When people consider the possibility of conflict arising in their relationship, it is normal to become anxious and uncomfortable. Conflict often has negative connotations attached to it. However, conflict can actually be considered a good thing for couples. A chapter published in the Handbook of Family Communication by Dr. Alan Sillers, Dr. Daniel Canary, and Dr. Melissa Tafoya states that the way individuals manage conflict is strongly associated with relational satisfaction.
How can conflict be a good thing? According to Kenneth Cloke in his 2001 book, Mediating Dangerously, when facing conflict, people uncover new choices and have transformation opportunities that allow them to grow and learn about their inner selves. Not only do conflicts create an opportunity for growth of the individual, but they also are an important context for spouses to gauge whether they are in a relatively fulfilling or unfulfilling relationship, according to a 2005 article published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology by Dr. Matthew Johnson and his colleagues. The researchers draw attention to the opportunities that conflicts and problem-solving situations have as areas to target behavioral change. They offer couples an chance to draw attention to the value of prosocial behavior, the containment of negative communication skills (such as anger and contempt), the importance of keeping good will and positive feelings throughout their relationship, and the impact of what one says and how one says it. If couples approach a conflict as a time to catch up, work on their relationship, and plan for the future, their interactions will proceed differently than if conflict is viewed as a time to defend oneself, refuse demands, influence a partner, or avoid relational tensions. The article suggests that expressions of affection, humor, interest or enthusiasm have the power to eliminate the unfavorable outcomes of conflict, even when the couple has a low level of satisfaction with the current state of affairs. These rewarding exchanges during conflict have an influence on marital outcomes (if the couple stays together).
Furthermore, in an article appearing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Dr. Meeks and his colleagues note that perceptions of a partner’s behavior during conflict have a direct effect on relational quality. Dr. Meeks and his colleagues advise that relational satisfaction also encompasses the perception of a partner’s empathy. In a conflict situation, where spouses have competing needs, the level of displayed empathy may cause individuals to judge whether or not their spouse places greater importance on his or her competing needs over concern for the other spouse’s emotional well being. A study performed by Drs. Guerrero and La Valley published in the Journal of Communication Research found that conflict interaction styles expressing feelings, making supporting remarks, and engaging in disclosure are associated with higher levels of relational satisfaction.
So next time you find yourself in a conflict situation with your significant other, don’t panic. Look at your disagreement as an opportunity for transformation and growth. Use prosocial behavior, refrain from negative communication, and be mindful of how you say things. Consider using humor to lighten the mood and take this as an opportunity to show your partner that you are empathetic and care about their wishes and feelings. Conflict can be a good thing when couples are able to use it as an opportunity to work on their relationship, plan for the future, and display caring feelings.
Kate Kenney is a recent graduate of the James Madison University Communication Studies Program Class of 2013, with a concentration in Conflict Analysis and Intervention. Kate is very passionate about understanding the nature of conflict and improving the practice of conflict resolution. She is currently working on a study that focuses on the nature of power within mediation settings and hopes to contribute practical knowledge to the field of mediation. Kate is taking a year off before pursuing a Masters in Communication to expand her knowledge of conflict and continue academic research. She spends her summers interning with the Assistant District Attorney on Martha's Vineyard, MA and plans to pursue her J.D after her M.A to then use her combined knowledge to help make her community a safer place.
- Cloke, K. (2001). Mediating dangerously: The frontiers of conflict resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
- Guerrero, L. K., & La Valley, A. G. (2012). Perceptions of conflict behavior and relational satisfaction in adult parent-child relationships: A dyadic analysis from an attachment perspective. Journal of Communication Research, 39(1), 48-78.
- Johnson, M. D., Cohan, C. L., Davila, J., Lawrence, E., Rogge, R. D., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2005). Problem-solving skills and affective expressions as predictors of change in marital satisfaction. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 15–27.
- Meeks, B., Hendrick, S., & Hendrick, C. (1998). Communication, love, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 755–773.
- Sillars, A., Canary, D. J., & Tafoya, M. (2004). Communication, conflict, and the quality of family relation-ships. In A. L. Vangelisti (Ed.), Handbook of family communication (pp. 413-446). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.