If there is one irrefutable truth Lori and I have discovered in our practice, it is this: We need more conflict in our lives, not less. Now this may sound strange coming from two relationship counselors – and no, this is not our attempt to simply drum up more business. So let me clarify.
What we are proposing is couples need to engage in more “constructive” conflict, i.e. conflict handled in a way leading to increased awareness of one’s self, one’s partner, and of the dynamics between them; conflict leading to resolution.
Fundamentally, we view conflict as a symptom of something going on more deeply within the relationship to be understood and processed through skillful investigation; and which you ignore at your own peril.
Reckless management of conflict through avoidance or chronic arguing, creates distance, destroys connection and puts the relationship at risk. Unfortunately, many partners opt to desperately hold on to conflict. They design to get stuck in anger, to expressly sidestep a deeper exploration of thoughts and feelings between them. In this way they circumvent the risky venture into trust and openness.
Such partners conspire to hold on to dysfunction at its very core, and sign on to a bargain that reads something like this:
“We the undersigned agree to remain in regular and everlasting conflict in order to avoid the deeper exploration of underlying hurt and fear that resides beneath our angry outbursts and/or withdrawal; and in doing so for the duration of our time together, and in consideration thereof, we hereby relinquish all hope for a genuinely deeper connection.”
When conflict is constructive, you peel back the outer layer of anger and withdrawal, and get right to the very core of the conflict.
You must recognize, understand and validate the pain, the sadness, and the fear to pursue a course of genuine resolution and authentic connection. It is at this level, just underneath the hard yet very shallow surface of discord, nearer than near, that our chance for the most intimate relationship resides.
The strongest relationships are possessed by those partners who press conflict, go beyond anger and condemnation, move beyond “right and wrong,” and work toward a more global understanding of each other’s world of thoughts and feelings.
The challenge is that you have to work on developing a trusting relationship to accommodate you and your partner’s investigation of each other in an atmosphere of openness and support. Conflict then becomes that vital “entry point” to a meticulous examination of thoughts and feelings of you and your partner – slowly, “frame by frame,” which will lead you past conflict into connection.
If you want connection within your relationship, you must do connecting things. It’s the most difficult work you will ever do, but it is the most rewarding.