“I don’t like conflict.”
I have heard this statement countless times in the therapy room. Perhaps more than any other statement, and yet, I’m here to make the case for the necessity of conflict in your relationship. Oh my, here we go!
Let me preface by sharing. I don’t like conflict either but I don’t avoid it for the most part. I say ‘for the most part’ because I certainly have times when I know that I need to discuss something with my husband, and I never have a guarantee that it will go well. This being the reason that I might avoid conflict until I know that I have the strength to process my disappointed feelings if it does not go well. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? It’s the uncertainty of not knowing if it will go well that results in us avoiding conflict. Or the uncertainty of the conflict actually going anywhere and making a difference in your relationship.
That being said, the alternative of completely avoiding conflict will have unavoidable consequences. Keep in mind, it isn’t that conflict is bad, it’s how we engage in conflict that is often the problem. The truth is, conflict is not something that we’ve been taught, therefore many of us are ‘flying by the seat of our pants’.
Conflict is not ‘only’ a communication skill – it’s so much more and we need to understand this so that we can engage in conflict in a healthy manner. It involves knowing our emotional triggers, our needs, understanding boundaries, active listening as a means to get to understanding, compassion, empathy, and more! No wonder many want to avoid it! The content of this blog is not about ‘how’ to engage in conflict, instead I want to talk about why we need it and the consequences of avoiding it.
Let’s start with why conflict is necessary:
In the beginning of a relationship, there are two important questions to ask (and many more after that). One: what don’t you like about this person, and two: how do both of you handle conflict.
There will be aspects of each other that you don’t always like, this is inevitable. And some of these things that you don’t like about each other will cause conflict. And that’s okay. It is these things that you don’t like, such as behavior, differing opinions or ideas and many, many other things that you must sort out together.
One major reason that conflict is important is because of the necessity of using your voice in your relationship. You must voice your concerns to each other. You must voice how you impact each other. And you must work toward understanding each other. Having a voice and using it enhances self-esteem and self-worth. Using your voice is also an opportunity to be an advocate for you, for who you are and what is important to you (I will discuss this more below). If you choose not to use your voice, it will unfortunately result in resentment and bitterness, which is corrosive to you and your relationship. I can’t express enough to you the importance of using your very important voice. The challenge is: we must consider how to use our voice.
Also, consider this thought: engaging in conflict is a way to allow personal growth for both of you. Feedback about who we are as an individual is crucial for our personal growth. HOWEVER, feedback is tricky because of projection. This is why conflict is complicated and yet, it must not be avoided.
Keep in mind that while I am making the case for conflict, it is constructive conflict that will move your relationship forward. However, all relationships have ‘degrees’ of destructive conflict. All of us, to one degree or another, blame, make accusations, and more. And yet, it is how you engage in conflict that is the most challenging part of a relationship. Constructive conflict allows us to address unresolved issues and move forward together. Conflict that can move a relationship forward involves the following: listening to each other, really listening in an attempt to understand one another.
Letting Go vs. Holding Our Ground:
Keep in mind, as much as I am saying to you that conflict is necessary, this does not mean that everything needs to be said in your relationship. It is up to you to decide what it is best for you and your relationship. There will be times when you need to decide whether to let go or to hold your ground. By letting go, I don’t mean giving in to your partner by surrendering at a huge cost to you. I am referring to ‘letting go’ with thoughtful consideration for you and your partner. It is a loving, giving gesture based on understanding and compassion.
Let’s talk about ‘holding your ground’. What does this mean? Well, there will be times when you have strong feelings about something. For example, you might have strong feelings that you are being unfairly blamed for something. Such as you might be blamed or accused of ‘not caring’ about something or someone. If you know this is not true – it might be necessary to ‘stand your ground’ and communicate why this is an unfair and untrue accusation. HOWEVER, standing your ground NEVER means being against your partner. Let me explain!
Example of standing your ground:
“I do care and it feels unfair for you to make this accusation toward me. And this is how I show you that I care” (provide examples).
Example of standing against:
“You have no clue what you are talking about. I am sick of you and your accusations.”
If you stand against your partner, you will never get what you need. It is so important to understand the difference!
Also, I mentioned the value in being an advocate for you. So what does this mean? Well, if someone unfairly makes an accusation and you have the self-awareness (this is key) to know that the accusation is false – it becomes necessary to advocate for whom you know yourself to be as a person. Being an advocate for yourself might challenge your partner to work harder to see you for who you are. That is a goal in our relationships: to be seen, loved, and accepted for whom we are as a person. But that often does not come without work. This is why conflict is necessary, if done well we can grow as an individual and as a couple.
Remember, conflict will not always go well. It’s challenging and a learning process (I’m still learning). So keep at it, tiny steps forward and know that there will be steps backward. That’s okay too. Two steps forward, and one step backwards is often the path for most of us!
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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