Conflict is Good for your Relationship Health!

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

I was on my way to a couples therapy conference recently when my Uber driver began to tell me about his relationship and its problems. After talking for a while, he asked a great question: why do so many couples have such difficulty, and what’s underneath all their conflict?

In the beginning of a relationship, few think that their marriage will face significant conflict, and rarely consider the possibility that it might come apart. In fact, when a couple is just falling in love, conflict is largely absent. Fondly recalling their dating days, couples describe easy conversations, fun together, strong physical attraction, and a sense of being carefree. Later in their marriages, they find themselves fighting, feeling distant, and trying to understand what happened to their relationship. At this point, each partner typically blames the other, focusing on their partner’s negative traits… and things begin to feel hopeless.

So, how did they go from carefree love to this conflictual and hopeless place of anger and hurt? What happened to the fun? How did they get stuck in these escalating patterns of conflict? Understanding the underlying reason for conflict in relationships is essential to getting beyond the conflict and into a more intimate relationship.

You may be focused on the wrong problem

Typically, couples focus on the wrong problem! They believe their conflict is money, parenting, sex, or (simply) that the other needs to change. In reality, each is focused on the wrong thing because they are thinking too concretely. They naively believe that if they could figure out “the” solution, they would stop arguing. But most relationship problems, like money and parenting, can be negotiated. The real problem is the way couples try to solve the problem! The real negotiation, is not money or sex, but closeness and distance.

Balancing closeness and distance is complicated, especially since we marry someone who balances it very differently than we do. Take the person craving closeness - they marry someone who needs more space, which triggers a new process: as the one craving closeness pursues, the one needing distance moves away, which necessitates that the first pursue more. This cycle of interaction typically makes the initial problem worse over time. To make matters even more complicated, there is usually little insight into the real source of the problem. This means that couples focus on the problem of parenting/money/sex/inlaws/etc., instead of the more important problem of balancing closeness and distance and the deeper reasons making the balance so difficult.

The problem of emotional systems

Couple dances are not driven by logic or reason, but by emotionality. This means that the more a couple attempts to balance closeness and distance, the more intense their interactions become. Take the above example of the pursuer/distancer dance - the longer the couple is engaged in chasing and running, the more powerfully they are trapped in a dance that they cannot break, which leads to discouragement and an escalation of conflict and anxiety. Unfortunately, this self-reinforcing feedback loop creates in the other the opposite of what they truly want. (We describe this cycle more completely in Renewing Your Relationship: 5 Necessary Steps.)

The Problem is even deeper

Finally, conflict is often rooted in old maps that couples are often not aware of… maps rooted in experiences with the families they each grew up in. Every family has a style of conflict, from loud and emotional on one side, to avoiding conflict and being overly polite on the other. If partners from these two types of families marry, they will have difficulty because their conflict styles are complete opposites. Further, both will assume that the style they have adapted from their families is normal and healthy. Problem solving is impossible if these maps stay outside of awareness.

And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the families where there was alcoholism or violence. We all come into relationships with programs from our childhoods and we all partner with someone who is vastly different in some important ways.

How do I begin to make real, lasting, and meaningful change?

You cannot change anything if you don’t understand what the real problems in your relationship are. To begin, talk with your partner from the perspective of watching your common conflicts on video. Talk about the dance that the two of you are doing by noticing what you contribute and asking your partner to do the same for their role. Try exploring ways you balance closeness and distance and finding some of the issues that make this so difficult. A great aid for having these conversations in a healthy and non-reactive way is the book Renewing your Relationship: 5 Necessary Steps.

If you find that your conversations are getting caught in your old problematic interactional cycle, it may be helpful to to talk to a trained therapist who understands the Relationship Renewal approach to working with couples. This therapist can help you break down your dance and understand what drives and reinforces it so that you can begin to move toward healthier conflict and greater intimacy.