A large body of research in the communication field has focused on and studied conflict, as its such an important as well as unavoidable part of close relationships. Important takeaway there: research has determined that conflict can in fact be quite healthy for and in close relationships.
So, what makes conflict healthy versus unhealthy?
How can you tell the difference?
A few important questions to consider for assessing whether or not a conflict is healthy:
1. Is the disagreement born out of positive intent, care for the relationship, and interest in growth? Or is it coming instead from a place of resentment, disrespect, or bitterness?
2. Is there a constructive purpose to the approaching of ones partner with said issue? Something you are attempting to fix or help get resolved? Or instead, a petty, nagging grievance?
3. How are you speaking to one another? In a kind, patient way? Or in a nasty, verbally abusive, mean way?
4. Are you expressing a need in the relationship to your partner that, at the moment, you feel isn't being met and wish it was?
5. Are you approaching your partner with regards to a way that either: you see them hurting you, hurting themselves, or hurting someone else?
6. Is what you are coming to your partner about an opportunity of growth for them and/or your relationship?
These are some crucial questions to consider when in a disagreement or conflict with someone. And that, sifting through and assessing such, will help you figure out if these are healthy, legit, closeness inducing challenges. Versus, unhealthy, toxic, or damaging ones.
Important but relevant side note: Believe it or not, there are couples who have frequent conflict and yet their relationship is quite healthy and emotionally deep. There are also couples who experience regular conflict who have horribly unhealthy, mismatched relationships. And conversely, there are couples who have hardly any conflict at all but who actually do not have especially healthy or emotionally close connections. No conflict is frequently (though not always of course) a sign of 1. lack of honesty and openness in the relationship and 2. a stifling of desires, needs, or thoughts gone unexpressed.
So really, the question isn't: is there conflict in your relationship.
The real and important question is...what type of conflict(s) is/are they?
And how is the conflict expressed and worked through?
Because all close relationships have conflict, its inevitable. The right conflict though is incredibly constructive, ripe for opportunity for growth both in individuals and for the relationship, and a great thing, a tool towards growing closer with one another in honesty and working together.
So, which kind is yours?
Back to the points I made just above, I will explore each one in a bit of depth...in terms of assessing whether or not the conflicts in your relationship are generally positive or negative ones.
1. Is the disagreement born of positive intent, or bitterness and resentment? Many couples are so steeped in bitterness and resentment with one another that they pick petty fights, and often. This is a strong sign a relationship has reached its end point, a point of no return. When a relationship has become that heavy, so overflowing with bitterness, its probably done (whether or not the couple admits it or not is another story).
However, disagreements that come from positive intent, care for the relationship, and a genuine interest in growth? And between two people who still love, think highly of, and respect one another? This is usually a very good thing. It tends towards leading to their working together, as well as growing with and alongside of one another.
2. Much like gossiping, the way to tell if its harmful, hurtful and generally pointless, versus healthy and normal talking with another person about an issue you are having with someone else, is this: is there a purpose to this conversation?
Meaning, is there a positive outcome, a growth, an acknowledgement and solution, that you are attempting to solve in approaching your partner with this issue? Or instead, is it just a hurtful, pointless argument designed to garner attention and invoke a reaction?
Some examples of constructive things and legit concerns one might approach a partner with:
-I was hurt the other day when you didn't call me after saying you would.
-It was really disappointing when you didn't come over after having said you would that night, something we had been planning on.
-I felt betrayed and deeply hurt when you allowed that friend of yours to talk to me in such a disrespectful way, and you didn't say anything or speak up on my behalf.
-I didn't feel good about how you just spoke to me. It felt hurtful and impatient.
-It makes me feel bad when you are routinely 20 minutes late for our dates, as though you dont value my time.
-I feel sad and distanced from you lately, as you have been working so much. It doesnt feel as though we have had much time to emotionally connect or spend quality time together recently.
Now, some examples of not so healthy, potentially unfair, or unconstructive arguments:
-All you ever do is sit around and do nothing on Saturday afternoons. You are so lazy.
-I obviously cant trust you, because you are friendly with the women you work with.
-Ugh, you are so unintelligent, how can you not understand this?
-You never do anything nice for me anymore.
-Why are you so antisocial?
-Truly arguing angrily about your partner stealing all the covers at night
-I'm annoyed that you dont like soccer because I do too. I wish we could like this together.
The list goes on. Surely one can see, upon reading the two example lists above, its clear the second list is nit picking and/or, circling around what is truly the issue with other things instead. Frequent complaints of this nature typically come from a person who probably isn't that happy, trusting, or healthy in their relationship as of late.
Instead, its likely one that's filled with petty grievances, all of which are just serving to cover up what is probably a relationship that is reaching or has reached its end point. Or, these kinds of arguments can serve as petty dramas, designed to garner the other persons attention. A purposeful attempt at pushing a partners buttons and kicking up dust. Often, these types of arguments result in running around in circles bickering with one another, instead of healthfully articulating whatever the real issue might be.
3. How you and your partner speak to one another during disagreements is important. If, more often than not, there is a lot of putting each other down, voices getting raised, contemptuous comments, bitterness, nagging, criticism, these are all very bad signs. They signify the relationship has taken a swift downturn for the unhealthy and unhappy. Sure, every once in a while, on rare occasions, someone might totally lose their cool and scream. As long as they are apologetic and its truly a very rare occurrence, fine. People can screw up once in a while. We are all human, and sometimes people have moments where they just get really emotional. BUT, this is not a good thing if its something that happens routinely. That would be a major red flag.
If, however, when you disagree, despite being angry, you generally keep your tone calm, focusing the conversation on the concern at hand, explain clearly why you are upset to your partner and how you are feeling, and do so in a respectful manner, this all indicates healthy, constructive, productive problem solving.
4. A big part of relationships is about both giving and receiving with regards to feelings, emotional needs, and desires of and for one another. Further, its also about putting in the effort and energy toward being the best partner we can be to our love. Sometimes, situations or moments will arise in relationships between two people (and this can happen in platonic and familial relationships as well, it isn't just relegated to romantic) when someone feels an emotional need they have isn't being met or respected by the other person. Bringing this up, in a respectful, kind, clear way, is part of healthy and open communication (as well as growth) between two people. Its also a constructive way towards solving whatever is going on with the unmet need.
A few examples could be:
--You know, it makes me feel unloved that we dont kiss often anymore. Might you please put efforts into us expressing physical affection with each other more often than we have been as of late?
--I miss spending time one on one with you. I feel like we haven't done that as much recently, so I am feeling a bit disconnected and distanced from you, more so than usual. Could we make efforts towards changing this?
--It makes me feel unheard and disrespected when I am telling you something and you are glancing at your phone the whole time. Could you please be willing to be fully present and focus more on when we are talking and/or doing something together?
5. Something I have seen a lot of people struggle with, both people I know personally, as well as things I both hear and read about, is telling someone the truth about something harmful or hurtful in their life that may cause them pain. A majority of people tend to shy away from doing this. Not wanting to cause pain to people they love, so instead, they stifle it. They dont say a word, believing that in sparing someone they love a painful truth, that this is what love means. In fact though, real love is the opposite action.
Real love means "risking the relationship," if you will, to tell someone you love where either you see them hurting themselves, or someone else. Stifling it, or shying away from saying the painful truth, this is the opposite of real love. One of the bestselling psychology/self help/relationship books of all time, The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck, talks about this very dilemma. He says exactly this. That real love is risking causing someone you love pain, in the short term by telling them a necessary truth, in order to help them over the long term. This is love. Saying nothing? That is not a loving act. Its allowing someone to continue forward in either action or beliefs that are bringing harm and/or pain to their life and/or someone else's, because you are too afraid to speak up.
Authentic love, is daring to speak up. In a loving, kind, but honest way, telling someone the truth of where they are either: hurting you, hurting themselves, or hurting someone else.
6. Is what you are expressing an opportunity or concern for your partners growth, wellbeing, and/or the growth of your relationship with one another?
If yes, this is a pretty strong indicator that actually, this is healthy, constructive, and ultimately really positive conflict between two people.
One frequent illusion about love in our culture is that love means the absence of conflict. Directly from one of the most highly acclaimed books about love and relationships (The Art of Loving by Erick Fromm), a passage about why conflict in relationships is actually a really good thing (depending on the type of conflict of course, which he explains):
Just as it is customary for people to believe that pain and sadness should be avoided under all circumstances, they believe that loves means the absence of any conflict. And they find good reasons for this idea in the fact that the struggles around them seem only to be the destructive interchanges which bring no good to either one of those concerned. But the reason for this lies in the fact that the "conflicts" of most people are actually attempts to avoid the real conflicts. Instead, they use superficial or minor disagreements on matters which do not lead to any real solution or clarity. Real conflicts between two people those which do not serve to cover up or to project but which are experienced on the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength.
This leads me to emphasize again something said above. Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence. Only in this "central experience" is human reality, only here aliveness, only here is the basis for love. Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge, it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together, even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than fleeing from themselves. There is only one proof for the presence of love, the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned, this is the fruit by which love is recognized.