4 Ways Conflict Can Be Good For Your Relationship

Lisa McKay Communication, Conflict

Do you remember that catchy Jordin Sparks song from a couple of years ago, Battlefield? The chorus goes something like this:

I never meant to start a war
You know I never want to hurt you
Don’t even know what we’re fighting for
Why does love always feel like a battlefield?

The YouTube video of this song has been watched more than 46 million times, so I’m guessing Sparks is not alone in feeling this way.

Your love may not feel like a battlefield exactly, (and I hope it doesn’t), but I think the reason that this song resonates with so many people is because it touches on the truth that some degree of conflict is inevitable in close personal relationships. 

Everyone is different. No matter how well you know yourself and your partner, no matter how well you speak each others love languages, you’re not going to avoid conflict altogether.

You will disagree with some of your partner’s opinions and their choices. You will be annoyed or hurt by the ways in which they do (or don’t do) certain things. Likewise, they’re bound to be frustrated or hurt by some of your habits, words, or actions.

4 Ways Conflict Can Be Good For You

Now, few people thing that conflict is fun, but there is some good news here. Conflict is not all bad! The ways in which your partner is different from you can help you grow as a person. It can:

  1. Teach you things and help you see the world differently
  2. Push you to step outside your comfort zone and get creative with problem solving
  3. Help you learn to tolerate and handle strong negative emotions better
  4. Invite you to grow in patience, love, and care for someone else

4 Ways Conflict Can Be Good For Your Relationship

Handled constructively, conflict can also deepen and strengthen your relationship. It can…

1.  Build deep knowledge and intimacy

Disagreeing will teach both of you more about you what you like (and particularly what you don’t like).

It will tell you what is important to each person, how you raise or react to problems, how you approach compromise and negotiation, and what helps you feel better.

Arguing makes you grow. It forces you to understand yourself and your partner better.

2.  Draw you together as a team, by forcing you to problem solve together

If you can “argue constructively” and “fight well”, you will dig into the concerns underneath the argument. For example, one long distance couple I know kept fighting about how much time they were spending (or not spending) on the phone. One partner often wanted to talk for a lot longer than the other.

When they were able to talk about what was fueling the fights (what they were feeling scared or defensive about), they discovered that one partner felt well-connected and secure in the relationship with quick 10-20 minute chats every day. The other partner, however, didn’t. They felt that the shorter phone calls rarely got beyond the superficial, and that they were drifting apart in important ways.

This couple was then able to brainstorm solutions and problem solve together, and ended up setting aside time once a week for a 1-2 hour unhurried phone call or Skype date.

3.  It strengthens your relationship by increasing trust

Constructive fighting that allows you both to express your thoughts, preferences, and negative emotions, can strengthen a relationship.

Coming out the other side of an argument—sailing through the storm into calmer waters—can build trust in the relationship. Knowing the relationship can survive fighting makes fighting less threatening. And finding fighting less threatening means we tend to raise concerns earlier rather than allowing tension to build up.

4.  It helps you understand and explore “small issues” before they become “big issues”

That advice of “don’t sweat the small stuff” doesn’t really help if it just means that all the small stuff is piling up into one, big, festering volcano primed for explosion.

Addressing small issues that rub you both the wrong way can prevent a lot of resentment and hurt feelings down the track. If you don’t address small issues when they arise, they often evolve into bigger issues that are really hard to unpack.

What Is “Constructive” Fighting?

If some level of conflict is inevitable in a relationship, how can we make sure that we reap the benefits of it? Because let’s be honest–most of us don’t like conflict. It’s not fun, even if it can be good for you.

So the key to coming out of conflict stronger and better is learning to fight well.

There are all sorts of books and courses out there that teach tools and tips for doing this. However, here is the foundational first step in learning to deal well with conflict: Understanding how you and your partner react to tension and pressure in your intimate relationships.

Why is “understanding” so important?

Understanding how each of you typically reacts to important differences in opinions and desires, or frustrated hopes and expectations, will help you in all sorts of important ways.

You will learn to recognize when you or your partner are under pressure or upset, so you don’t get caught by surprise as often by your own (or their) reactions. You will also learn to recognize your partner’s typical patterns of emotional expression and coping, so you don’t take them as personally and become as reactive and defensive.

Then, if you can add this “good understanding” to “emotional self-control” and “good communication” you’re three quarters of the way towards resolving your conflict well. Maybe more.

10 Questions To Help You Learn How You React To Pressure And Conflict

What are your default settings when it comes to conflict?

When we are hurt, confused, upset or angry, we all have certain reactions that come naturally to us.

Think about the way you behave when you’re in conflict with a family member. You often react in certain ways, and so do they. Let’s call these natural reactions our “default settings”.

These default settings when we’re under pressure are the result of our family history, personality, and life experiences. If we understand our own reactions to pressure and conflict—our default settings—we are better able to make choices about our responses in any given situation rather than just being ruled by our reactions.

Here are some questions to help you identify your default settings. As you think about them, try to think of specific examples of conflicts with these people. Then, make some notes about your own actions and reactions in those situations:

  1. How do you handle conflict with your parents?
  2. How do you handle conflict with your friends?
  3. How do you handle conflict at work?
  4. How do you handle conflict in a romantic relationship?

Now that you’ve spent some time thinking through these questions, can you identify any interesting patterns in how you act and react when you are faced with conflict?

Here are some more questions to help you think through your default settings:

  1. Do you approach conflict directly, or avoid it?
  2. Do you typically do “hot conflict” (open expressions of anger and frustration, fighting) or “cold conflict” (stonewalling, or unexpressed annoyance and frustration that can build up over time)?
  3. Do you tend to “compete” and want to get your way, or to compromise?
  4. Do you ever lash out in anger or frustration, or do you prefer to withdraw—shutting down and refusing to continue the conversation?
  5. Is your approach to conflict similar in most situations, or do you approach conflict in personal relationships very differently from conflict at work?

Now that you have a general idea of your default settings in conflict, here’s the 10th, important question: How do these default settings hurt and help you when it comes to disagreements with your partner?

What’s Next?

Next week, I’ll talk about some specific strategies to help you manage conflict. Before we get to strategies, however, here is one final set of questions to help you think about how you and your partner typically “do” conflict.

Understanding your typical actions and reactions in conflict might not be half the battle, but understanding yours and your partner’s default settings in conflict probably is.

So make some notes, or leave a comment below and share your reactions to one or more of the following statements:

The sorts of things that make me frustrated with my partner include…
The sorts of things that make my partner frustrated with me include…

When I get upset or angry with my partner I usually…
When my partner gets angry or upset they usually…

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