Monday, January 3, 2011

For Couples: When Conflict is Healthy

**Disclaimer: This post is about couples who are not dealing with issues of abuse or control within the relationship. Conflict in an abusive relationship is not safe or healthy. The information that I am exploring in this post is designed to be used by both partners within a relationship to improve their communication and connection. If you are concerned that you may be in a controlling or abusive relationship, please seek help.**

"We never fight." When I hear that sentence in reference to a marriage or committed relationship, it makes my heart sink. This is why. Think for a moment about anyone that you have lived with for more than a few days: siblings, roommates, partners, etc. Now think about the most irritating thing that you encountered while living with someone else. Not that hard, was it? The truth is, when we share living space with someone, let alone a life, they sometimes get on our nerves. The more emotionally invested we are in that person, the more likely it is that they will sometimes hurt our feelings, fail to anticipate our needs, frustrate us, or otherwise misunderstand us.

There is this myth floating around that "no conflict" is a healthy relationship goal, something that we should all be working toward. This post is my attempt to push back against this myth, because I believe that it is truly harmful to relationships. I think that this mis-perception that conflict is fundamentally bad comes from several sources. First, I believe that many people have seen few or no examples of healthy conflict. They may come from families where conflict was hidden. Alternatively they may come from families where conflict did not include a set of safe, healthy boundaries. Without examples of healthy conflict, it is easy to believe that, either people who love each other don't fight, or that conflict is scary and unsafe. A second source of conflict avoidance comes from our own discomfort with the emotions that lead to conflict. Most of us are not comfortable feeling angry, or hurt, or let down. Addressing these emotions openly often leads to an increase in tension before a resolution is reached. Because of this, many of us choose to ignore our feelings in an attempt to avoid discomfort. The third source of conflict avoidance is a result of the first two sources. If we do not have strong example of healthy conflict resolution, and we avoid expressing difficult emotions, we don't develop the skills we need to successfully manage conflict in a healthy way. Finally, I believe that many of us are scared that if we share our more difficult emotions with our partners, that they will leave.

As I said earlier, I believe that "never fighting" is a danger sign for relationships. I believe that avoiding conflict is a choice that has a very high relationship cost. In order to understand this, let me shift the lens a bit. Earlier, I asked you to think about experiences that you have had while living with others. I asked you to remember feelings of frustration, hurt or anger. When we do not express these feelings, they accumulate. Over time, small experiences of hurt, anger or frustration can compound and intensify. If conflict is not addressed and resolved in a healthy way, the misunderstandings of daily life together can begin to erode the trust a couple has in one another. As a backlog of hurt feelings, experiences of feeling misunderstood or unheard, and frustration about not feeling valued accumulate, the closeness and intimacy shared by a couple may be in danger of being damaged. These are the type of comments I hear when a couple has avoided conflict: "I didn't say that I needed some time together because I didn't want to complain, but it just felt like you never chose me." "I never brought up the affair because I didn't want to fight about it, but I never really trusted you after that."

I believe that conflict in relationships has consistently been treated as something that is negative. And, if the conflict is not expressed in a healthy, safe, respectful manner, it can be harmful. However, I believe that learning how to have healthy conflict is an important tool for improving connection and intimacy between a couple. Developing healthy conflict skills is a long-term process, and you may benefit from having a couple's therapist help you in the early stages.