Every relationship, be it intimate, friendship, collegial or familial, has some level of conflict at one point or another. Some relationships are fraught with conflict whereas others have seemingly no conflict. And there are many stages in-between.
Relationships with on-going conflict (and I’m not including abusive relationships in this discussion) aren’t necessarily bad relationships. And relationships where there isn’t any apparent conflict aren’t necessarily good relationships.
Lots of us are uncomfortable with conflict and try to avoid it at all costs. The problem with this is that many issues which need to be addressed in the relationship go underground. Feelings of discontent, irritation or anger may get buried and manifest themselves in subtle and undermining ways, but not in outright fighting. I often describe this to clients as continually sweeping the negative stuff in the relationship under the proverbial carpet. The problem is that there is nowhere for the ‘dirt’ to go so it keeps accumulating under the carpet until you have either a big lump of negativity sitting in your relationship or dispersed all over the place, underneath the surface. Eventually, it needs to be addressed and this is often when couples will come in for therapy.
Relationships with on-going conflict can be tiring for the participants, but there are some who find it invigorating. Regardless, when you’re fighting with your partner, friend, colleague or family member, you are nevertheless engaged with them and there is life in the relationship. When you’ve given up fighting, it may mean that you don’t care that much anymore about the outcome and this may be a sign that the relationship is no longer serving your emotional needs.
And then there are all the stages in between. Lots of healthy and viable relationships experience some level of conflict at times. In some ways this is a good sign. In an intimate relationship, it reminds you that you are different: distinct and separate people. You don’t necessarily see everything the same way, approach situations in exactly the same way, or agree about absolutely everything.
So how do you navigate the conflicts you do have with each other? Do you yell and scream, slam doors, walk away, throw things, get physical with each other? Or are you able to work it out, despite the raised voices and frustration you feel?
Conflict within an intimate relationship is quite different to conflict with a friend or a colleague. You may not be as emotionally invested in a work relationship or have as much at stake emotionally.
There are strategies you can use to have a productive fight. You can set rules which may include:
- no physical violence whatsoever
- no name calling
- being respectful towards the other person no matter how angry you are
- allowing for time out when things feel like they are getting out of control
Feel free to add your own ideas to this list. The idea is to work together to make fighting with each other safe, both emotionally and physically. Fighting dirty erodes the goodwill and trust you have in each other and over time, can seriously damage your relationship.
So the idea isn’t that you strive to have a relationship with others in which there is never any conflict. This isn’t realistic. It is better to accept that you will have conflict at different points in your relationship and that it would benefit you both to find ways to have these productively. This might sound strange; how do you have productive fights? Well the reality is that fights don’t often feel very productive when you’re in the middle of them! So here is a question I want you to try and remember when you know you’re going to have a tricky discussion and that it could possibly develop into conflict.
What is the outcome I want from this discussion?
Asking yourself this question helps you focus on how you want things to be when you are finished the discussion. Your answer may include a practical outcome but also needs to take into account the outcome you want for the state of your relationship at the end of the discussion/conflict. For example, “I want us to be speaking to each other respectfully when we finish our talk.” Or, “I want to feel good towards my partner/friend/colleague when we have completed our talk.”
Thinking about the outcome with respect to the state of your relationship will help you stay focused on what is important to you, which is not just about the issue you are discussing or fighting about, but the emotional wellness of your relationship as a whole.
And one last important point: there will always be some fighting in a relationship so what is important to the continued well-being of any relationship is the concept of repair.
If you’re looking for a relationship, marriage or couples counsellor in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra or country areas of Australia, visit our marriage and/or relationship issues page to see counsellors and psychologists that are in your local area.