The Relationship Conflict

Posted on April 26th, 2019

The basic relationship conflict isn’t about money or how to raise the kids. It isn’t about how to deal with household chores or whose family to visit on holidays. It’s the conflict each of us carries in ourselves, the conflict between belonging and separateness, between vulnerability and emotional safety. 

We get into relationships to expand out of our separate lives by joining with someone else. Relationships create belonging, help us stave off loneliness, and give us the added capabilities of another person in facing life’s challenges.

But relationships also require us to be vulnerable, to open our hearts to another person. By the time we reach adulthood, our ability to be open with another person—particularly someone we have an ongoing relationship with—is tempered by all our past experiences of being hurt when vulnerable. When we meet someone special enough to make us want to put down our barriers, we at first feel liberated from them. But as our relationship develops, we inevitably pick up at least some of these barriers again.

This is due to the unavoidable relationship conflict––to trust and potentially be hurt, or to withhold and be safe but disconnected. While we can’t escape this conflict, we can develop strategies for dealing with it, choosing our own place to stand on the continuum between avoiding intimacy and embracing vulnerability. 

Some people choose to emphasize separateness. They might do this by minimizing the time they have to spend in their relationship through overwork or outside activities such as hobbies or community volunteering. Or they are around but unavailable, buried in a basement project or reading the world’s longest novel or watching endless tv. Or they are ready to relate, but only about logistics or sports or politics.

Others focus on belonging and vulnerability. They don’t avoid the conflicts, and they do get hurt. But when there is a misunderstanding which wounds, they talk openly about it, both the causes within each person and how it plays out between them. They learn from what happens and try to not repeat falling into the same sticky patterns.

Living at the extreme of either of these approaches results in ongoing suffering. The intentionally closed-off person is always on guard, quick to react, pushing their partner away. Two such people in a relationship often don’t speak for extended periods. The over-vulnerable person is easily wounded by even the slightest self-interest on the part of their partner. Two over-vulnerable people together create endless unresolvable drama.

What works better is collaborating to develop a place in the middle ground between connectedness and separateness. Collaboration is necessary since either partner can swamp the relationship with heightened fears or neediness. Two people working together can build a relationship offering a range of closeness and distance which they can both live with. Then conflicts which come up can be more easily resolved and absorbed. Relationship remains a balancing act, but usually a successful one.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.