By Jonathan Hart, LPC
It is the nature of relationships to include conflict. In fact, conflict is a necessary component of intimacy and closeness in relationship. If you are to become emotionally close with another person, it is necessary to come into conflict with them, because conflict is the place where my uniqueness bumps up against your uniqueness, which by definition is different than mine.
Conflict is the place where we figure out how to do life together in the presence of these differences. If ever these differences are eroded away or eliminated (what many would describe as “resolved”), we are not actually connected with each other. One of us has been either consumed or effaced by the other.
Two objects in contact with each other generate friction and heat as they move independently in that contact. If there is no friction, there is no contact. If we never engage in or experience conflict with our significant other, we are not emotionally engaged with them on a meaningful level. We are not in contact.
This being said, there are two ways of doing conflict: Well or Poorly. Conflict done well strengthens the relationship. Conflict done poorly decimates it. In order to do conflict well, we need to find a way toward resolution.
Agreement is NOT resolution.
The problem most people encounter is that when they try to resolve conflict by reaching some kind of agreement, they are working toward an unsupportable solution. Agreement is not necessary to reach resolution. If we try to find a place where we agree on everything, we end up working against our own uniqueness, and we cannot sustain that forever. Agreement sometimes happens, but when we hold that as the only standard for resolution, we will end up frustrated and hopeless.
“Agree to disagree” is not resolution.
If we agree to disagree, we create “dead spaces” in the relationship where we can never come into contact. In this arrangement, the solution to conflict is to avoid it, which simply cannot lead to resolution any more than the South road leads North. If avoiding conflict is our goal and our standard for good relationship (i.e., being “nice”, “happy”, or “positive”), we will never experience a truly connected, intimate relationship.
Compromise cannot lead to resolution.
When we try to use compromise to reach resolution, we are usually operating on the presumption that “everyone loses something” and “no one leaves the table completely happy”. Compromises reached in this way are generally composed of requests or demands that we make of one another. When we agree to a compromise, we are saying that we are going to “try to be different” for the sake of the other. While this sounds good on the surface, what is happening under the surface is that our uniqueness is not being acknowledged and/or validated. Because of this, the changes are often unsustainable. We become frustrated, exhausted, and resentful in the long run (consumed), or we simply “kill” that part of our identity for the sake of the other (effaced).
Real resolution is achieved when we genuinely and deeply understand each other’s position, thoughts, and feelings, and can acknowledge them as valid, even though we may not agree. When we really understand the other person, we often find a willingness to work together and move toward a solution that is not forced or demanded, but organic to each participant, and therefore sustainable. Any changes we make grow out of this deep understanding of the other’s need, and are generally “gifts” offered by the participants themselves based on this knowledge and kindness. This leads to gratitude and a building of affection between the parties (read, Intimacy, Closeness, Connection).
To say it concisely; once I deeply understand and give credit to how you think and feel, and presuming I care about what you think and how you feel, I find myself willing to shift how I relate to you. When we each are able to do this for the other, we are no longer in conflict. We are working together, and the conflict is resolved.