Have you been arguing with your partner lately?
If so, here’s a new way of thinking about conflict that can help you improve your relationship… and grow as a person.
As a marriage counselor and relationship coach who’s worked with many arguing couples over the years, I know that most people absolutely hate conflict. That is understandable. Arguments can be uncomfortable, stressful, and even hurtful. If conflict in relationships is not handled well, it can also be very destructive. I get it — I prefer to avoid conflict in my own life too. If there’s an opportunity for reconciliation and compromise, that is always my first choice.
And yet, over the years, both personally and professionally, I have come to be grudgingly respectful of conflict and the unique growth opportunities conflict offers. We all have disagreements — with our partners, our friends and our family. Sometimes these can be resolved peacefully. Sometimes they can’t. As awful as it can be when open conflict erupts in a relationship, it can also be a powerful mirror reflecting back blind spots you might never otherwise see. (Unless you have a relationship with a great coach or counselor who’s strong enough to call you on your stuff — but that’s a luxury many people never get the chance to have).
“Productive conflict” as I like to think of it, has potential that civilized, polite interactions just don’t: It holds enormous transformational energy. (Not unlike a bomb.) Conflict certainly has the potential to destroy things and make a mess. And, productive conflict can also break things open. It can reconfigure the emotional landscape of a relationship in a positive and necessary way. It can even tear down something that needed to be destroyed in order to make space for something new.
Creation and destruction often go hand in hand. And whether or not a fight leads to transformation or tragedy in you life, it always creates a new opportunity for reflection and self awareness. I routinely teach people about how to manage conflict as productively as possible (through private marriage counseling, premarital counseling, my podcasts, and through our relationship classes). But I’m here today to teach you something new: How to use conflict as a tool for self awareness and personal growth.
Here are just a few things that you really only learn about yourself during an argument:
1. How you instinctively respond to fear and pain. Do you lash out, and seek to inflict damage with your words or actions? Or do you withdraw, retreating behind the facade of a dismissive, rejecting ice-queen? Or do you become patronizing and passively-aggressive in order to take your power back? No one is judging — it’s not easy for any of us behave well when we’re really upset. But observing yourself in conflict allows you to understand your patterns, and how you try to protect yourself when you are hurt or afraid. This self awareness can allow you to intentionally grind away some of your sharpest corners, and make different choices in the future.
2. What your unhealed wounds are. Why do we get into fights in the first place? Because someone we’re in a relationship with intentionally or (more often the case) unintentionally jabbed us in a raw, vulnerable spot that triggered our anxieties or insecurities. When are you most likely to go bananas? Is it when you feel rejected? Disrespected? Unloved? Disregarded? Whatever your trigger is, chances are that its fuse is connected to some of your earliest relational wounds. Observing your own reactivity gives you insight into your “unfinished business” with the past, and a really great opportunity to deal with your old baggage once and for all.
3. The unpleasant truth about yourself. I believe that most people are really kind. They care about you. They don’t want to hurt you. And they almost always turn a blind eye to your flaws in favor of maintaining a relationship with the best parts of you. But during a conflict (when the civilized, rational part of our brain goes offline) the brutally honest, and oftentimes unpleasant truth finally gets a voice. For example, over the course of my own twenty-plus year marriage, it’s only been when my husband is feeling extremely upset with me that I get direct feedback about how my actions are hurting him. Hard as that was to hear, it was also necessary because it allowed me to make changes that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
We all judge ourselves by our intentions. It can be hard to take in how we are experienced by others, particularly if their perceptions of us are in conflict with the more favorable, more comfortable way we like to think about ourselves. And yet, when we take feedback to heart, and see ourselves through the eyes of others, we have a growth opportunity. A chance to do better, be better, and grow into a more loving, responsive partners.
4. Our capacity for compassion, tolerance, humility, and love is revealed… and strengthened. In every “productive conflict,” or argument that ends well, there is a turning point. A moment of selflessness when at least one person can stop fighting for their voice to be heard, their perspective to be accepted, and their demands to be met…. and instead turn their attention to the pain, feelings, and needs of their partner.
In this moment of grace, when one partner feels empathy and compassion for the other, conflict ends. It’s replaced with what I believe is the purest form of love: Respect for the needs, rights and feelings of someone else, even if you don’t understand or agree with them.
In this empathetic selflessness, connection is re-established. Relationships are healed. And, best yet, YOU get to expand and evolve, growing in your capacity for compassion, tolerance, generosity and love.
Will your accepting all these hidden gifts of conflict make your relationship better? Certainly. Will doing the work I described above make you a more mature and loving partner? For sure.
But the real winner here isn’t your relationship, or even your partner. It’s you.
Every battle with your partner is a battle with yourself. A war between the parts of you that are vindictive, selfish, angry, and fearful…. and the parts of you that are self-aware, emotionally mature, unconditionally loving, generous and compassionate.
When you use the opportunity of conflict to strengthen the very the best parts of yourself, both you and your relationships will “win” every time.
I sincerely hope that these thoughts stay with you the next time you have a tense moment with someone you love.
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby