Focusing On Conflict
By Toby Snelgrove, Ph.D.
It has always amazed me how well we deal with relationships in life given the minimal training we have had. Think of it this way more instruction is given on how to drive a car than you ever get on how to get along in your marriage, let alone raise kids. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had to demonstrate our relationship skills before a marriage license could be issued just as a driving demonstration is required before a drivers license is issued.
Court Clerk: “Would you two please have a serious disagreement and demonstrate how you resolve your differences and move forward in your relationship.”
Applicant: “Oh, we don’t fight.”
Court Clerk: “What do you mean, you don’t fight.”
Applicant: “We just love each other so much. He’s my snuggie bear.” (The couple look at each other starry eyed, giggle, hug and stare at the clerk.)
Court Clerk: To the female applicant – “Well, what are you going to do when he leaves the toilet seat up and you feel the cold porcelain against your bottom in the middle of the night, reminding you that you are now sharing your living space with another?”
Applicants: “He would never do that.” “Hold it here. The toilet seat is supposed to by up! In the ready position, so to speak.” “No you are wrong dear. It is supposed to be down.” She turns to the court clerk “Next question.” “Excuse me dearie You have this wrong.” Looking embarrassed and uneasy “Not now dear.” “What do you mean, not now dear.” With a look that could kill “Dear.” “Right, um, yes, ehm, it is not a problem.”
Court Clerk: “Well, you scored 2 out of 10 on that. You need work on honesty, openness, active listening, recognizing differences and direct problem solving. However, you did score high on non-verbal communication. Try again in a few more weeks after a few more lessons.”
It is wonderful to see the passion and emotional longing in relationships, however, too often couples believe that conflict is bad or an indication of failure. Frequently this is a direct consequence of how one was raised; no conflict at home may have sent the message that conflict is bad or due to absence, resolving conflict in a constructive and respectful fashion was not learned in childhood. Consequently, conflict is avoided. Some children are raised in families where destructive conflict is ongoing with one parent dominating and bitter battles constant. In these situations children grown up afraid of conflict, therefore they avoid conflict at all costs. At the sound of tension coming from a mate, they become tense, not unlike the feeling they got as a child listening to their parents. So they do whatever they must to avoid conflict please, distract, shut down, cry…Consequently, resentments build, the emotional gap widens and the avoidance of conflict becomes a time bomb waiting to blow the relationship apart.
Conflict is not good or bad it is simply inevitable. Conflict is not a demon to be avoided, rather it is the recognition that each one of us is unique, has different points of view and preferences. In new relationships there is often a honeymoon period where differences are actively avoided. However, as the relationship matures, our natural differences begin to appear. The challenge in relationships, is to learn how to face these differences in an honourable and respectable fashion. The metaphor I like to use is this: You should deal with your differences in your marriage (or any relationship for that matter) no differently than you would deal with the differences with your best friend. In fact if your mate is your best friend you probably do not have a problem.
The important thing about approaching conflict is your intent. Is it to change your partner or to take the opportunity to learn something about them? Being curious about conflictual issues creates a climate of openness and constructive problem solving. Finding out why someone holds a certain belief or point of view makes them feel that they are being heard (because they are) and opens them up to learning about your point of view. In most cases, this results in mutually agreed upon solutions.
Some advice when dealing with conflict: Be honest, express yourself in a way that you would like to be spoken to. Learn about the other person’s point of view before you attempt to resolve the conflict. Stay emotionally balanced. If you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, take a time out. If your partner won’t respond to you in reciprocal fashion, get outside help such as a marriage counsellor. It takes two to constructively resolve conflict. It only takes one to stop it.