Conflict, from mild disagreements to awful battles, from conversations about different perspectives to vilifying one other, from stony silence to screaming matches. The term conflict can mean many different things; from a pathway to understanding and accepting one another more to a way to build negative affect and sentiment. Your perspective on conflict is just so important in shaping the future of your relationship. Do you view conflict and the expression of negative emotions such as hurt and frustration as a sign of an ailing relationship, as something that should be avoided, retreated from or indeed rallied against or do you view relationship conflicts as inevitable and simply part of the couple’s landscape that needs to be understood and worked with? It is the latter view that John Gottman found in his many years of research that promotes relationship satisfaction and stability.
Let’s look at the inevitability of conflict this way, estimating the proportion of time when you are with your partner and are fully available to listen, hear and respond to their perspective, needs and wants in a non-judgemental or critical way. Let’s go with 50% being a generous proportion. So, the probability of you and your partner being in sync is the same as two coins be tossed and both landing on heads which has a 25% probability meaning that 75% of the time in your relationship is ripe for misunderstanding, miscommunication and conflict. If we reduced the proportion of time from 50% to 30% the chances of misunderstanding and conflict rises from 75% to 91% which actually may be a more realistic percentage. Conflict is not a sign of an ailing relationship.
The goal in relationships is not to declare war on conflict and try to eradicate it, but to view conflict as an opportunity to understand your partner better. Conflict allows for the expression of opinions, thoughts and feelings and allows your partner into your inner world. Conflict helps weed out aspects of the relationship that may not be working any more or allows a couple to attune to each other better—we need our conflict—indeed, conflict keeps relationships fresh. Behind every complaint and negative emotion is a longing and within every longing is a positive need waiting to be expressed and met. Conflict is actually like a GPS system of your partner—a way of knowing and understanding them better.
Sometimes though, conflict can turn into awful battles; arguing your position, feeling you are right and they are wrong, feeling misunderstood, unheard, unseen and unappreciated. The more this type of negative conflict occurs, the stauncher you become in the position you hold, the more right you feel and the more wrong you think your partner is. You think that if you just repeat the same point over and over and increase the tone and volume your partner will simply change their perspective and see the issue through your eyes. Of course, this is not the outcome that occurs, more likely these types of arguments end in a stony retreat where both partners feel frustrated and hurt. We know that masters of relationships work on understanding and validation first, they buy into this notion of valid subjective reality, meaning that each person has their own perspective, needs and wants in conflict and whilst it may be different to your view it is still valid and deserves to be listened too, understood and validated as important.
Neil Jacobson believes that acceptance of your partner, their beliefs, values and lived experiences is critical in conflict and for relationship success. He argues that the more couples try to change each other the more likely they are to resist and embed further in their initial positions. The relationship paradox is this—the more I feel fundamentally accepted and validated for who I am in my relationship the greater the possibility of change occurring. However, if I feel misunderstood, not listened to or validated the less likely change will occur.
Our motto is this, ‘When you are in pain, in distress, experiencing negative emotion, my world stops, and I turn towards you and listen and understand with gentleness and compassion.
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