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Why can’t we deal with conflict?

Conflict is inevitable

You want one thing – your partner wants another.

Your beliefs lead you in a certain direction. Your partner’s lead elsewhere.

You expect particular outcomes. Your partner doesn’t.

In any relationship, there are bound to be clashes. Conflict of some sort will be inevitable.

Sometimes the clashes stem from differences that you experience as trivial. Others will be more fundamental. The conflict becomes a problem when the differences threaten our self-perception and trigger uncomfortable feelings such as fear, resentment, anxiety or hurt.

To protect ourselves from this, we might try to deny that the conflict actually exists.

But when we do recognise conflict and we are flooded with emotion, we tend to resort to our habitual strategies. For example, we might:
•    fight back
•    avoid the issue by walking away
•    attempt to placate the other person and smooth things over
•    resolve the conflict by compromising.

Each of these strategies might work in certain circumstances. But the effect is likely to be temporary. In some cases, it will be achieved at the expense of the relationship.

Let’s look at how this works out in practice.


1. Conflict? What conflict?

‘You say conflict is inevitable? Not in our relationship. We haven’t had an argument for years.’

It is possible that this couple have highly developed emotional intelligence and see their differences as opportunities to deepen their understanding of themselves and each other. So instead of arguing with each other, they talk passionately to each other about their feelings and needs. They explore their differences without resorting to blame, criticism and judgments. Their conversations may become intense – but they don’t carry the emotional baggage that makes conflict so hard to handle.

On the other hand, maybe the couple are like so many of us and see conflict as:
•    unpleasant
•    something to be avoided
•    a sign that the relationship is failing.

If they looked inside themselves, they might find that they were avoiding conflict because they:
•    felt fearful of the emotional turmoil that they associate with it
•    didn’t trust their skills in negotiating their way through it.

The result is that they choose to protect their relationship by not admitting that they experience any conflict in it at all. This means that they:
•    stick to ‘safe’ topics, avoiding issues that could provoke conflict
•    tell themselves that potentially contentious issues aren’t important enough to warrant taking a stand
•    downplay the significance of their individual needs.

They believe that they are contributing to the quality of their relationship through their strategy of avoidance. But although they might appear to have a stable relationship, they pay a price because the relationship doesn’t grow or deepen.

2. Fight to win

‘We’re constantly in conflict over money. The way I see it is we both work hard. We’re comfortably off. What’s the point of having it if you can’t enjoy it a bit? My partner’s so boringly cautious. He keeps on at me for spending. I’m not going to give up my bit of fun. So we fight.’

The couple are attached to their own values and each wants the other to change. The arguments will continue unless they demonstrate to each other that they are prepared to hear, explore and understand their different perspectives and the needs that underpin them.

3. Smooth things over

‘I’m sorry I got shirty with you – my fault entirely. I sure we’ll be able to sort this out.’

OK, so a bit of emollient might not go amiss. But it sounds as though the feelings and needs of the speaker are being put to one side. This is a missed opportunity for both parties to express their feelings and needs and to demonstrate that each has heard the other without judgement, blame or criticism. Then they can move forward.

4. Compromise

‘We’ve obviously got very different views about this. I don’t see us ever agreeing. So how about if you give up one of your evening classes, I’ll cut down on my golfing.’

Agreeing to some give and take does at least suggest a willingness to find a solution. But it doesn’t shed any light on the feelings and needs behind each person’s stance and the suggested solution probably won’t really suit either. Only when they listen carefully to each other’s needs will they be able to find a truly satisfying solution.

5. Avoid the issue by walking away

‘Look, I’ve known you for 20 years. We were students together. You’re my closest friend. We’ve got to sort this out…What do you mean ‘you haven’t got time right now’?… For heaven’s sake, talk to me… Hey, don’t just walk away.’

When one person chooses to protect him/herself by not engaging with the issue, it leaves the other person feeling even more angry, most probably bereft at the missed opportunity for self-expression and longing for closer connection.


There are healthy, life-enriching ways of dealing with conflict. And they don’t involve win-lose, compromise or avoidance. This is what you can do.
•    Hold firmly onto an intention to connect with the person with whom you are in conflict.
•    Listen to the judgments and criticisms that you are rehearsing in your mind and translate them into feelings and needs. (See article ‘Quick guide to self empathy’)
•    Empathise with the other person by guessing what they are feeling and needing.
•    Explore possible strategies for resolving the conflict only when you are both satisfied that you have fully heard and understood each other.


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