No, Conflict is Not Inevitable in Your Relationships!

No, Conflict is Not Inevitable in Your Relationships!

Oh no, conflict is being advocated again, this time in an article in The Washington Post that starts:

Conflicts are inevitable even in the most loving of relationships.

At first, it seems possible that this article is using the word conflict to simply mean a lack of agreement over the choices to be made, but no, it is referring to negative emotions:

“It’s not about conflict resolution,” since many problems that couples fight about may never fully go away

It draws heavily on the work of the Gottmans:

Avoiding or withdrawing from conflict deprives partners of the opportunity to improve the situation and potentially signals a lack of engagement in the relationship, leading to reduced satisfaction. “You can really use conflict to understand your partner at a much deeper level than you may already know your partner,” Julie Gottman said.

It encourages anger and hostility:

Emotions such as anger and hostility can be useful to a conflict and to the relationship, [Dr. Nickola] Overall said. They can help convey “that a problem is serious and that the problem needs to be changed, and that the partner needs to do something about helping to resolve this problem,” she said. It also indicates an investment in the relationship.

The belief in the inevitability of conflict and its desirability obscures the possibility of any other way. We have written extensively about differences and disagreements, and in our considerable experience, a resolution can always be found without resorting to hostility and conflict by looking beyond wants and needs to core values. There are always multiple ways that are consistent with the underlying values, and when values match, you can always find a mutual solution.

This article is correct in emphasizing the importance of clear, direct communication, but then edges in the direction of control by telling the other person what to do:

The Gottmans recommend what they call a softened start-up: First, describe yourself and the situation, not your partner, and then a positive need “that gives your partner a chance to shine for you,” Julie Gottman said. For example: “I’m really worried. There’s the feeling that the bills haven’t been paid on time. Would you please pay the bills tonight?”

Any attempt at control carries an implied criticism. We wrote in our second book:

A common way to deal with such differences is by pointing them out and attempting to influence your partner’s behavior, but this is usually unfruitful. It’s really important to understand how corrosive criticism is – it’s more powerful than you think. The chance of it actually changing someone is pretty slim; it’s far more likely to make them defensive and retaliatory. The marriage researcher John Gottman writes that “as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.” We do not believe that negative interactions have any constructive use. Gottman is saying that if you dilute a poison sufficiently, it won’t kill you; that still doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

You might argue that we, Phil and Maude, are in our later years and no longer have the challenges of youth. Whether to have children. When you do, how to educate them, discipline them, and choose a church. How to manage money. Where to live for the best education, career, climate, and affordability. But later years have their issues, too. Blending families of second marriages. Managing finances in retirement. Planning inheritances. Health problems.

Conflict arises when you do not fully accept the other person, when you take their reality to be less worthy than yours. When instead you can see the disagreement as simply differences, then you have the opportunity to communicate your wants, needs, and values, and explore together to find a solution that doesn’t require anger or hostility.

Photo credit: Phil Mayes
Photo note: We’re just posing; conflict is not inevitable!

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2 Comments on “No, Conflict is Not Inevitable in Your Relationships!

  1. As a single 72 year old woman who has navigated intimate relationships I agree that resolution to touchy issues is best achieved by acknowledging both parties differences and proceeding to find common ground. To arrive at a no conflict state, one must own one’s inner conflict and NOT transfer it on to the other. If one party has insecurity about financial matters it has to be presented by referring to “I”: In other words: I am worrying that the bills won’t be paid on time, how can you help me with that?
    I would also agree that telling anyone else how to resolve an issue that involves both parties is certain to create conflict. Certainly we each have our own inner conflicts and we each must be willing to address what we bring from ourselves and be willing to do our own work . No-one can solve the problems of the other, for that is certainly the path to conflict.

  2. Ahhh, this has Got to drive you guys crazy…

    Do you feel it’s worth writing an editorial response?? I certainly do, if you can do such things in The Washington Post.

    Give people across the country, actually the world, a chance to See — directly across from this very typical and prized way of viewng relationship — that there IS a different way, a very sound, real, and borne-out path to take.

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