When I tell people that it is possible to use conflicts in a relationship to get closer, I am often met with a raised eyebrow of doubt. After all, we’ve learned that conflict is painful and damaging haven’t we? Conflict represents a problem, a rift or a mismatch in how we want to live, doesn’t it?
As I suggested in my previous article (Handling Conflict), it is not conflict itself that is harmful but rather how we handle it. Conflict is inevitable and to be welcomed. It shows we are different and is the source of our attraction. The ideal way to handle a conflict is a collaborative approach which might involve learning new approaches other than my habitual default of avoiding or fighting.
In a collaborative approach we seek to work together on the problem. Our intention is to find a solution that works for both of us and meets as many needs as possible – mine and yours. This might sound naïve and unrealistic – and I would agree if our only experience to draw on is the competitive approach to life most of our brought up on. Yet, although this gets a lot of attention, it is not the dominant way people live together. We are fundamentally social, co-operative creatures.
In our most important relationships I really believe we owe it to each other to try to develop ways that work. Isn’t our intimate relationship the place we can risk being a little naïve and experiment with seemingly unrealistic approaches.
Here are some ideas about how you might approach this.
Don’t settle for compromise
There is a common belief that successful relationships require a lot of compromise. Compromise means both parties gaining something and giving up something else. It is an exchange whereby we balance individual gain and cost so that the outcome is fair and balanced. Compromise is about giving up on the ideal solution and lowering our standards. We don’t need to try too hard to solve the problem.
I know we can do better.
Relationships, at their best, are not places of balanced exchange but involve seeking to find a flow of energy – a togetherness as well as a separateness. They are a coming together for our mutual benefit and not a marketplace.
Find what is most important
We are all driven and enlivened by our needs. We all share the same human needs and it is the place that represents our shared humanity beyond all matters of taste, preferences and opinions. In any conflict we have two sets of needs we are trying to meet – mine and yours. What are they? Put them on the table and then shift perspective to see we are trying to meet not my needs and your needs – but our needs. In fact I cannot meet my needs at your expense as we are connected. Your needs are my needs, and mine are yours.
Aim to satisfy as many needs as you can
Our primary goal should be to satisfy as many of these needs as possible. Every need can be met in a huge variety of ways so the only limit to our solution is found at the boundaries of our creativity. When we keep this aim at the forefront of our working through the conflict then we are constantly striving to find better and better ways to solve it. We are learning about ourselves and each-other. This process can be a deeply connecting one.
Put aside ego
Easy to say but hard to do as our ego tends to come up unexpectedly. It is our ego that wants to win, be seen as powerful or to withdraw for fear of losing the other. Our ego keeps count of which needs are mine and how many are we meeting. It is our ego that keeps track of past agreements and experiences and reminds us of what I gave up last time. Ego is about me and not about you.
Putting ego aside means stepping out of ‘me’ and into ‘we’ and ‘us’.
If the topic is important then it’s worth taking time to explore the ground between us and use our creativity to come up with solutions. If it takes time, then so be it. Creativity requires a pressure free space.
If the topic is not important then why fight about it in the first place.
I have this idea that if we all had a baseline of high levels of gratitude and expressing appreciation then life would be so much more enjoyable and harmonious. Relationships are one place we can easily establish this baseline so that we are often and deeply connecting to what we are grateful for and expressing that appreciation. When we do this, conflicts are so much easier to navigate because we have trust and a general sense of well-being. Conflicts are then mere ripples on the surface and rarely have the possibility to go deep.
I invite you to explore this topic with your partner. How can we better approach conflict in our life?