Conflict in Relationships: Good, Bad, or Just Plain Necessary?

older couple fightingDiane is seething. Tina let her down—again. It’s after 10 p.m. and Tina is still not home, despite the fact she agreed to take care of dinner for the family. Diane not only had to cook dinner but also put the children to bed by herself again. She feels like she and the children come in a distant second to work in Tina’s life and she’s sick of it. Diane finds herself wondering if Tina cares about her at all. If she cared, why does she keep disappointing her over and over again? She wonders if she and the children are even a factor in Tina’s decisions. She feels alone, hurt, and angry.

Tina comes home and notices Diane is not happy. Tina asks what is wrong, but Diane says nothing and goes to bed without letting her feelings be known.

This scene, or one similar to it, plays out time and again for couples. Avoiding conflict can seem like a positive thing, and many people even believe that happy couples don’t fight at all.

This could not be further from the truth. Actually, the opposite is true—conflict avoidance can be downright toxic to relationships. Keeping painful feelings such as anger, loneliness, and despair to yourself in your relationship doesn’t make them disappear. On the contrary, trying to hold them in, rather than discussing them with your partner, can quickly lead to deep resentment that will create a tremendous gulf between you. So, while the goal of avoiding conflict might be to keep the peace, it often ends up creating more problems.

Certainly, there is still a lot to be said for the old adage, “Pick your battles.” Airing every single minute annoyance with your partner will create its own toxic dynamic in your relationship. So what should you bring to your partner and what should you keep to yourself?

Looking back at the example of Diane and Tina, this seems like something that needs to be discussed. Tina’s failure to keep her promises to her family is something that happens regularly. It wasn’t a fluke caused by an extra busy day at work. Tina’s behavior also seems to be causing Diane so much distress that she is questioning whether Tina even cares about her or their children. The frequency and the depth of the feelings involved are two pretty good indicators that a conversation is necessary.

The good news is that engaging in conflict in a healthy way can strengthen connections. For example, if Diane takes her issue to Tina, she might feel scared and Tina might get angry. It might turn into a fight. Tina might even take it as an opportunity to lodge some complaints against Diane. An all-out fight might ensue.

But if Diane and Tina are able stick with the discussion and use empathy to try to really understand each other’s experience, they will likely develop a deeper understanding of one another. Diane might come to appreciate the amount of stress that Tina feels over being the family’s primary breadwinner, and Tina might come to understand that Diane feels unappreciated and alone in the parenting and domestic tasks she is responsible for. As a result of this discussion, Tina might try to get home a little earlier and communicate how much she appreciates Diane’s work around the house, and Diane might be more vocal about her appreciation of the financial contribution Tina makes to the family.

With a little time, patience, and empathy, Diane and Tina might find that they resolved the issue and deepened the intimacy in their relationship in the process.

Some couples who have been avoiding conflict in their relationships for a long time might find that too much resentment has built up over time. They might not be able to make this shift on their own. They might find it beneficial to work with a couples therapist who can help them sort through the pain that underlies the resentment and learn new ways of communicating with one another.

The bottom line is that when two people come together to share their lives with each other, conflict is inevitable, but accepting it and learning to engage with each other in healthy ways will likely enrich the relationship.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, Person Centered / Rogerian Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Brett

    February 7th, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    Conflict may be necessary, but at what cost?
    It is one thing to have a small disagreement, or even a big one, from time to time, but failure to engage or to be around when your family needs you is totally different. If this is happening all of the time then I think that I would be going to my partner and asking aht was going on because it is not right for one partner to always have to pick up the slack for the other.
    I have been in a marriage like that once… and I was the one not fully engaged. We didn’t have children but I was so tuned out that to me it felt better to never be around than it was to try to go into counseling for us. We didn’t last, big surprise I know.

  • kris p

    February 7th, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    If you can discover a way as a couple to be civil in your disagreements then I do think that they can be a healthy part of your relationship. Of course we always think that disagreements can bring you against one another but I actually think that if they are done in a way that you still respect one another and are kind you can actually learn something from it. It may not always feel like it is the right thing, but what fun would it be if you had someone with whom you agreed all the time? Don’t waste the time fighting, talk things through and see if there is anything that can be gained and learned via the discussion with each other.

  • BEA

    February 8th, 2014 at 6:13 AM

    I agree with kris.
    If you can talk about issues in a way that is not demeaning and one or both of you can get something from, then I don’t think that this has to be a bad thing.
    But we all know that many people have this overriding tendency to just have to be right and they will do whatever it takes to prove that they are, even if they have to hurt someone else in the process.
    What is mature about this? What is there to gain?
    You are probably harming your entire relationship if you perceive that you always have to ‘win’, and in the end you will lose because you most likely ripping a relationship to shreds.

  • Cliff

    February 8th, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    Every couple runs into regrettable or negative moments. The couples research shows us that how a couple handles negative moments greatly influences if they will make it or not. If, in a negative moment, you can turn toward a partner with empathy, respect, compassion, and openness, connection and trust will likely improve. If we respond to a negative moment with criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling, trust and connection will likely decrease. Easier said than done, but it can be done. John Gottman’s stuff on attunement in couples covers this pretty well.

  • sam

    February 10th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    There are those who thrive on arguing with their partner.
    I am not one of those people.
    I have enough conflict at work, why would I then want to be in a relationship with someone where this continues?
    Not for me, no thanks.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    February 21st, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this piece. Brett, though your relationship ended, it sounds like you have learned a lot from it.

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