Conflict Can Be Healthy!

couples-conflictMany couples measure the success of their relationship by the absence of conflict in their relationship. In actuality, lack of conflict can be seen as a red flag because differences in needs and opinions are normal and expected in a relationship and a lack of healthy expression of those differences can lead to resentment, bitterness at minimum and potentially longer-term issues such as infidelity and separation/divorce.

Understanding Conflict

It is important for couples to be aware that often times, when conflict takes place, it is actually happening on two different levels:

  • The issue level – this can be about anything from mundane issues of where to go for dinner to more serious issues about parenting and in-laws
  • The process level – this is emotional interactional process that is described below

Without the awareness that this is happening, couples often merge the two levels as the conflict on the emotional level is mashed up with the conflict on the issue level.  This leads to confusion as strong emotions (often labelled “irrational”) can erupt that can serve to derail the argument from the issue at hand, which can often lead to a rollercoaster of emotions that take the couple far away from the original argument.

Healthy Approach to Handling Emotions

A healthy approach to conflict is at the heart of a successful relationship. For the majority of couples, unhealthy responses to unpleasant emotions are at the heart of where problems lie in how they handle conflict.

Emotions are an important part of the human makeup, as it is the most direct way that we have to access our deeper needs – the primary ones being needs for connection / intimacy (attachment) and/or needs to be valued / respected (identity). Pleasant emotions signal that core needs are met; unpleasant emotions signal unmet core needs.

When conflicts arise, and unpleasant emotions triggered… the absence of a safe and effective way to handle the emotions can often lead to destructive patterns in the conflict.

  • The old adage goes that the best defence is a strong offence. Unfortunately, in the world of relationships, tactic backfires and creates adversity and distance in the relationship rather than intimacy and understanding. Common responses can often include criticism, verbal attacks and controlling behaviours which can work in the short term to shut down conflict, but it also creates distance and destroys intimacy in the long-term
  • Others take a different tact as they withdraw and/or shut down. This can also appear as placation in a relationship. Again, this can end the conflict early, but does not move the couple towards a healthy, long term resolution that works against understanding and intimacy

In both cases, these unhealthy emotional responses work against each person getting their deeper needs met, and instead, form a destructive pattern in the relationship that serves to prevent those needs from being met.

In couples therapy, I help couples gain awareness of this process and help them separate these differing levels, and help couples focus specifically on the emotional level towards building emotional intimacy.  This is important because these emotional processes are key to healthy connection. When couples are feeling connected and safe with one another, day-to-day issues are much easier to handle together.

In Summary…

There are key benefits that couples therapy can offer:

  • Increased awareness of emotional processes that guide their conflict
  • De-escalate the conflict effectively
  • Provide tools to express deeper needs effectively that can open doors towards greater intimacy and understanding in the relationship
  • Pave the way to smoother resolution of conflict in relationships
  • Increase hope for the future

If you wish to make contact with me to discuss further or you wish to book an appointment, please feel free to contact me via my contact page and we can get the ball rolling. I look forward to hearing from you soon.