolved.
Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict
The Art of War by Sun-Tzu can be used as a metaphor for human behavior and human nature which eloquently explains how to overpower your ‘enemy’ through tact and strategic planning. Yet, this book can also be used as a blueprint for relationships by learning to understand yourself, your partner, and by being solution-focused in resolving conflict.
It’s not whether we argue with our partner, but how we argue that defines the strength of the relationship. Unless you know something the rest of us don’t: every couple fights. I would love to tell my partner we will never have another disagreement again, but understanding how arguments play out and how they’re resolved are the secrets to relationship happiness.
If you want happiness, aim for constructive conflict, which is based on shared ideas, humor, positive communication and being solution-focused, together. Here is where relationship issues are met with honesty, vulnerability, authenticity and humility. Because every relationship has its share of problems, understanding how you and your partner approach issues is critical for engaging in a healthy, constructive resolution.
On the flip-side, is destructive conflict, which most of us have probably experienced at one time, or another. Here is where passive-aggression, avoidance, stubbornness, verbal attacks, character assassinations, smear campaigns, or shutting down are commonly reported. And, most importantly — where problems continue, unresolved. After all, if you or your partner are airing your dirty laundry while shaming each other to others, you can’t expect a healthy resolution.
Perhaps one of the most commonly seen issues in relationships is avoidance of an issue in hopes that it will ‘just go away’. We’ve all swept an issue under the carpet at least once in a relationship, especially if the alternative was having to sit down and awkwardly discuss the problem. However, avoidance of relationship issues is one of the biggest predictors of relationship dissolution.
Why Conflict Is Your Best Friend
By teaching ourselves that conflict is an unavoidable part of all relationships — be it family, friends, or our partner — we are empowering ourselves in conflict resolution while bracing for the inevitable.
Self-Awareness. This is a critical skill that only comes with experience and time. With each argument we have two choices: face it, or ignore it. By facing the issue, we’re learning a little about ourselves, too. For example, if it’s the same issue that keeps resurfacing, here is where we can begin unboxing things about ourselves such as why we are avoiding a solution — is it because it triggers something within us? Are we afraid of looking “weak” or “imperfect” to the other person? Or, are we scared of feeling shamed or vulnerable?
By increasing our self-awareness, we’re also empowering ourselves in learning how to recognize conflict sooner, so we can begin engaging in solution-focused options, sooner.
Empathy And Perspective-Taking. Research suggests that those low in emotional empathy are also more prone to relationship dissatisfaction, discord, and at a higher risk for personality disorders. Walking hand-in-hand with low empathy is a refusal to see others’ perspectives. Because each person should have equal balance of power within a relationship, by refusing to see your partner’s perspective (or them refusing to see yours), nothing gets resolved to each partner’s satisfaction.
By practicing putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, you are increasing your ability to empathize with them. However, since empathy can be both cognitive and emotional, it’s important to learn how to use emotional empathy by learning to feel what another may be feeling regarding the issue at hand. And, your partner should be willing to do the same for you.
For example, if you did something that really hurt your partner (or, vice versa) — avoiding or minimizing it will only breed animosity and resentment. However, by talking about it, you can reach a place of acceptance that both partners are entitled to their feelings being respected, understood and felt as valid. Thus, toss out Ego and opt for vulnerability.
Learn Your Triggers. The relationships we keep are often shadows and mirror images of our past. If we have unresolved baggage from earlier in our life, there is an increased risk that we will unconsciously seek out more of the same b.s. in our intimate relationships. Maybe you have a habit of ditching one relationship for a ‘fresh start’ with a new partner (but keep the same old habits in play). And, before long, the new partner will hit that same trigger the previous ones did, too.
At this point, our choice is to either continue a toxic cycle of ‘chasing’ new relationships to ‘run’ from ourselves, or we can stop and take a look within ourselves to figure things out. By taking the time to recognize and acknowledge our triggers, we’re not only learning healthier ways of dealing with triggers as they happen, we’re learning about ourselves in the process, too.
Signals A Need For Growth. At the core of every relationship issue, whether it’s with a family member, friend, or partner, are conditioned beliefs and learned behaviors. Each time we look around in the middle of a heated argument and think we sounded just like our mother or brother, chances are it’s because we did. We begin to take on the ghosts of our past when we take on other people’s baggage as our own. By recognizing habits and behavioral patterns as they emerge within each relationship dynamic, you can start piecing together areas of growth for yourself.
A Final Thought…
Conflict is an unavoidable part of relationships. The closer we are to the person, the more conflict we may experience. However, avoiding conflict by trying to put a “toxic positivity” spin on the relationship, or by minimizing, ignoring, or projecting issues, literally solves nothing. NO one is authentically happy all the time, and no one wants to be around someone who seems out of touch with any emotion but “happy”.
Actually, when our Ego is exchanged for vulnerability, we can become more present in the relationship. And yeah, being more present means being more aware that issues will arise. But, when we toss out our Ego and trade it in for taking an authentic chance at getting to know the other person underneath the social masks, and away from the social pressures, that’s where you’ll find solutions.
…and maybe a deeper love and appreciation for that person.
At the end of the day, who cares if you, or your partner never learned how to “fight fair’. Life is about learning; it’s about unlearning what doesn’t serve us, and relearning healthier ways of coping in life. There’s no shame in not knowing how to approach a conflict, or how to talk to your partner about what’s on your mind. That’s both the fear and joy of love — we are putting ourselves, our vulnerabilities and our needs out there on the table in hopes that the other person will relate, understand and help us find a solution, together.
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