The benefit of conflict

Benefits of conflict

When it comes to relationships, there’s an unwritten law – fighting is a relationship fault. Unfortunately, common abhorrence of ‘fights’ can start an ideological chain reaction of avoidance, causing evasion of arguments, difference of opinion and conflict.

It’s an important semantic distinction between fighting and conflict since research has shown that addressing rather than avoiding problems is a key factor in relationship success. People who are direct about their discontent in a relationship, and are able to discuss it, are more likely to be satisfied than those who avoid issues or use sarcasm or defensiveness. The overt big predictors of relationship success and what relationship counsellors look for when a couple presents in their office can be gauged from the way they interact, listen and argue. How a couple resolves and repairs relationship ruptures is integral to relationship satisfaction and in turn success. The Gottman Institute pioneered a method of forecasting satisfaction with an approach that demanded not only identifying verbal and visual predictors, but also naming them. According to this model, there are four main barriers to relationship success, known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. In a study supporting the theory, if any of these were present in the couple’s dialogue, problems arose. The most successful relationships rarely used the big four, or repaired quickly if they crept into discussions.

The trouble is, they can creep in and are not always easy to spot. Defensiveness occurs readily for most of us. When our partner uses the word ‘you’ in any statement we instinctively defend our actions. Learning ways to reframe our perspective often commands a better response. For example, when your partner forgets to include you in their plans, instead of saying “you never invite me anywhere”, say how it makes you feel to not be invited. Reframing the statement to “I felt left out when I wasn’t invited” is what we call a ‘soft start-up’, which enables us to be heard and our partner to understand what we need, circumventing a defensive counter-response. Try structuring your speech as follows: ‘I feel….because….I need….’. Contempt is often the hardest of the four horsemen to curb because we’re often unaware of reactive eye rolling, exaggerated breaths and small head gestures that convey that we’re not listening or don’t care what the other person’s saying. In healthy, harmonious relationships, couples learn to adjust these reactive behaviours. The last of the four horsemen is stonewalling, which happens when we are emotionally flooded and shut down. Our heart rate increases, we assume a protective role and we don’t take anything in. In turn, the person being stonewalled either talks louder or exacts criticism, which exacerbates the situation, causing the stonewaller to withdraw further. The best course of action is to allow the stonewaller to self-soothe, and allow ourselves to do the same. Once emotions have lost their intensity, heart rate has returned to normal, you can return to face the issues in a calmer state.

There are four main barriers to relationship success, known as the four horseman of the apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.Alinda Small - Muse sex and relationships expert

The other aspect of using conflict for better is identifying your relational style, since each relationship comes with parameters that will affect how well we manage conflict and disagreement and whether, and how well, we recover. If you’re in an avoidant relationship, for instance, you may discuss your differences but don’t place great emphasis on resolving the differences. You may have high autonomy within the relationship despite being committed and agree to disagree. A volatile relationship is marked by harder fights, more laughter and greater ease with which you discuss both the negative and positive aspects of the relationship. You bond more when you fight as you have the skills to resolve the conflict and may often end up happier afterwards. In a validating relationship, couples learn to compromise and work things out – often calmly. You tend to have more stereotypical roles within the relationship. Longevity and happiness come when we settle into our relational style – which will vary somewhat – and are able to resolve the conflict within it, by identifying the four horsemen. Not all relationships innately have the skills to do this alone, which is where a trained relationships counsellor can help by observing a couple’s style and teaching them techniques and styles to not only communicate well, but more importantly, how to fight well.

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