A popular belief perpetuated by our romance driven society, is that conflict in a relationship is not consistent with “true love”. While it is true, that too much conflict for extended periods of time can lead to destruction of relationships, some amount of conflict between two adults in a romantic relationship is inevitable. What matters is how each partner learns to deal with conflict. Conflict which is particularly detrimental is repeated arguments over extended periods of time with no resolution.
What leads to a cycle of never ending arguing? While each relationship is unique and each conflict within a relationship is also unique, there are some common thinking patterns which can fuel a cycle of non-resolved conflicts. Often, one or both partners have the belief that “conflict is bad and it must be resolved.” This belief can lead to feelings of pressure and desperation to solve the problem now. This pressure and desperation can keep an argument alive, and make each partner unwilling to stop until they think there is total resolution. However, conflict is inherent to relationships, and it may take a period of time for the couple to clarify the true nature of the conflict, and for both partners to identify and agree on solutions which can be worked towards. A healthier thought in regards to conflict is that, “conflict is inherent, and resolution may take time.” This thought can lead to a more relaxed view of a conflict and remove the pressure to solve a problem now. Thus, for the couple that believes they must stay up all night until there is an absolute solution to their argument, the new view of conflict will allow them to throw in the towel and rest, and resume discussion of the conflict at a later time when negative feelings have subsided.
Another thinking pattern which can fuel conflict is the belief that, “this argument means that we do not truly love each other.” Placing an absolute value on the relationship based on an argument can push people to feel desperate and keep arguing. They may also think, “if I stop arguing it means I do not care about the relationship.” A more productive thought is, “this argument means that we do not agree about a specific situation/value.” This thought helps focus on the specific situation, and does not devalue the entire relationship based on one argument.
Rather than broad thoughts of the absolute meaning of conflict on the overall value of the relationship, and the necessity of immediate resolution, move towards acceptance that conflict is natural, and resolution of conflict is a process. A process of resolution allows the couple to take their time and clarify the meaning of the conflict. It allows for thoughtful resolutions which can be implemented and tested to determine if the conflict is resolved. Feelings of pressure can lead to a cycle of unending arguing which can destroy the relationship, but viewing conflict as a process can allow the couple time to search for resolutions which will strengthen the relationship.
Each partner should complete the following questions independently, then discuss and compare answers. Identify a specific repeated conflict in your relationship. Answer the following questions:
- How do I name this conflict?
- What specific situation does this conflict involve?
- What specific value is related to this conflict?
- What does this argument mean about me?
- What does this argument mean about my partner?
- What specific changes by myself would lead to a resolution of this argument?
- What specific changes by my partner would lead to a resolution of this argument?
Creating a Healthy Routine
Rather than the old adage “never go to bed angry”, a more productive guideline would be, “go to bed when anger or hurt feelings are not subsiding.” Develop a guideline with your partner of “knowing when to say when.” Intense negative emotion can cloud sound thinking and lead to more arguing rather than resolution. Discuss how each of you will let the other one know when an argument is feeling too overwhelming and needs to be tabled for a later time. Remove the pressure from yourself to solve conflict in a single setting. If you look back over the history of your relationship, can you identify conflicts which took time to resolve? What are the benefits of shifting your thinking towards conflict resolution as a process?