Sometimes you just have to fight about it. As human animals, conflict is not only a natural outcome of partnerships and family units; it is an essential part of building unity. Our differences may make life more interesting, but learning to deal with them effectively and with love is a challenge for which we are often not well prepared. Learning to speak authentically even if it creates conflict is a basic skill to sustaining relationships. Likewise, developing the insight to see through someone else’s eyes and have disagreements that build instead of undermine our relationships require both courage and a real commitment to stay.
Generally conflicts share similar roots. We fight for power, for freedom, for belonging, and sometimes for fun. I was introduced to these categories through my conflict resolution work with elementary and middle school children. While the urges to explore power and deal with issues of exclusion were often fodder for conflicts, I was astonished at how many kids owned up to creating conflict because it was entertaining. Actually, most conflicts are a mix of more than one of these categories and often are difficult to discern, even for adults. In many long term adult relationships these issues morph into the big five classic control issues around money, family (in-law) relationships, sex, housework and childcare.
Gender issues also affect our reactions to conflict. The male flight or fight response can create biological changes in moments and given free reign can clash dramatically with–the more classic female response to conflict of tend or befriend. While there is huge variation in personality styles and family history of dealing with conflict, it is easy to see how couples easily fall into the habit of avoiding conflict at all costs. Sadly, they don’t realize that the avoidance of the conflict only fuels internal resentment and cuts off any chance for authentic communicating. Making more and more room for conflict to live between you only makes less room for real connection.
“People hurt other people the most when they’re trying to kill their own pain, real or imagined.” –Frank J. Page
This quote summed up our early years of marriage, as our arguments were more often intended to hurt the other person than solve a difference. All the rules you have ever heard about fair fighting should be basic coursework in middle school. Going after the issue and not attacking the other because of your own pain is the mature response to conflict. The other kind only tears down what you spend months or years to build and almost certainly precludes coming to any agreement at all.
Perhaps the most exciting benefit from learning to have the courage to fight with your partner is that honest and fair fights actually fuel your ability to express the fiery passion that makes intimacy sizzle. If you can’t disagree safely about day to day matters, it is pretty unlikely that either partner will feel safe allowing their aggressive sexual energies to show. Passionate sex happens between two people who aren’t hiding anything.
Wendy Strgar is a loveologist who writes and lectures on Making Love Sustainable, a green philosophy of relationships which teaches the importance of valuing the renewable resources of love and family. She helps couples tackle the questions and concerns of intimacy and relationships, providing honest answers and innovative advice. Wendy lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, a psychiatrist, and their four children ages 11-20.