Even if two romantic partners feel as if they completely understand one another and are on the same wavelength, arguments are inevitable. When you start dating and slowly combining your lives together, you are bound to clash over something. This disagreement may be the result of issues regarding finances, dealing with the other person’s family, or simply leaving dirty dishes out and forgetting to clean up. Even the best couples can and do experience conflict. However, conflict isn’t necessarily bad.
Possible Outcomes Of Conflict
Peterson (1983, as cited in Erber & Eber, 2016) defines conflict as an interpersonal process that occurs whenever the actions of one person interfere with the actions of another. He notes that conflict can end in one of three ways: destructive (which can lead to separation), adequate (creating a compromise), and constructive (which involves improvements within the relationship).
In fact, constructive conflict can lead to positive changes within the relationship if it helps to bring about a new understanding. For example, one partner may feel as if he is putting in more than his fair share in taking care of household chores, which can lead to an argument. One possible result of conflict stemming from a messy kitchen sink can lead to the redistribution of said chores. In addition, if conflict brings about a better sense of understanding of our partner, it can help to revitalize the relationship.
Of course, it would be ideal to have open and honest discussions prior to issues arising, but this isn’t always possible. Often, we may not even realize that we are upset about something until one seemingly small occurrence is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
It’s Not If We Argue, It’s How We Argue
Being that conflict isn’t inherently good or bad, what is it that makes the difference in terms of how an argument will affect our relationship? It’s actually the way in which we argue that affects the outcome the most.
Dr. John Gottman, who has done extensive research on couples and is capable of predicting their likelihood to divorce with over 90% accuracy, has identified the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (Gottman & Silver, 1999). These four signs, which all lead to the escalation of negativity during an argument with your partners, are:
- Criticism: This involves attacking a partner’s character, such as calling him/her a slob during a fight. Rather than focusing on the problem at hand, you make it about your partner, which can be very hurtful.
- Defensiveness: This is when you call your partner out for something, rather than take responsibility for your role in the issue you are fighting about.
- Contempt: Contempt is similar to criticism, but involves saying something hurtful, while coming from a place of superiority.
- Stonewalling: This occurs when a person checks out of the argument and shuts down any chance of a productive resolution.
Being able to identify that you employ any of these detrimental approaches when in conflict is helpful. Once you are aware of what you do, it is important to break this pattern. Gottman has noted that by sharing your needs when in a heated discussion, accepting responsibility for your actions and respecting your partner, you can have a much more positive outcome. For those who stonewall, it is important to let your partner know when you need a break, so that you can come back to the discussion with a clear mind and are more level-headed.
Remember that conflict is not something to be feared; it’s a completely natural part of any relationship. Take the time to identify which strategies you employ when frustrated. Once you determine which negative approaches you use when trying to communicate your needs, you can work to improve the way in which you express yourself. Doing this will increase the likelihood that your conflicts will lead to growth, rather than potentially fracture the relationship.
You may also be interested in Dealing With Your First Argument As A Couple
Erber, R., & Erber, M. W. (2016). Intimate relationships: Issues, theories, and research. Psychology Press.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.