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Embracing conflict in relationships

Two myths about conflicts:

They are bad for relationships

Not only are conflicts inevitable in relationships, but they are necessary!  Research has shown that, contrary to popular belief, early conflict in a relationship is a predictor of good outcomes, because it means that partners feel secure enough to bring up issues without fear.  Conflict does not have to break us and our partner apart, we can grow closer BECAUSE of it. 

They should always be resolved

Most conflicts will in fact never be resolved, this is normal and ok. Only a third of all fights have a solution.  The rest are perpetual conflicts that need to be “managed” over and over.  They are inevitable because we all have differing needs and personalities. 


People have different styles of conflict

There are three styles we tend to gravitate more towards, none better than the other:

·       Avoiding: we choose not to bring up issues and only focus on what is working well in the


Conflicts are unnoticeable, which can lead to disconnection.


·       Validating: we problem solve and debate in a rational way with less room for emotions. 

Conflicts can be tense fights.


·       Volatile: we express emotions freely and this can escalate and get out of control. 

Conflicts are explosive fights.

No matter what our style is, the important aspect is to keep the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones above 5:1, according to relationship experts, Julie and John Guttman. This will help with staying open and interested without shutting down or becoming defensive. Examples of positive interactions could be a smile, a joke, a touch, a nod or a validating comment.


When do fights go wrong?

·       When we dismiss each other’s negative emotions.

This leads to an escalation of emotions because the person feels invalidated.


·       When there is no humour, affection or warmth. 

This can soon be replaced with criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness.


·       When we become flooded and do not realise this is happening to us. 

This leaves our emotional brain in charge and we have a typical Fight, Flight, Freeze or

Fawn reaction.


What to do instead?

·       Honour and respect each other’s emotions, without minimising what the other is feeling.


·       Moving from gridlock to dialogue, exploring each other’s unmet needs and dreams with openness and curiosity. The goal is not to win against an opponent but to think for two. 


·       Be aware in the moment of what flooding feels like physically for us.  Letting our partner know that we need to pause and move away for an hour or so will allow us to reset and come back to the discussion with more calm and openness.


Finally, continually filling our positive emotions piggy bank will help

According to research, the biggest predictor of the future of a relationship is responding positively to our partner’s bids for connection.  When they sigh, for example, do we turn away, do we ignore them or do we turn toward them and ask if they are alright?

The odds of us being on the same page all the time are quite low, so we need to make an intentional effort to turn TOWARD each other during those fleeting moments throughout the day. 

This will be an investment in our piggy bank of positive emotions which we will be able to turn to in times of conflict.

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