Over the past twenty-some years, I’ve heard dozens of clients say some version of:
“I absolutely hate conflict.”
“Does every relationship – even a good one – have a certain amount of conflict?”
“I’ll do anything to avoid conflict: it makes me so uncomfortable.”
Conflict is a necessary part of life, and, if approached with curiosity instead of dread, it can teach us a lot about ourselves.
Working with conflict is a skill. And a skill can be learned. Trying to avoid conflict is an interesting approach to life: too bad it doesn’t work. No matter how nice, smart or generous you are, the universe is gonna send some people into your life who want to mess with you. How could it not? How could you agree or get along with everyone?
What happens when people disagree? No matter how politely you manage it: there’s conflict there. A conflict Is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. If you want your life to be “fixed” or “static”, you’re gonna hate conflict, because it pushes you to grow and change. However, if you embrace that you’re never going to stop learning about yourself (and others) and that life is supposed to throw stuff at you to see how you handle it, then a little bit of conflict now-and-then can be a good thing.
I see this in play when I work with couples. Some people blissfully tell me that they’re in a relationship with their soulmate: “If things aren’t flowing smoothly, then we’re not meant to be together.”
Relationships are designed to bring up conflict: how can you love someone, be vulnerable with someone, live your life with someone and have everything play out like a rom-com with a guaranteed happy ending? Even in rom-coms there’s always conflict: you can’t have a happy ending until the couple has worked through their shit.
If your idea of a relationship is one where you expect instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility, you may not be willing to work with your partner to solve your problems or gain new relationship skills. You may (naively) hope that all your conflicts will be magically resolved through the power of your love. Good luck with that!
With that fantasy relationship mindset, when conflict arises, you’ll think you’ve picked the wrong partner.
I’ve heard many clients say, “Everything was perfect, until (*name your conflict here*) happened, and now I don’t know if we’re meant to be together. Do soulmates really have so many problems?”
In a word: yes.
If you believe in the idea of soulmates, consider this: the universe may send you one perfect person who will help you to grow, learn and struggle to become the person you really want to be. And you can return the favor.
Instead of trying to avoid conflict, be curious about it. Don’t see conflict as a sign of incompatibility; instead, see it as an area of growth. Going through difficulties in a relationship is an opportunity to learn, to understand each other better and strengthen the relationship…and it’s good for your self-esteem too.
As a kid, my parents rarely argued with each other. As a result, I didn’t know much about good, honest conflict and how to work with it. As an adult, I used to be mildly terrified of any sort of confrontation. It took me many years to embrace the idea of arguments/conflicts/disagreements as opportunities to love my partner better and become more skillful at talking about difficult subjects.
After working through an intensely-emotional conflict, most couples I work with feel a great relief: “Wow, we worked through that! Good for us!” is how they feel afterwards. In addition, they feel more capable and empowered to talk through future conflicts.
Conflict can be good for you. It can teach you things and make you more confident and skillful in all your relationships – with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, and those rude people who cut in line in front of you. Conflict can make you emotionally stronger and more assertive. Instead of avoiding it the next time it pops up, try being open and curious about it and see what it can teach you.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.