Managing conflict with your partner is a main topic of interest for my clients. When couples come to see me, they typically complain of two areas of difficulty in their relationship.
No, the two predictable problem areas are managing conflict and better communication. However, both “conflict” and “communication” are umbrella phrases under which a whole array of other difficulties are sheltering. Including sex. As well as money. My subject here is managing conflict.
“Better communication” is the undercurrent of virtually every Insight on this website. But the key is better understanding, rather than better communication.
It might not be welcome news, but conflict with your partner enables you to grow as individuals and to see each other as separate people. If there was no conflict you would be clones of each other with identical wants and needs. Now some people might find that attractive, being peas in a pod. However, I am presuming that you are a creative, growing, changing, developing person who wants a partner who is likewise growing, changing and developing. In other words, you and your partner are differentiating!
Here is a definition of differentiation from David Schnarch:
“’Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others, especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation permits you to maintain your own course when loved ones pressure you to agree, to conform. Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re losing themselves and disagree without feeling angry and embittered. They can stay connected through a disagreement and not have to leave it to hold on to a sense of themselves.”
Differentiation means that there will be conflict! Inevitably, you will grow in different directions at different times. You are growing and your partner is growing. But remember this kind of conflict is not bad. It is your growth-edge. Differentiation is probably the most important growth you will make as an adult. Differentiation is certainly essential for a growthful, happy relationship. For more discussion on differentiation, read “different perspectives” and “Allow youreself and your partner to be fluid not fixed.“
Firstly, as I’ve already emphasised, a certain degree of conflict is necessary for any area of growth, including relationships, especially when you are differentiating.
Differentiation is a process, and we get better at it. Think of it like going to the gym or doing an exercise. If you have stretched yourself doing the exercise, you will have some muscles soreness afterwards. But how much soreness is too much? Obviously, if you can hardly walk for a week, or injure yourself, it is too much. On the other hand, a bit of soreness reminds you of which muscles you are building. So your conflict with your partner, or anyone for that matter, needs to be manageable, not out of control.
As I’ve already said, conflict is like exercise, and both conflict and exercise lead to growth. Too much conflict and you and the relationship will be hobbling along, disabled by the conflict. Just enough, and you will be growing, or at your “growth edge.” A well-managed exercise programme is like well-managed relationship conflict. You will grow, and be better able to act when further exercise (or conflict) demands are on you.
Ironically, if you do not exercise at all, you will also be sore and stiff. Likewise, with conflict. You will become psychologically stiff and inflexible in relationships in which there is no conflict at all. So the truth is that not only is conflict inevitable, it is also good for us, as long as we know how to work with it. As with exercise, sometimes we need a coach. By reading these Insights you are getting some coaching! Read on!
How much conflict is enough to promote differentiation and growth varies between relationships? In other words, different amounts of conflict are manageable in a healthy way in different relationships. Some people enjoy being at their growth edge all the time! Others find conflict too challenging to be inviting it constantly. And we do need periods of calm and rest in order to integrate the change that challenge brings.
Ideally, you manage conflict by not capitulating or accommodating. Instead, you stand your own ground and don’t give yourself away. On the other hand, you don’t push your weight around and insist on getting your own way, either.
You learn a lot more about exactly how to do this in other Insights – it is the common foundation of them all. In the meanwhile, pay attention to how you are differentiating – or not.
You might also like The Stages of Change.
Copyright © Kaye Gersch 2017