Your natural inclination might be to avoid conflict at all costs—it’s uncomfortable, scary, and uncertain. An argument with your partner can make your heart race and prime you to run away or fight. You worry that the conflict will affect your relationship, and that you might even lose your partner. But, although it seems counter-intuitive, when you embrace conflict and trust that you can repair the mismatch, your relationship will grow.
But we’re afraid of conflict and miscommunication. When it happens, we think we must be doing something wrong, or maybe we’re with the wrong person.
Society tells you that perfection is possible if you just follow “these five simple tips.” So, you follow the tips, but there are still missteps, misunderstandings, and hurt. You don’t know why you can’t get into sync with your partner.
Some of us were brought up in households that taught us conflict was unacceptable, so we don’t know how to deal with conflicts in our adult lives.
Others of us saw plenty of conflict, but we didn’t get good examples of how to repair the discord. When this happens, we may or may not be afraid of conflicts, but we can get stuck in them.
Ultimately, safety and trust in a relationship is built on repeated conflict and resolution. Logically, the only way to have reconnection is to first have some disconnection. You learn that it’s safe to have a misunderstanding with your partner and you have confidence that you’ll be able to work through it.
You need to know that the other person will stay with you no matter how messy it gets. And that’s what helps build your inner confidence & hope in both the relationship with that person and with the world.
Why it Can be Scary to Embrace Conflict (or “The Culture of Perfection”)
In their book The Power of Discord, psychologist Ed Tronick and pediatrician Claudia Gold devote several pages to the discussion of “A Culture of Perfectionism.” They explain that perfectionism has been on the rise over the last thirty years, probably due in part to social media and the self-help industry (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
When you scroll through Facebook, you’re looking at images of moments that might seem to be perfect. The reality is, they were picked out of a string of other moments in that person’s day that were undoubtedly much messier.
A post of a couple kissing in the sunset leaves out the argument they had minutes earlier when she asked which earrings would look better in their perfect photo and he rolled his eyes.
The article that only gives tips on how to make things feel perfect doesn’t embrace conflict as a natural and necessary part of a relationship.
Unfortunately, while “perfection” seems like it should be a good goal, it actually results in disappointment, dissatisfaction, and greater struggles with depression and anxiety (Handley et al., 2014; Kawamura et al., 2001).
What’s helpful is not advice but experiencing the discomfort of conflict or mismatch and working through it. As Tronick and Gold point out, “Working through difficult moments in the setting of relationships in which you feel heard and supported promotes health and well-being more effectively than a rubric of tips or how-tos” (Tronick & Gold, 2020)
When conflict is repaired, the relationship grows.
Make Space for Imperfection – You Can’t Embrace Conflict if You Don’t Allow Conflict in the First Place
Relationships are messy. We fumble through them, sometimes unaware of how our actions are affecting our partner, sometimes miscommunicating what we really mean.
And that’s okay.
Researcher and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott observed the connection between mothers and infants during his decades-long career and found that imperfection is important for healthy development. Moments of disconnect allow the infant to learn to self-regulate and to interact socially (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
Just as that first relationship between mother and child needs disconnection and repair, so do our romantic relationships.
The imperfection allows you to learn more about yourself and your partner. It creates the opportunity to be vulnerable, share your experience, and grow closer through the repair.
When you embrace the conflict and the process of reconciliation, you embrace the relationship and the other person.
Messiness Can Happen Only in a Safe Relationship
Here’s the trick—you can only embrace conflict in a safe relationship.
Messiness is scary if you can’t trust how your partner will react. Or if you’re afraid they’ll leave.
Vulnerability and revealing your flaws is an act of courage, and one that must be met with compassion and empathy. That means you and your partner have to feel safe enough to let things “go wrong.”
The good news is, you can build that confidence and safety little by little.
See what happens when you let your emotions get a little messy. Watch how the repair of the little misunderstanding opens you up to one another. Trust grows between you and allows you to get a little messier.
Intimacy is built on that same trust, vulnerability, and connection you’re constantly working to strengthen. The great news is, you’re not perfect, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to embrace messiness, embrace conflict and repair, and increase the intimacy between you.
Couples Counseling to Help you Embrace Conflict & Learn to Repair
Some couples can get stuck in the cycle of conflict.
If you and your partner didn’t have good examples of how to mend hurts and reconnect after misunderstandings, you might need help to get started. You might benefit from the guidance of a couples counselor who can help you practice reconnecting.
Dr. Irena uses Emotionally Focused Therapy, a research-backed method that can help couples regain loving connection and intimacy. She can help you embrace conflict and learn to repair your relationship so it will continue to grow and strengthen.
If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Handley, A. K., Egan, S. J., Kane, R. T., & Rees, C. S. (2014). The relationships between perfectionism, pathological worry and generalised anxiety disorder. BMC Psychiatry, 14(98).
Kawamura, K. Y., Hunt, S. L., Frost, R. O., & Marten DiBartolo, P. (2001). Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Depression: Are the Relationships Independent? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25(3), 291-301.
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.