We all look for our soul mate and what we imagine will be a perfect relationship. We think when we find that person, we won’t ever fight or feel frustrated or disconnected. But that relationship doesn’t exist. Conflict in a relationship is healthy and normal—even necessary.
The thing is, we’re bombarded with messages that tell us conflict is bad. The entertainment industry touts the idea of a soul mate for each of us. Dating sites insist that you can find your “perfect match.”
You know the story, two people meet for the first time and it’s obvious they’re meant to be together. By the end of the movie, they’re married, and the credits roll before the new couple experience any more conflict.
The implication is that now they live happily ever after.
But what is “happily ever after”?
Is a “perfect relationship” one in which you gaze admiringly into each other’s eyes for five minutes every day? Then you put on your perfect outfits and pat your perfectly behaved children on the head before you make millions of dollars in the perfect job?
We’re constantly searching for something that doesn’t exist.
What’s more, we don’t need to be afraid of conflict.
Conflicts in a relationship are fine if you can resolve them. In fact, they’re even beneficial and can help build resilience.
Common Conflict in a Relationship
Often, conflict will arise in a relationship when one partner feels disconnected or like their needs aren’t being met.
Take for example Kevin and Carla. They had been together for a while without many conflicts or disagreements. Now that they were past the early stages of the relationship, though, little things started to grate on Carla.
Most of all, she hated when Kevin would tune out when he was watching a game. Anything she tried to tell him, she knew he’d brush off or ignore.
Carla came from a family that didn’t offer her any examples of conflict resolution. Her father could be volatile if something made him angry, so her mother tried to make sure he was never provoked.
Finally, a few weeks into football season, Carla tried to tell Kevin that she was headed out with her girlfriends, but he didn’t even look away from the TV screen.
Carla threw her purse on the ground and started sobbing.
What it Means to “Repair”
This was the first Kevin had any idea there was a conflict in the relationship. But he came from a family that fought and reconciled with regularity. He was familiar with the cycle of conflict and repair.
He saw that Carla was hurting now, even though the sudden explosion shocked him. In response, he went to her and listened. Kevin showed Carla that he wouldn’t leave her when she was angry, and that it was safe to have messy emotions.
After Carla’s explosion, the couple talked about her hurt feelings, and she felt seen. She also felt safe knowing that he wouldn’t leave her if there was discord between them.
Together, they created the first experience of overcoming conflict as a couple, an experience they would have many opportunities to build on over the years.
A “Perfect” Relationship Grows Through Conflict and Repair
In the example above, Kevin and Carla’s relationship had the opportunity to grow because of the conflict.
If Carla had continued to hold in her frustration and hurt, Kevin wouldn’t have known there was an issue. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity to comfort her.
Disagreements and disconnection in a relationship are normal. Welcome them.
Researchers of parent-infant interactions found that conflict in a relationship, even one as close and instinctual as that of a mother and her child, is more common than you think.
In their 2020 book The Power of Discord, psychologist Ed Tronick and pediatrician Claudia M. Gold wrote “In typical healthy parent-infant pairs, on average 70 percent of the interactions were out of sync! Disconnection was an inevitable part of the interaction.”
They went on to say, “…we discovered that the most important part was not the mismatch but the repair.”(Tronick & Gold, 2020)
Why Repair of The Relationship is Important
Ultimately, lack of disagreements and conflict doesn’t mean better relationship. It’s how the two people reconnect, repair, and grow from the experience.
As Tronick and Gold explain, resolving conflicts in a relationship leads to more trust and security between the people involved.
When you and your partner see each other’s vulnerabilities, messiness, and anger and still accept one another, your relationship gets stronger. You learn that your connection with this incredibly important person can stand up to difficulty and remain intact.
So, both conflict and the action of repairing hurt and disconnection are essential to building a solid, secure relationship. Disconnect and conflict in a relationship are opportunity to get to know your partner better.
If you can turn the negative emotions of the conflict into an ultimately positive experience of repair, your relationship will feel safe and constructive.
It can be comforting to remember that your relationship doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t!
You’ll build intimacy through this resolution of mistakes and misunderstandings.
You can tell yourself “I don’t know what’s going on right now, or why we’re fighting, but I know we’ll resolve this.”
Even if you feel stuck right now, each conflict is an opportunity to practice repairing things with your partner. And in this way, mistakes are good.
Couples Therapy to Help Repair Conflict in a Relationship
Sometimes the process of repairing after a conflict is so unfamiliar or difficult for a couple that counseling can be helpful to learn and practice together.
A professional couples therapist can help you slow down, identify triggers, and communicate to one another what you’re feeling and what you need. A therapy session allows time and space dedicated to resolving conflicts and repairing mistakes.
If you and your partner could use guidance getting started with the repair process, couples therapy is a great place to find it.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena is a certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist who has helped many couples repair conflict to strengthen their relationships. She offers online therapy for couples in Texas and New York City. If you’d like to learn more about how Dr. Irena can help you and your partner, email her for a free 10-minute video consultation: [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.
Tronick, E., & Gold, C. M. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust. Little, Brown Spark.