Some people assume that healthy relationships are without disagreement, argument, conflict, or confrontation. Happily for us all, this is simply not the case. I was a victim of that delusion for oh, say thirty years or so. But eventually, I had to consider the possibility that avoiding conflict in relationships was at least partially responsible for my quiet desperation, chronically unmet needs, and perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction.
I’m here to tell you that conflict not only isn’t unhealthy but is actually a requirement for true intimacy and authentic, human connection. But you gotta know how to fight.
Conflict Resolution Styles and Attachment Theory
I wanna get my needs met, so if one of us has to lose, it’s gonna be you! This is often characteristic of an avoidant attachment style. Avoidants are people who, for good reason, have a strong desire for safety and protection in relationships. The result is that they are usually willing to sacrifice closeness and connection in order to get what they need. They generally have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of others, which lends itself to a win/lose dynamic.
Even more so, you can count on narcissists to fight for the win/lose because they feel their very survival hinges on having power over others. And while I do not condone narcissistic abuse, this too (like any human behavior) makes perfect sense in light of whatever neglect, abuse, and trauma those people suffered as children. I do not agree with the claim that all avoidants are narcissists, although I see how someone could jump to that conclusion.
Of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn trauma responses, these are your fighters.
I hate conflict and I don’t wanna upset you, so I’ll just take the loss. You win. Let’s move on. You may have guessed that this sounds unmistakably like an anxious attachment style. Anxious folk, also for good reasons, have a strong desire for connection and positive regard from others. Hence, they have the greatest propensity for self-sacrifice and self-abandonment. Anxious attachment is characterized by a negative view of the self and a positive view of others. So this, too, makes good sense.
There are many different types of codependency and not all employ the lose/win technique. However, the people-pleasers, fixers, helpers, peace-keepers, motherers, martyrs, and don’t-rock-the-boaters are typically first in line to take the L.
This is often a fawning trauma response, but could also be a flight or a freeze adaptation — all of which forfeit the battle.
If I can’t ______, nobody can! People with a disorganized attachment style are often survivors of various types of neglect, abuse, abandonment, or enmeshment. The need for connection nor protection was met with consistency during their formative years, and healthy relationships weren’t modeled for them. They learned that people can’t be trusted and relationships aren’t safe. So, unfortunately, these types usually take conflict in relationships as an opportunity to roll a hand-grenade into their own house and burn it all to the ground.
These people might appear to be anxious, avoidant, narcissistic, codependent, bipolar, self-destructive, or any number of things (hence the name “disorganized”). Likewise, they may display any type of trauma response, depending on the day of the week and what they had for breakfast that morning.
I wanna get my needs met, but I also want the same for you. Let’s work together to find a reasonable compromise that feels safe and respectful for both of us. Those operating from a secure attachment style value both connection and protection, but aren’t willing to sacrifice one for the other. They value themselves and their partners as equals and don’t believe there should be winners and losers in a relationship.
Secure folks treat conflict in relationships as an opportunity to learn more about their partners, grow closer together, and create more joy and satisfaction. Even if they’re triggered or upset, they’ve got enough self-awareness, self-compassion, and emotional maturity, plus the tools to regulate their nervous system to keep the lizard brain from taking them on a wild ride.
As you can see, your attachment style (which is already identifiable by the time you’re a toddler) is largely responsible for how you handle conflict in relationships. And since the three conflict resolution styles resulting from insecure attachment are as ineffective as they are unsustainable, it’s a really good idea to learn about your attachment style (take the quiz). That way you don’t unwittingly suffer through an entire lifetime of shitty relationships that all end in heartbreak.
Relationships Worth Fighting For
If you don’t wanna be in a relationship with someone, there’s really nothing to fight about. Just fucking leave already. However, if you do wanna be in a relationship, there are two distinct possibilities.
The first is that you don’t care if your relationship is healthy. You just wanna get your needs met by any means necessary.
Maybe you just want fun, sex, or companionship. Eye-candy. Arm-candy. Someone to take care of you and buy you shit. You’re afraid of being alone. You need validation. Maybe you’re literally a predator who wants to use people and throw them away when you’re done. Hey, different strokes for different folks, I ain’t here to judge.
But if you’re in this first category, you probably want minimal investment with maximum returns. So it’s not likely that you actually care about your partner or your relationship outside of what they can do for you. This means you’ll be unwilling to sacrifice, compromise, fight fair, or work towards a win/win solution. You just wanna ride til the wheels fall off.
And to be fair, every human being is exactly this selfish and self-centered at one point in their lives. But some people learn, grow, and mature in a nurturing environment while others are denied the opportunity (i.e., “adult children” and trauma survivors).
The second possibility is that you truly want a healthy relationship and are willing to go to any length to get it. If this be the case, you’ve gotta have a win/win mentality. The common welfare of your relationship absolutely must come first. Please trust me when I say that any other method is doomed to failure.
Learning How to Fight
First of all, having an insecure attachment style doesn’t mean you’re screwed. It’s just a condition you gotta learn to manage.
Like type one diabetes, for example. If you have full knowledge of the disease and take appropriate measures to monitor your blood sugar and insulin levels, you can live a long and healthy life. If you don’t treat your diabetes, however, it can shut down your vital organs and destroy you.
Insecure attachment is similar. If you know the symptoms and how to treat your condition, you can have long, healthy relationships. If not, insecure attachment will for sure corrode every relationship you set foot in.
Following are things you’ll have to learn if you wanna fight well and come out on the other side with a stronger relationship. I’ll include some tips and tricks that I have found most beneficial.
Know Thyself and Know Thy Partner
I recommend sitting down with your partner and discovering together what your attachment styles and go-to conflict resolution styles are. Read up on your own, as well as your partner’s attachment style (I’ve linked articles to each insecure attachment style in the first section above). Then make a mutual commitment of holding each other accountable to a win/win approach when conflict arises.
Make a list of you and your partner’s triggers. What types of things tend to send either one of you into a blind rage, shame spiral, or emotional shit storm of some sort? Not feeling seen and heard? Being talked over or interrupted? Feeling micromanaged or smothered?
Brainstorm. You can probably help each other identify some triggers. And to be clear, this is not about blaming, shaming, or accusing your partner of anything. Try to be as detached and objective as possible. When I feel this way, this is how I react. When this happens, this is how I feel.
Look at you, being vulnerable and getting to know each other on a deeper level. I like how this is going already.
Know Thy Feelings and Needs
It’s helpful if you know how to identify feelings besides mad, sad, and glad. You can reference the Center for Nonviolent Communication feelings inventory, the feelings wheel, or Brené Brown’s list of 30 core emotions. Whatever blows your hair back. But I recommend bookmarking, printing, and studying these things — even using them in conversation with your partner.
Also, you must know that feelings are your body’s biofeedback system that alerts you of the quality of your self-care. When your needs are satisfied, you feel lovely. When your needs are not satisfied, you feel shitty. That’s how being sentient works.
Conflict arises in relationships when one or both partners are living with unmet needs. So I suggest studying and using this needs inventory the same way. If you don’t even know what your unmet needs are, what are you going to tell your partner? “I’m unhappy, fix it”? Surely, you can do better than that.
Small children throw temper tantrums because they don’t know how to express their feelings or state their needs. Adults do the same shit for the same reason. But you can grow up whenever you’re ready.
Know Thy Lane and Stay the Fuck In It
Speaking about your own feelings, thoughts, and experiences using “I-statements” is safe. There is nothing to argue about. “I feel sad,” is an objective fact that doesn’t require a response or rebuttal from your partner. It’s vulnerable, honest, humble, and an indication that you want to share your feelings with them.
“You make me sad,” on the other hand, is like hurling a molotov cocktail through the front window of your relationship. It blames your partner, makes them responsible for your feelings (which they aren’t), turns you into a victim (which you aren’t), and shames them for being a deadbeat. This conversation already sucks, and you’re only four words in.
This is the difference between an I-statement and a you-statement. It’s the difference between starting a conversation and starting a fight. Between communicating your feelings and your expectations. Personal responsibility and personal attack. An I-statement sets a boundary. A you-statement violates a boundary.
This is so important to understand.
If you have to use the word “you,” let it go something like this: “When you don’t introduce me to your friends, I feel insignificant.” Can you see how this is still just stating an objective fact? Definitely a world of difference from, “You never introduce me to your friends and it makes me feel like you don’t even care.”
Let’s dissect this flaming bag of poo for pedagogical purposes…
“You never introduce me to your friends.” Really? Not one single time did they introduce you? I’m willing to bet that’s not a true statement. Anytime people use global qualifiers like “always” and “never,” they’re usually talking out of their… umm… emotions.
“It makes me feel.” No, it doesn’t. No one can make you feel. Stop saying that shit.
“Like you don’t even care.” This sounds a whole lot like an accusation to me. It’s a little shamey around the edges too. At the very least it’s weaponized speculation about your partner’s intention.
Skillful conflict resolution empowers your partner to meet your needs, it doesn’t berate them for being human and falling short.
Strategies for Navigating Conflict in Relationships
Assume Positive Intent
Always operate from the assumption that your partner wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt you. Unless you shacked up with an ax murderer, this is usually not the case. It can help to say this explicitly at the beginning of a conversation. “I know it’s never your intention to hurt me, but when you left without saying anything, I felt abandoned.”
Check-In on the Sensitivity Scale
Tell each other where you currently are on a sensitivity scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is “You can tell me anything and I’ll take it like the Dalai Lama,” and 10 is, “It doesn’t matter what you say, I hate the world right now and I wanna destroy something beautiful.” Knowing where y’all currently stand is super helpful. In some cases, it may be wise to postpone your chat to a later time.
Start With Love
Before having a difficult talk, you can start by saying, “I like (or love) you, and care about you very much, which is why I wanna have this conversation. I’m gonna share some things that are hard for me to say and might be hard for you to hear, but my goal in communicating them is to improve our relationship.”
Be a Decent Human Being
If you can avoid it, try not to blame, shame, gaslight, lie, minimize, rationalize, accuse, name-call, belittle, yell, get super defensive, be sarcastic, or physically aggressive. Those are weapons of war. They don’t belong in a healthy relationship.
A lot of people throw on their armor, put up walls, and completely stop listening to the other person once the first shot is fired. That’s more of a survival mode trauma response than a strategy for healthy discourse. Practice repeating things back to your partner. “I hear you saying _____, is that right?” Ask clarifying questions. If you don’t understand how they feel or what they need, you’re probably not headed for a win/win.
Use Your Body
You can ask for a hug at the beginning, middle, or end of a tough talk if that feels safe and appropriate. Know that your partner might say no, and that’s ok. But when you hug someone, you’re literally pressing your heart against their heart. It can take the edge off and create a sense of safety and mutual respect.
You can put your hands on each other’s hearts and just stand there and breathe for a while — either looking into each other’s eyes or with eyes closed. This is grounding and helps co-regulate your nervous systems.
Laying down on the floor, couch, bed, or whatever while you talk is also grounding and disarming. It’s harder to be an invulnerable shit when you’re physically in such a vulnerable position.
Go for a walk. Motion helps us move our emotion. Plus walking next to someone usually feels less confrontational than a face-to-face encounter.
If you feel completely overwhelmed and need a breather, throw up the universal timeout “T” with your hands to pause the convo. Then you can say, “This is too much for me right now. I need some time to process. Can we resume this talk after _____?” After five minutes, after I eat, after I sleep on it, after I talk to my therapist, whatever.
Say Magic Words
If you’ve both gone silent because you know opening your mouths will only result in saying something awful you’ll regret, try saying, “What can I do in this moment to bring us closer together?” That works wonders.
Or, after hearing your partner out, instead of trying to argue your case, be right, make them wrong, or logic them to death, say, “What can I do to help?” This one never fails.
Both of these statements are full of humility, care, kindness, vulnerability, safety, and love. And they’re super empowering to your partner! You’re basically handing them a blank check. If they rip it up, that’s on them. But if they ask you to do a thing, you gotta stand by your word.
My wife and I make time to talk about our feelings every week. Sometimes we go for a walk. Other times we have tea. But it’s a regularly scheduled activity. Vulnerability and tough conversations are an expectation because we both want our marriage to not suck. And the more we practice expressing our feelings and stating our needs, the better we get at it.
How to Know if You’re Doing It Wrong
Relationship researcher John Gottman calls criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” When these things show up consistently in relational conflict, that thing is going down in flames. For sure.
Instead, see if you can punctuate your difficult conversations with kind gestures, compassion, gratitude, humor, generosity, love, humility, etc. Creating positive feelings around tough talks is certainly a win/win strategy. If you’re doing it right, you should feel better after the conversation than you did when you started — not the other way around.
If conflict in relationships is a harmful force that drives you apart from one another, you probably don’t know how to fight very well. And if studying and practicing the suggestions in this article doesn’t get you far, I recommend seeing a therapist or relationship coach who can get you tuned up.
If conflict results in deeper understanding, intimacy, vulnerability, honesty, and brings you closer together, then you’re definitely doing it right.