TL;DR: Conflict is very normal in any rock-solid relationship. A major difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict is if you’re able to work through it constructively.
When you think back to all of your closest friendships, how many of them started with some sort of conflict? Did you have to grow on each other? Did one of you make the other cry? Did you have to work out your differences?
I don’t know about you, but I can recall several of my platonic relationships starting with conflict. I can think of someone who rubbed me the wrong way but grew on me (inner conflict). I can think of someone who (unintentionally) made me cry, but we worked past our differences with open communication. We learned that we can strengthen our bond like Gorilla Glue to get through the good and bad times.
Next question: When you consider all of your acquaintances, how many of them do you think have stayed acquaintances partially because you haven’t leveled up to conflict? Perhaps as long as you avoid it, nothing can really grow, almost like the poor lantanas in my backyard.
This whole discussion takes me to the early days of Phillip’s and my relationship. Our major fights occurred every few months, sort of like a woman’s periods on Seasonique. I can remember sitting outside of his parents’ house at night fighting over this and that. I remember when we spent an entire week apart without a peep from each other because I felt mistreated during a Mexico trip.
I can also remember walking around the local gym’s indoor track feeling infuriated after walking out on a fight we were having at home, after we started living together. I remember thinking I had never had so much conflict with a significant other before. But it took me a moment to understand something.
“Phillip and I have been together longer than any of our previous relationships,” I reminded myself. “At this point in our lives, the conflict we’re experiencing is real. We’re in a real adult relationship and experiencing real adult conflict. We’re not in high school or college anymore.”
That’s when it started to make sense to me. Looking back, I can say those fights were some of the leafy greens we needed to help build our healthy, intimate relationship.
Sometimes I’m skeptical when couples claim they never fought, or never had a major fight, until several years into their relationship. I know anomalies exist, but if what they claim is true, then what would happen when the floodgates of conflict open on those couples three years in? Five years in? Longer? How prepared are they to work it out?
That’s why I’d argue it helps to learn how to fight early into a rock-solid relationship—maybe not from the get-go, but when you’ve hit momentum. Conflict resolution is one of those important interpersonal skills you learn through teamwork. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you’re on a team, and every team works new skills into muscle memory through practice, practice, practice.
So, over time you might learn that he is the temperamental one and you’re the calm one. You learn that using “I” statements can help you calm the storm. You learn from the past and move past it, instead of repeatedly bringing it up. You learn to actively listen to each other and reroute your energies in a new, more constructive direction.
Some couples will quit a relationship when they hit a seemingly impossible roadblock, such as not having enough money. While it’s possible to have irreconcilable differences, it makes sense that those who overcome major roadblocks and help each other out of metaphorical quicksand are able to do so because they’ve been down that road before (and found their relationship worth the struggle).
Indeed, not everybody likes spinach (going with the earlier “leafy greens” analogy), but we’re stronger for eating it.
Here are 10 evidence-based tips for handling conflict more constructively (full article):
- Be direct
- Talk about how you feel without blaming your partner
- Never say “never” (or “always”)
- Pick your battles
- Really listen to your partner
- Don’t automatically object to your partner’s complaints
- Take a different perspective
- Do not show contempt for your partner
- Don’t get overwhelmed with negativity
- Know when it’s time for a time-out
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