The “dog days of summer” are upon us. As the unrelenting heat, humidity and pandemic affect our patience, irritability, frustration and arguments might increase. Our loved ones most often receive the brunt of our discontent.
Conflict, per se, is not bad for a relationship. In fact, occasional conflict in a relationship can be healthy to clear the air over annoyances or grievances that have been festering.
Conflict becomes unhealthy when it predominates in a relationship or when there is yelling, throwing things, hitting, threats, intimidation, or any other form of verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. The “silent treatment,” where one person sulks for days without speaking to the other, trying to punish the other person for some unspecified hurt, is another manifestation of unhealthy conflict.
People who engage in these unproductive, harmful attempts to make their needs and wishes understood in a relationship most likely have not learned other strategies that work better for them. Amicable conflict resolution strategies can be learned; several examples are compromise and collaborate.
In the compromise style, individuals each give up something of less personal value for something of greater value to him or her. This style lends itself to conflicts around household responsibilities, for example. If a clean, neat house is important to a family, they can divide up the chores by trading off more odious for less odious tasks (e.g., “I’ll clean the kitchen if you clean the bathrooms.”)
For conflicts that have important ramifications for the relationship, necessitating whole-hearted agreement, collaborative conflict resolution is an effective approach that builds a sense of teamwork in the collaborators while they amicably resolve the conflict.
Collaborative conflict resolution involves defining the conflict as a problem for both parties and then solving the problem as a team. The most common topics for couple arguments are money, parenting, sex and in-laws.
Let’s assume a couple is beginning to argue about a money problem because they have different approaches to money: he is a spender, and she is a saver. Using collaborative conflict resolution, this couple could formulate their money problem to embrace his way and her way at the same time. The problem then becomes, “How can we pay our bills, purchase the goods and services we need, and save for the future?”
Framing the problem this way joins both people as a team against the external problem – their finite financial resources. They can then put their minds together to brainstorm possible solutions to this problem and choose the best ones.
Conflicts in a relationship are normal and healthy. Moreover, there are strategies for resolving conflicts that result in win-win outcomes and even enhance the quality of the relationship.
Helene Stoller, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and owner of Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton. firstname.lastname@example.org, scpsychologist.com.