Larry Alan Nadig, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologsit, Marriage & Family Therapist

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© copyright 1999
by Larry Nadig,
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Last updated:
July 19, 2010

 

Relationship Conflict:  
Healthy or Unhealthy

There is no such thing as a relationship without conflict.  

Conflict is a part of life. It exists as a reality of any relationship, and is not necessarily bad. In fact a relationship with no apparent conflict may be unhealthier than one with frequent conflict. Conflicts are critical events that can weaken or strengthen a relationship. Conflicts can be productive, creating deeper understanding, closeness and respect, or they can be destructive, causing resentment, hostility and divorce. How the conflicts get resolved, not how many occur, is the critical factor in determining whether a relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold. Conflicts run all the way from minor unimportant differences to critical fights. There are conflicts of needs, wants, preferences, interests, opinions, beliefs and values. 

Styles of Conflict Resolution:

Avoiding or denying the existence of a conflict.
Many people prefer to give in rather than struggle through the conflict. 
Some people get mad and blame the other person.
Others are competitive and have to win. They use their power and influence to control and get their way.
Some appear to compromise but are subtly manipulative in trying to win more ground.
A few people can control their anger, competitive, I-give-up feelings and self- serving tendencies and genuinely seek a fair, optimal solution for both parties. This is a creative integrative approach.

Three Types of Healthy Solutions:

Win-win. Most conflicts are in areas that have more than two alternatives. If you do not like the choice your partner wants, and your partner does not like your choice, with a little more effort you might be able to find another alternative that you both like and want. 
No lose. When you cannot find an alternative that you both want, look for an option that is acceptable to both of you, or negotiate an agreeable compromise. Neither gets everything he/she wanted, but each gets enough to be satisfied.
Win-lose equally. When the conflict is over an issue that has only two choices, one person will get what he/she wants and the other will not. There will be a winner and a loser. If you are fair with each other and generally half the time each gets your own way; it will be easier for each of you when you donít. The loser will trust that next time or the time after that he/she will be the winner.

Healthy Conflict Resolution is easy to understand intellectually, but not as easy to apply and use consistently. It does however become easier once the skills and trust are developed. Both partners must view their conflicts as a problem to be solved by them. It isnít getting the best deal for me; it is finding the best solution for us. They each must actively participate and make the effort and commitment to work hard together to find solutions that are fair and acceptable to both.

If you disregard, minimize or invalidate your spouseís position, or if you must always get your way, you will damage your relationship. Your lack of sensitivity, consideration and respect of your spouseís position will cause hurt and smoldering resentment. If fear and power is used to win, the relationship will be mortally wounded.

If you are just a willing giver constantly trying to keep your spouse happy by satisfying his/her needs and avoiding conflict, you will also damage your relationship. You will inadvertently teach your spouse to be insensitive to your needs and self-serving at your expense. Your self-esteem and self-worth will deteriorate. Resentment will fester, poisoning you to the relationship.

Attitudes Needed for Healthy Conflict Resolution:

Start with the right frame of mind. Approach the conflict as two equals working together to solve a problem.  Donít be so caught-up with your immediate want that you lose sight of and forget your more important want of having a long, healthy relationship. If you are too angry or hurt to be able to control your feelings and remain respectful let yourself calm down before dealing with the issue.

Handling a conflict with a loved one, or someone you want to have a good, long-term relationship with is different than negotiating with someone who doesnít care about your needs, such as a used-car salesman. With a loved one you have to be concerned with his/her best interests. You both should be open, honest and remain respectful, not deceptive, manipulative or disrespectful. Mutual trust is a necessary core issue in a healthy, long-term relationship and neither partner should do anything to weaken it.

Having a negative, distrustful attitude is detrimental to this process: believing you must win the argument or otherwise lose face is a bad attitude; feeling superior or being hard nosed and feeling inferior or being a soft touch are also harmful approaches.

Stages of Healthy Conflict Resolution:

Identify the problem or issues. Have a discussion to understand both sides of the problem, conflicts, needs and preferred outcomes. Clarify to each other exactly what the conflict or problem involves. This is the initial stage where you say what you want and you listen to what your partner wants. The goal at this stage is for you each to clearly express what you each want and to understand what the other wants. Use I message language and avoid the blaming you messages. Also use your active listening skills when you listen to your partnerís side.
Generate several possible solutions. This is the creative integrative part. Drawing upon the things you both agree on and upon your shared goals and interests, look for several possible alternatives that might solve the problem. Avoid evaluating and judging each idea until it looks as though no more are going to be suggested. This is a brainstorming approach.
Evaluate the alternative solutions. Consider each suggested solution and eliminate those that are not acceptable to either of you. Keep narrowing them down to one or two that seem best for you both. In this stage you both must be honest and be able to say things like, "I wouldnít be happy with that," or "I donít think that would be fair for me."
Decide on the best solution. Select the alternative that is mutually acceptable to both of you. Make certain there is a mutual commitment to the decision.
Implement the solution. It is one thing to arrive at a decision, another to carry it out. Sometimes it is necessary to talk about how it is to be implemented. Who is responsible to do what and by when?
Follow-up evaluation. Not all mutually agreed upon solutions turn out to be as good as initially expected. Make it a routine to ask your partner how the solution is working and how he/she feels about it. Something may have been overlooked, misjudged, or something unexpected may have occurred. Both of you should have the understanding that decisions are always open for revision, but that modifications have to be mutually agreed upon, as was the initial decision.

Common Mistakes:

Not discussing with your partner the method used to resolve your conflicts.
Discovering too late that more information was needed, e.g., "I should have placed the order sooner, now they are sold out."
Being too invested in getting your way, or making extreme demands, and therefore not being able to be flexible enough to be fair with your partner.
Forgetting that there are usually several ways of doing things and that your own reality is not the only reality. We humans have a consistent tendency to believe that we are right and are being reasonable. You will be much more effective if you are willing to see the other personís view.
Focusing too much on what you could lose and not enough on what you both could gain.
Believing the other person must lose for you to win.
Bringing in additional issues before resolving the one you started..

If you both stay true to your partner and true to yourself you should have a good, healthy relationship.

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Contents: .
Home 

How to Express

Difficult Feelings 

Tips on Listening 

Conflict: Healthy

or Unhealthy

Stress: Health &
Relationship Killer

Selecting a Mate

Weight Control

Holiday Blues

How to Get the Most From Therapy 

Psychological Tests

About Dr. Nadig

Treatment Philosophy

Professional Services and Fees