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Closeness through Fighting?
Achieving Productive Conflict with Your Partner
© 2009, Joel Durkovic, M.A., RCC, RMFT
Battling it out in a good fight may not be the first thing that comes to mind for building meaningful connection with your spouse or significant other. In the early days of your relationship, did it cross your mind that perhaps one of your partner’s most valuable qualities would be her ability to fight well? Probably not. In fact, we usually work hard to ensure that we get along quite well with the person we are considering for a committed relationship. In the pre-marital counselling that I do with couples, it’s not uncommon to hear them offer reassuringly, “We rarely fight. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever fought!”, as though this is the true mark of a bullet-proof relationship.
This kind of ease-of-connection is something that almost all of us experience with our partners initially. It’s what draws us together, makes us think that the world is an okay place after all. But when that easy fondness begins to wane, many feel a sense of panic and disbelief, thinking their own relationship should somehow be different, be somehow immune to strife and pain.
Rather than panic, I encourage my clients to recognize these early days of friction as potential signs of the really good stuff. What they can’t quite imagine is how conflict actually offers the most fertile soil for growth, and that the best potential for richness in relationship comes mostly through overcoming adversity together.
John Gottman, the leading researcher on committed relationships and author of various studies on the theme of “what makes good relationships work”, notes through his research that the most satisfied and happiest couples over time are the ones who actively engage in conflict with one another. (Now, that’s not all they do, but let me explain). These couples tend to move toward conflict more readily, yes, yet they do so in ways that are more respectful than rude or contemptuous, and in ways that are more positive than negative. This is what we might call productive conflict, and it’s some of the best connecting stuff around.
An important caveat: Some kinds of conflict are extremely unproductive, and, in fact, dangerous. You mustn’t read this and think that I’m suggesting that all conflict is full of wonderful potential. For some, it’s very difficult to distinguish healthy, productive conflict from abusive, power-hoarding conflict or even just plain spin-your-wheels argumentation.
So, you might ask, what does productive conflict look like? As with most things worth knowing, there isn’t an easy answer, but here are a few things to consider as potential rules of engagement when approaching conflict with your loved one:
Am I comfortable in my own skin? We bring ourselves into any relationship, so it behooves us to always have an ear to whatever issues are getting stirred inside us. Is my adequacy being threatened? Do I feel insecure? Am I angry, and, if so, what is the anger really about? This question is intended to get you to take some ownership over the things that stir you. We need to stop saying or even thinking things like, “She (or he) makes me…so mad, crazy, frustrated, (you fill in the blank)”, and rather move toward a place of ownership for our own feelings. It is better to ask, “I wonder why I am so mad, feeling so crazy, frustrated, etc. Could this be about something more than just her (or him)?” Communicate this ownership to your partner as part of your conversation.
Am I being real? One of the strongest connection killers between couples is perpetual interaction in platitudes. Often we are more concerned with being nice than being honest, believing that if we are really honest about how we feel, then the only way to convey that is through meanness. Not true. It is not only possible, but important enough to make a life goal, to be both kind and honest in our interactions.
Am I being active or passive? Am I sitting in my figurative castle surrounded by a moat, or have I opened the drawbridge and ridden out to the open field, ready to engage in dialogue? It is easier to be passive about conflict than to actively move toward it because engaging in conflict productively forces us to be honest with ourselves, and we often don’t really like what we see.
Am I brandishing a sword or holding out an olive branch? Gottman noticed in his research that the couples who had effective mechanisms for conflict repair were the ones who were most satisfied. One effective repair tool is the concept of what he calls “softened startup”. It simply means that you move toward expressing the conflict when you are not feeling reactive. Gottman saw that couples who tried to resolve conflict while in an emotionally flooded state (tense, increased heart rate, ready to explode) simply could not do so successfully. If they waited until they felt calmer, they were much more able to speak to each other more respectfully and more positively about the area of conflict.
Am I remembering to think of conflict engagement as a “process”, not a one-time conversation? Most couples I see confess that they have trouble maintaining ownership, respect, realness, and activeness, during the heat of an argument or conflict. Welcome to the club. Couples who are healthy and happy still have conflicts where they make mistakes, are pigheaded, and gloss over things superficially; however, they also take responsibility to correct those mistakes, and this most often takes place over a series of conversations. For areas of conflict that are ongoing, the conversation will be ongoing, where the heavily negative interactions will be supplemented and superseded by positive interactions of repair and progress.
We might be tempted to think that if we’re doing pretty well in four of the five areas above, then we should be okay, even if we are downright awful in one. I think it is key that all five cylinders are firing. One bad apple can ruin the bunch, and for these questions about conflict, we can’t afford to ignore the ones where we’re weakest to favor the ones where we’re strong.
If you find yourselves completely stumped in one or more of the above questions, it may not be a bad idea to ask whether it’s time to seek out a referee. Most couples do not look for help in working through conflict and tension until they are neck deep. Gottman’s research suggests that the average couple waits 6 years before seeking help to manage their conflict. There is no shame using marriage counselling as a tool for improving or even merely tuning up your communication and closeness with your partner. Try using couples counselling as a preventative measure rather than as the last stop on the way to the divorce lawyer, and learn how to fight productively!
Gottman, John (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. London: Orion Books Ltd.