Wright Foundation | November 19, 2015

Addicted to Conflict?
Here’s How to Save
Your Relationship

Many of us fear conflict. We take it as a sign our relationship is doomed or damaged, so we avoid it. We hold back from engaging with our partner because we’re afraid of fighting—yet, we end up feeling disconnected when we do.


What happens at the other end of the spectrum, though? What happens when it seems like all you do is fight or when it feels like the only way our needs are being met and we’re being acknowledged is when our partner is angry?

In our forthcoming book, The Heart of the Fight, Judith and I discuss some of these themes surrounding relationship conflicts. We talk about the rules of engagement and fighting fair. We also talk about the ways conflict can actually strengthen your relationship—because when you’re fighting, you are engaged.

In the first years of a relationship (even the first ten), we’re engaged in a control struggle and we’re trying to find our footing and balance of power. We want to be loved in an open and honest way, and to be seen for who we really are in the here and now. Our partner wants the same and we’re pushing each other back and forth in this battle to see if we can test each other. We’re trying to see if our partner will really meet our yearnings.

Through this testing and conflict, trust is built—and respect. I’ve talked about the ways our relationships are both a crucible that forms us and a womb that nourishes us. It’s a place for transformation, where we can learn and grow, and yes, transformation causes heat and conflict.

What to Do When You Want a Partner to Change

One common source of conflict is the desire to change or modify the behavior of a partner. Maybe you’re a vegetarian and they’re a meat lover or maybe they’re a sports fanatic and you want your Sundays quiet, spent reading The New York Times together and going to brunch with friends.

Whatever the behavior, we need to examine our own motivations. Are we jealous of our partners’ hobbies and habits? Do we want to change the behavior because we’re concerned about their health? Is it a moral issue?

Here’s the deal: if our partners change something simply for us, they’ll probably resent us for it. If we ask them to change and they don’t, then we’ll resent them. Thus, a conflict is born.

First of all, you simply can’t change your partner (but you will make each other miserable trying to force it). You can support your partner, enabling him or her to reach a place where they’re prepared for transformation, but even the most annoying habit in the world can’t be changed because you argue it so or withhold until they give in.

Reframe your approach and consider the work you need to do for yourself. What are your yearnings? How do they shape your feelings? We all bring yearnings into a relationship and a hope that our yearnings will be met. If we’re clear and up front about those yearnings, we can assume goodwill on the side of our partner and know they want to make us happy, just as we want for them.

You both may be different people who enjoy different things, but accepting your partner for who they truly are and respecting these differences will go far. If it’s a health issue (your partner overeats, smokes or drinks) then consider what comfort they might not be receiving on your end. The next time they’re going to reach for something to soothe their yearnings, how can you soothe them instead?

How to Break Old Patterns

We all come into relationships with baggage. Most of our early personality traits and desires are formed well before adulthood. If your parents withheld affection or modeled a relationship where fighting was the norm, you might see these patterns emerge in your adult relationships.

It’s not about dwelling on where this conflict is coming from and shifting the blame to our parents, but rather, it’s about understanding it and then figuring out if you’re using conflict as a platform to deepen your engagement. Ask yourself what you’re fighting for and if you’re making progress.

Some conflicts can be long lasting and in-depth. It doesn’t spell doom for the relationship. Fighting fair and honoring the rules of engagement will keep your fights from becoming a standoff where you end up spinning your wheels.

Follow These 7 Rules of Engagement:
  1. Minimize the negative.
  2. Accentuate the positive.
  3. No one gets more than 50% of the blame.
  4. You must take 100% responsibility for your own happiness.
  5. Express and agree with the truth.
  6. Always fight FOR something, not against; and
  7. Assume goodwill.

If you follow these rules, your conflicts will become more productive and growth focused. You’ll find you’re engaged in respectful discussion (even if it’s harshly worded and impassioned) and you’ll walk away stronger.

Meshing Your Personalities

We all have different personalities, different backgrounds and different yearnings than our partner. Judith is an Energizer and I’m a Regulator. We spent years in therapy and we’ve seen several different couples’ counselors—some who even told us we should just cut our losses because they couldn’t see we were actually using conflict to keep us more deeply engaged.

When it comes down to it, there are plenty of things that can irritate us in relationships and breed conflict. We are different people who are trying to work together on a shared vision. Understanding your personality type and your triggers, and being honest and open will help you work out anything that may arise.

The good thing about conflict is it means you are connected. You’re fighting for something. Make sure you’re both fighting FOR the relationship rather than against each other and you will find some common ground.

When a relationship is just starting out you want to test it even harder. You want to know it will stand the test of time and endure. Engage in deeper conflict as you’re figuring out where you’re headed. If you’re both committed to growing and transforming together, then conflict will make your relationship even stronger.

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Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.