Conflict In Relationships

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Understanding conflict in relationships

Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship.  After all, two people can’t be expected to agree on everything, all the time. Learning how to deal with conflict—rather than avoiding it—is crucial.  When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people.  By learning these skills for conflict resolution, you can keep your personal and professional relationships strong and growing.

Conflict arises from differences, both large and small.  It occurs whenever people disagree over their values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires.  Sometimes these differences appear trivial, but when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem.  These needs can be a need to feel safe and secure, a need to feel respected and valued, or a need for greater closeness and intimacy.

Conflicts arise from differing needs

Everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured, and supported, but the ways in which these needs are met vary widely.  Differing needs for feeling comfortable and safe create some of the most severe challenges in our personal and professional relationships.

Think about the conflicting need for safety and continuity versus the need to explore and take risks.  You frequently see this conflict between toddlers and their parents.  The child’s need is to explore, so the street or the cliff meets a need.  But the parents’ need is to protect the child’s safety, so limiting exploration becomes a bone of contention between them.

The needs of both parties play important roles in the long-term success of most relationships, and each deserves respect and consideration.  In personal relationships, a lack of understanding about differing needs can result in distance, arguments, and break-ups.  In workplace conflicts, differing needs are often at the heart of bitter disputes, sometimes resulting in broken deals, fewer profits and lost jobs.  When you can recognize the legitimacy of conflicting needs and become willing to examine them in an environment of compassionate understanding, it opens pathways to creative problem solving, team building, and improved relationships.

Conflict 101

  • A conflict is more than just a disagreement.  It is a situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether or not the threat is real).
  • Conflicts continue to fester when ignored.  Because conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being and survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them.
  • We respond to conflicts based on our perceptions of the situation, not necessarily to an objective review of the facts.  Our perceptions are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and beliefs.
  • Conflicts trigger strong emotions.  If you aren’t comfortable with your emotions or able to manage them in times of stress, you won’t be able to resolve conflict successfully.
  • Conflicts are an opportunity for growth.  When you’re able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds trust.  You can feel secure knowing your relationship can survive challenges and disagreements.

How do you perceive conflict?

Do you fear conflict or avoid it at all costs?  If your perception of conflict comes from frightening or painful memories from previous unhealthy relationships or early childhood, you may expect all present-day disagreements to end badly.  You may view conflict in relationships as demoralizing, humiliating, dangerous, and something to fear.  If your early life experiences also left you feeling out of control and powerless, conflict may even be traumatizing for you.

If you view conflict as dangerous, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When you go into a conflict situation already feeling extremely threatened, it’s tough to deal with the problem at hand in a healthy way.  Instead, you are more likely to shut down or blow up in anger.

Healthy and unhealthy ways of managing and resolving conflict

Healthy responses to conflict:

  • The capacity to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person.
  • Calm, non-defensive, and respectful reactions.
  • A readiness to forgive and forget, and to move past the conflict without holding resentments or anger.
  • The ability to seek compromise and avoid punishing.
  • A belief that facing conflict head on is the best thing for both sides.

Unhealthy responses to conflict:

  • An inability to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person.
  • Explosive, angry, hurtful, and resentful reactions.
  • The withdrawal of love, resulting in rejection, isolation, shaming, and fear of abandonment.
  • An inability to compromise or see the other person’s side.
  • The fear and avoidance of conflict; the expectation of bad outcomes.

Conflict resolution, stress, and emotions

Conflict triggers strong emotions and can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, and discomfort.  When handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable rifts, resentments, and break-ups. But when conflict is resolved in a healthy way, it increases our understanding of one another, builds trust, and strengthens our relationship bonds.

If you are out of touch with your feelings or so stressed that you can only pay attention to a limited number of emotions, you won’t be able to understand your own needs.  And, if you don’t understand your own needs, you will have a hard time communicating with others and staying in touch with what’s really troubling you.  For example, couples often argue about petty differences—the way she hangs the towels, the way he slurps his soup—rather than what is really bothering them.

The ability to successfully resolve conflict depends on your ability to:

  • Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm.  By staying calm, you can accurately read and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Control your emotions and behavior.  When you’re in control of your emotions, you can communicate your needs without threatening, frightening, or punishing others.
  • Pay attention to the feelings being expressed as well as the spoken words of others.
  • Be aware of and respectful of differences.  By avoiding disrespectful words and actions, you can almost always resolve a problem faster.

To successfully resolve a conflict, you will need to learn and practice two core skills: the ability to quickly reduce stress in the moment and the ability to remain comfortable enough with your emotions to react in constructive ways even in the midst of an argument or a perceived attack.

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