The next best thing to preventing conflict is having the skills to manage differences effectively. Differences are inevitable in relationships; conflict is optional. It’s the differences in our personalities, styles of relating, perspectives, and temperaments that make us attractive to each other and allow us to have a fuller, more complete experience of life. We rarely are strongly attracted to people who are just like us. Differences turn into conflict when one or both partners try to coerce the other to do, say, think, or feel what they want them to. Conflict occurs when both partners are engaged in a struggle to resist each other’s efforts to become dominated or controlled.
Most of us don’t come into marriage with highly developed conflict management skills, but these abilities can be cultivated through practice on the job. While most couples have an abundance of opportunities to practice the art of conflict management, the great majority of them fail to take advantage of those opportunities. They choose instead to either grudgingly accommodate each other, engage in various forms of manipulation or coercion, or simply practice denial or avoidance. These strategies are all potentially destructive to relationships and often lead to continual cycles of pain, resentment, and alienation. While many couples collude to deny their differences as John Gottman points out in his writings, couples who are most likely to divorce are not those who are most volatile, but rather those with the strongest tendency to avoid dealing with differences.
Some couples are motivated by intolerance, not necessarily of the differences, but rather of the emotional pain that they experience in the face of them. It is often this pain that finally motivates them to learn how to manage their differences more respectfully and responsibly. Many marriages are characterized by defensive, avoidant behavioral patterns that diminish sensitivity to pain and promote a kind of numbness that makes suffering more tolerable. Successful couples, on the other hand, tend to be more honest with themselves and each other in regard to their emotional discomfort. This willingness to feel the pain, rather than to deny it, generates a strong motivation to learn more effective ways of working out their differences.
Relationship differences generally are not “resolved” in the sense of eliminating them, but rather they are held in a context of acceptance, respect and appreciation. Even those differences that are irreconcilable will not necessarily damage, and can even enhance a relationship if they are viewed from this perspective. A key factor in the process of handling differences skillfully is our willingness to be open to learn from one another, to observe the consequences of our actions, and to integrate what we learn into our relationship.
Even the happiest of couples sometimes experience negative emotional states. They just generally don’t tend not to get stuck in them for prolong periods of time. The ability to move quickly through distressful mind states isn’t simply a gift that is possessed by the lucky few, but rather is a capacity that can be developed with practice. By adopting an attitude of acceptance and openness towards our own feelings and those of our partner, we can become less reactive and defensive with each other. Even people with fiery temperaments can learn to smooth out rough edges and often move through painful emotional impasses in minutes rather than days or weeks.
The challenge is often to shift our intention from trying to convert our partner to our point of view, to trying to understand their perspective and see things from their vantage point. We deepen our capacity for empathy with practice and intentionality. Few of us come into adulthood with these capacities fully developed. For most, marriage is the crucible within which we cultivate and strengthen these capacities. And of course other enhancements to our abilities such as individual or marriage counseling, personal growth workshops, books, CD’s, and professional seminars can make a huge difference as well.
While there is no generically “correct” way to resolve differences, successful couples share an underlying respect for the differences between them. It is this perspective more than anything else that allows for the kind of engagement that transforms anger and pain into compassion and gratitude. When we have a clear sense that differences not only needn’t be eliminated but they are valuable and necessary aspects of the relationship, we thrive. And the desire to thrive is one of the primary motivators for getting into relationships in the first place. It does require the willingness to put in the time and the effort, but the payoffs are far greater than the cost of the investment. But don’t take our word for it, find out for yourself.