Conflict Need Not Damage Love
The wife’s face twisted in pain. Not knowing the situation, one would think a knife had been thrust into her back. But no. Her husband had just swore at her in a demeaning, disrespectful way; his typical reaction to a moment of sharp disagreement. She would admit that she too is equally as skilled at verbally assaulting her husband. This is the way for many couples; spontaneous conflict shatters a tense harmony.
Conflict is a normal part of every love relationship. Relationships are the arena for growth and change, and conflict is its engine. However, not all conflict is the same. Some are productive in creating positive change while others are not. When the same issue repetitively generates conflict without resolution…it is a sure sign that an important issue is being addressed in a non-productive manner. Not so fast for couples who are proud of their lack of conflict. Harmony may not be a reliable indicator of relationship health. Difficulties in these relationships may go unexpressed. Actually, some constructive conflict helps to foster passion.
Being attracted to and choosing a partner occurs with an underlying need to solve certain emotionally-based challenges, which were cemented in our personalities during our early family years. Loving another, especially after making vows of commitment, activates these usually unconscious challenges providing both partners with great opportunity for growth, but also for hard-to-resolve conflict.
Gaining the growth-benefits of conflict are lost once a conflict is staged in a hurtful or emotionally unsafe manner. Hurtfulness injects tension into the partnership in which wounds and resentment may pollute the togetherness by casting a long shadow of emotional distrust.
An agreement between partners to institute rules of conflict not only helps partners to vocalize their grievances safely, but also aids them in developing greater strength of impulse control. Making these rules when partners are at peace provides the best chance of success. Keeping conflict safe is a necessary precondition for achieving constructive resolutions. In frustration, many couples deteriorate into destructive rather than effective conflict.
Some useful rules which help conflicting partners from “hitting below the belt” are: an agreement to exclude crude and provocative language, to avoid expressing anger with frightening physical gestures, to exclude threats of retaliation or ending the relationship, to keep voices at a low volume, to speak about what is desired or needed rather than about the limitations or mistakes of the partner, to stick with the issue that started the conflict without bringing in past hurts, and to exclude all attacks on the partner’s character.
Intense anger may vent tension but it does not contribute to problem-solving. It prevents the conflict from reaching resolution. An agreement that each partner can stop the action if anger escalates to frightening proportions is a valuable safety valve as long as the partner calling the time out promises to re-initiate the discussion after a short, specified duration. Installing these agreements helps partners develop impulse control while also making conflict safe.
If what you want is a close and passionate love relationship, then protecting it from the potential destruction of conflict is necessary. Ultimately, conflict is more about negotiating, listening and understanding rather than hurting. Intimacy and passion are fragile qualities that cannot bear the hurtfulness that conflict can generate. Make love not war; by fighting fairly, couples can make conflict more about loving than warring.
Please share with me anonymously your love and sexual difficulties. I may respond with solutions in future columns. Love is our highest effort and paradoxically our most difficult task. Wishing you deep love. Andrew Aaron, LICSW, AASECT is a downtown New Bedford sex therapist and marriage counselor. He may be contacted through his website, www.helpforpassion.com.