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Talk It Out: How...

Talk It Out: How Conflict Helps To Build Healthy Relationships

Do you think of a relationship with conflict as an unhealthy relationship? You couldn't be farther from the truth. Healthy relationships benefit from occasional conflict—in fact, it makes them much stronger than "never fighting" ever could. Don't believe us? We got the facts from Sandy Roos, licensed marriage and family therapist.

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When I hear a couple boast that they never fight, I don’t feel envious—I feel suspicious. Every relationship is prone to disagreement, whether it’s between friends, parents and children, or partners. That’s just what happens when two people with different personalities and backgrounds come together. What’s more likely in the case of these purportedly argument-free couples is that they equate fighting with unhealthy relationships. But occasional conflict is actually a natural part of healthy relationships, as long as it’s fair and constructive. I spoke with Sandy Roos, a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) in the Bay Area, about the different ways in which couples can benefit from conflict—as well as why “never fighting” is worse than you might think.

The Upside of Conflict
When I proposed the idea of arguments being a normal aspect of healthy relationships, Sandy was quick to correct my choice of vocabulary. “Arguing means neither one is listening to the other,” she said. Instead, she uses the word “conflict”: “Conflict means growth is trying to happen in the relationship and new information is trying to enter the system.” When we fight with our partners, we’re trying to find common ground between our differences. At least, that’s what we should be doing if we want to find a solution. Too often, emotions get in the way of logic and conflict turns into something much less healthy. Names are called, fingers are pointed, and past fights are used as weapons.

But for couples who are able to avoid that destructive behavior—or what Sandy calls “unskillful ways to deal with differences”—conflict from time to time can be like relationship therapy. By expressing your feelings and talking through (not yelling, mind you) problems, you don’t give them a chance to fester and grow. Partners are less likely to feel ignored or disrespected. You’ll each understand the other’s priorities and needs better, which is of the utmost importance for relationship stability. It instills confidence about your ability to conquer problems in the future. You’re also more likely to resolve the issue, or at least come to terms with it, and that, in turn, helps strengthen the bond. “Resolving conflict in a safe way deepens the relationship, as it creates trust, intimacy, and a place where each partner can ask for what they need,” Sandy explains.

The Pitfalls of Avoidance
Couples who avoid conflict may think themselves uniquely harmonious, but that’s not always the case. It could be that one of the two has a problem voicing his or her frustrations and chooses to keep quiet, rather than rock the boat. That can be disastrous for relationships, according to Sandy. “Never having conflict is deadly,” she warns. “Things get shoved under the rug, until there’s so much distance and resentment built up that intimacy is severely compromised.” In other words, things should come up on occasion. It’s expected that two people won’t agree on everything; even identical twins get into rows. But if you don’t vent those nagging opinions or annoyances, they might bubble to the surface later in a big, bad way—potentially one that your relationship can’t recover from. And if you don’t trust your relationship enough to broach these issues in the first place, that doesn’t speak well for its future anyway.

Some partners walk on eggshells around each other because they haven’t learned to fight fairly. What starts as a small conflict turns into a huge mess of hurt feelings and words you can’t take back. Because emotions run high and trigger physical, bodily responses that only aggravate the situation (increased body temperatures, increased heart rate, et cetera), it’s all too easy to fall into these destructive fighting patterns. Sandy advises couples she works with to watch out for certain bad conflict behaviors.

  • Blaming and criticizing
  • Name calling and attacking
  • Using sarcasm
  • Shutting down emotionally (refusing to talk about anything)
  • Saying you-statements (e.g., “You never help clean,” or, “You’re always belittling me”)

What It Takes to Make It Work
If you’re a couple who never fights, either because of trust issues or because of the fear of revisiting arguments past, there are steps you can take to overcome that avoidance. Sandy shared how she helps her clients in similar situations: “I let them know that there are safe ways to have conflict, and I do a great deal of educating on how to manage conflict so they become closer and experience more intimacy as a result,” she says. “After giving many tools, I coach them in the process and help them express themselves, ask for what they need, and use empathy with their partner to create trust and diminish insecurity.”

The tools she refers to include: using I-statements more (e.g., “I feel resentful when you don’t help me clean”), being honest about feelings without placing blame or getting defensive, taking small time-outs if you feel too stressed or upset, and—possibly the most important one of all—listening to your partner. Turning a bad conflict into a good one is the goal behind each tactic. In good conflicts, partners want to understand each other above all else. In bad conflicts, winning the argument becomes the top priority. But as anyone who’s been through a particularly bad fight can tell you, there are no winners when that’s the case. But there aren’t winners when you completely avoid issues, either. Once we realize that conflict isn’t always a negative thing—and in fact can be quite beneficial to the relationship—we can learn how to handle it the right way. It may take patience and riding out a few bumps along the way, but if the outcome is a partnership with a stronger foundation of trust, kindness, and understanding, it’s certainly worth a try.

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