Conflict is an opportunity, not a relationship failure.
We heard a lot about the “honeymoon period” when we first got married. A lot of dire warnings and shaken heads, the gist of which was basically, “You might really like each other right away, when his snoring doesn’t annoy you, and her habit of leaving the teabag in the cup still seems cute, but just you wait.” It’s true that many newlyweds have a certain wonderful blindness toward each other’s faults and idiosyncrasies, but ultimately, the message that came from all those well meant warnings was, “You will love each other less when you start fighting.”
It’s taken me a few years to unlearn that message. Now I think it’s the opposite that’s true. The bickering, the conflict, confusion, and frustration that always shows up in a relationship is the place where love has the best opportunity to thrive. Conflict isn’t fun, but doesn’t necessarily chip away at love. If you let it, it allows your love to grow like nothing else could.
I’m not talking about cruelty, violence, rage, hatred, manipulation. Those are never, ever okay, and nothing can justify that behavior, especially toward the person you have vowed to love. But conflict itself isn’t good or bad, it’s neutral. Being frustrated with your spouse isn’t a moral issue.
I honestly used to think it was, and I suspect a lot of us are taught this. We hear, essentially, “When you’re at odds with your spouse, that’s a sign of a flaw in your relationship.” But ordinarily, conflict doesn’t come from lack of love, it comes from lack of understanding. No matter how much you love a person, love just isn’t the same thing as understanding. Love doesn’t remotely guarantee you’ll understand what is in your beloved’s mind, what they’re going through, what they’re trying to say. You have to get all of that good stuff the hard way.
When my husband and I start to get tense with each other, my ordinary response is to do everything I can to get that feeling to go away, including:
- Ignoring the problem
- Distracting both of us until we forget why we were tense
- Conceding to everything he says, just so we can both feel better
And of course:
4. All of the above
Healthy, right? Since I started understanding that conflict is an opportunity, not a relationship failure, I’m less likely to do all of that. I’m more likely to say to myself, “Whelp, this isn’t going to be fun, but let’s get this conversation going — because I want us to learn to understand each other better.”
People are complicated, and no matter how well you know somebody, you have probably only scratched the surface. Understanding your partner’s whole personality, his mode of communication, his thought process, his fears, his goals, his insecurities, his strengths — it’s like learning a foreign language. It takes time, effort, and ultimately, it takes sheer exposure.
It’s in times of conflict that we get the strongest exposure to who we have married. After all, when you’re content, you don’t have much motivation to bring up your insecurities. When you’re relaxed, you’re not worried that the person you love doesn’t understand you.
Speaking as somebody who generally runs at the first hint of conflict, it’s been really good for me to understand where conflict can be an opportunity for greater love, for a stronger marriage. Now, when I feel the tension growing, I know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and that if I want to get to know my husband better, this is how it’s going to happen. It’s a good thought, and it gives me the courage I need to dive in.
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