What Does Healthy Conflict Look Like In A Romantic Relationship?

What makes a relationship good or bad, or even healthy or unhealthy? Most of us would measure our relationship’s failings or successes by the presence – or lack thereof – of conflict. A conflict-free, argument-free, and disagreement-free relationship is the one we’d pick over one laden with petty squabbles and debates any day of the week.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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Shutterstock/Summer loveee

Most of us are trained, conditioned even, to see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs, and when our relationship has no conflict, we’d point to that as a measure of healthiness. But a lack of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean our relationship is flourishing, or that we should always avoid conflict no matter what. There is such a thing as healthy conflict, but what does that look like in a romantic relationship?

Exploring Conflict

Exploring conflict in a healthy way doesn’t mean baiting your boyfriend into a fight or bringing up a previous argument to see if you can win points for your side with new tactics you haven’t previously tried. But there is a way to explore conflict in our relationship, and that starts with first looking at how we approach disagreement.

When you feel an argument or a disagreement brewing with your husband, what’s your go-to response? If you feel like you’re the target of the conflict, you may respond defensively or get angry. You may feel like you’re getting called out for bad behavior, or you may even turn the cold shoulder and refuse to participate in it at all.

Exploring conflict is all about welcoming it, first and foremost. Just because there’s a disagreement or something that upsets us doesn’t mean we have to immediately shut it down or avoid it. When we first try exploring conflict, we should try embracing different responses when we’re confronted with discomfort. If you feel angry or defensive, you don’t immediately need to lash out. Ask your husband or boyfriend for a pause or a break to calm down and gather your thoughts, and come back to discuss things when you’re refreshed. 

Ignoring conflict in your own relationship does not mean that it doesn’t exist or that it will go away if you refuse to confront it.

If your immediate instinct is to shut down and not respond at all, try to communicate why you feel the need to respond this way. Use “I” statements to talk about your own feelings, rather than projecting them onto the other person or attempting to guess how they already think before hearing them explain themselves. 

Above all, don’t be afraid and don’t run away. Ignoring conflict in your own relationship does not mean that it doesn’t exist or that it will go away if you refuse to confront it. Embrace it if you can – it’s an opportunity to see how you and your man resolve issues, how well you work together, and how you might approach similar situations in the future.

How Can Conflict Be Healthy?

Think of every argument or disagreement, petty or otherwise, that you’ve ever had with your boyfriend, fiancé, or husband. Whether it’s where to eat for dinner, whether or not you should go on vacation, or even when you should start trying to have kids or start paying off debt, you have unintentionally revealed something about yourself to that other person.

We think we’re constantly telling the men in our lives who we are verbatim, but that isn’t how communication or even how human nature works. For example, my husband knows I’m not a morning person, not because I wake up every single day and tell him, but because I’m always snoozing my alarm clock, drinking coffee before I talk to him, and generally acting stand-offish for at least a few hours after I get up. We reveal who we are to the people we love not through our words but our actions, and in this way, conflict demonstrates a lot more about our relationship to us than we might initially think. If you’re arguing about having children and your husband says something along the lines of “I don’t really want to have kids,” he might actually be pointing to his own insecurities he developed as a child within his own dysfunctional family rather than making a simple blanket statement.

In every conflict, big or small, some amount of vulnerability is released, whether it’s on our end or theirs. Vulnerability is crucial to the integrity of relationships – for one, you can’t keep yourself a secret to the person who cares for you the most, and secondly, vulnerability builds trust and understanding between two people, putting you both on a separate, more intimate plane from the other relationships in your lives. 

If we’re doing everything we can to avoid conflict, we might also be trying to avoid vulnerability. 

If we’re doing everything we can to avoid conflict, we might also be trying to avoid vulnerability. We might fear being judged or being seen as imperfect or flawed, when in reality, that moment happens in all relationships sooner or later. We might even want to avoid seeing the other person as human and not as the person we’ve placed on a pedestal.

But constantly tiptoeing around disagreements, whether they’re big or small, is a recipe for unhappiness. No relationship can avoid conflict forever, and even though your relationship might seem perfect, it’s built on a superficial reality, not on a sincere understanding between two adult individuals. You might think you’ve curated a perfect, debate-free relationship, when you’re actually lacking communication, trust, and insight into your own behavior.

Navigating Conflict in Your Relationship

This will sound like an oversimplification, but in reality, every conflict in a committed relationship will eventually be meaningless. The argument you have before bed about money or kids or in-laws will seem like the most important fight of your marriage, but you won’t remember it in 10 years or even a few weeks after. That is, of course, as long as you’re both coming from the same place.

The most crucial aspect of successfully navigating conflict in a healthy way is knowing that no matter what’s said or done, the two of you are still a united front in the end. It’s tempting to turn every argument into a “you versus me” debate, but is that really what it’s about? In a committed relationship, especially within a period of conflict, there should be no winners and losers. There is no winning an argument and punishing the loser if both of you are on the same team, and that’s what’s missing from our understanding of how conflict functions within relationships.

Conflict probably scares us because we’re scared of losing the game, when all we should be concerned with is losing the other person.

If we view every situation as win/lose, we’ll always inevitably be holding out for winning the victory for ourselves, and that’s no way to act as part of a team. Conflict probably scares us because we’re scared of losing the game, when all we should be concerned with is losing the other person. Once you can approach conflict with two heads instead of one, it looks a lot more manageable rather than avoiding every fight.

Closing Thoughts

Conflict may tell our boyfriend or husband who we are, but it tells us what kind of relationship we have, too. Do we argue well – i.e., are we respectful and always working toward a resolution? Do we get caught up in hitting low blows below the belt, or are we using conflict to express our vulnerability and build our trust as a couple?

Conflict is probably frightening to us if we’re insecure, have difficulty being vulnerable, or have a history of manipulative relationships. But it speaks a lot to the health of our relationship. Are we confident enough in ourselves and in each other to face it together? Or do we see it as another flaw we need to cover up rather than be honest about?

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