June 20, 2024
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Healthy Conflict: Oxymoron or Opportunity to Connect?

In recent months, we have certainly noticed large amounts of family conflict that has been increasing with the ongoing COVID fatigue. COVID has taken a toll on many of us in different ways. We have turned inward to spend more time with our family, and while this has provided us with many opportunities for connection and closeness, we may have also noticed an increase in the conflicts we have among our family members. I would like to present a model for how we can make sense of conflict, which may enhance our ability to see it as an opportunity to deepen some of our closest relationships.

Consider the following examples of moments of conflict that might take place in a family:

Example 1: It is the morning, during the usual hectic and busy morning routine. As the kids are bustling to get ready for school, your two year old decides that this is the day he must put on his shoes by himself. You make an attempt to plead with him rationally, “Come on, Jakey, we are late for school, let me just put them on super quick…” “NO,” he exclaims and proceeds to move away his foot, as you attempt to grab it, intending to slip the shoe on quickly. It does not end well. Either you shove his foot into his shoe while he is kicking and flailing, crying, wailing and fighting you, or you allow him to take his time putting his feet in his shoes, likely raising your voice commenting how slow he is. You may be late or just give yourself a coronary with how stressed you’ve become. In any case, you do not feel good about this.

Example 2: Your 14-year-old wants to go out on a Saturday night to hang out at her friend’s house along with a group of friends. While your daughter has been pretty good about masking up when she is out, you know her friends and their families tend to be more lax. The friend, whose house she is going to had COVID in March, as did her family, and they are not concerned about catching it again. You feel uncomfortable about her going out with a group of unmasked teenagers in someone’s house. After a brief back-and-forth, she storms off to her room, yelling, “It’s not fair” and that you are causing her to lose all of her friends and ruining her life.

Example 3: Your spouse goes out and spends several hundred dollars during an “ABSOLUTELY AMAZING” Black Friday sale. You cannot believe it. You have had this conversation a million times and have agreed that any purchases each of you want to make that are over $150, you will “check in’’ beforehand. When you get the notification on your phone you storm into the study, beside yourself with how exasperated you feel! You wave your phone yelling about how enraged you are. What the heck is wrong that your spouse just doesn’t “get it”! How many times do you have to repeat yourself before your partner gets it? You slam the door, storm down the stairs and retreat to the quiet of your basement or go out for a drive to cool off as your head feels like it is going to explode.

Example 4: After planning and cooking an amazing gourmet meal in your house, your family shows appreciation by enjoying the meal and complimenting the chef on what an amazing job you did. After the meal, however, they all get up and leave their dirty dishes and silverware at the table. Shocked and irritated, you wonder how they could be so ungrateful as to eat and walk away, not thinking about all the time and effort that you spent preparing this wonderful meal. Too proud and angry to ask for assistance, you start slamming doors and throwing dishes angrily into the sink, stomping around the kitchen infuriated. After seven minutes of this, your spouse peeks in and innocently asks if everything is okay. You scream out, “Are you kidding me?” and storm off in anger upstairs with a dramatic door slam for effect.

These four scenarios, or some variation of them, are different examples of what I imagine are some typical conflicts that people encounter within their families. Most of us have the same five or so conflicts that may continue to appear and reappear in different ways. I would like to propose that there are some psychological health benefits to conflicts that occur. To help illustrate that point, imagine the opposite scenario. Let’s say every time you asked your spouse or child to do something, they would immediately agree. Before you get super excited about this prospect, think about it for everything that unfolds, every scenario. Imagine your spouse would never challenge you on anything. Is it possible you would feel flatlined, or even bored by your life? In not being faced with opposition, you would feel like your life doesn’t challenge you and hold meaning in some way. In the model of a healthy conflict, you can feel challenged in some important way that empowers you to stretch your mind to think about things in different ways and see the world in new and different ways. Noticing a conflict between oneself and another recognizes that we are each capable of independent ideas and that we can respect differences in one another.

If we can establish that the model of healthy conflict can exist, let’s figure out a way to differentiate between healthy, or constructive, conflict, and unhealthy, or destructive, conflict. To that end, let’s take a bit of a detour to a related but slightly different topic: that of anger. Anger is something we all feel; it is in reaction to feeling attacked, and wounded, and at its most basic state it is a reaction to try to protect the self. If you were attacked by a bear in the woods, you would naturally go into fight or flight mode; getting angry serves a similar protective function where you can be mobilized to protect yourself in some constructive way. When we feel attacked, even by our loved ones, we likely respond in a self-protective angry and defensive stance. Like conflict, anger is primarily self-preservative and speaks to our ability to protect ourselves in a most basic way when we feel attacked. That being said, I am sure we all know our anger can get us into deep trouble and cause our conflicts to go from constructive to destructive very quickly. So how can we manage our anger constructively to facilitate healthy conflicts?

Here are a few guiding principles when we feel angry, or are experiencing conflict, that can help us stay in the safe zone, where conflict and anger can be seen as constructive and self-preservative:

Principle 1: Anger is a healthy and natural emotion and having conflict is universal and part of every healthy relationship. That being said, anger often doesn’t feel good and can even feel scary. However, if we invite ourselves to accept and embrace our feelings and not suppress them, we are allowing ourselves to be kind to our emotional selves: you can feel anger, it can feel uncomfortable, and you can tolerate it. Adopting the alternative of suppressing our feelings inevitably leads to these feelings building up and later exploding at a time when we feel a total loss of control. This leads us to our next principle.

Principle 2: It is best to try and negotiate conflict when you are not feeling out of control. The danger of anger is not in the feeling of it, but in its expression. Our ability to communicate effectively is much stronger when we are at a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10 than at a 9 or 10. If you are at the point where you are out of control, only destructive consequences will occur if you try to communicate. If you have a rational mind and try to suppress your anger and “suck it up,” use that rational mind to communicate in an open and non-threatening way instead.

Principle 3: If you are out of control, walk away, do not engage. If you don’t feel like you can control what will come out of your mouth or what you will do, it is time to get away and do whatever you need to in order to calm down. It could be taking a walk, going for a drive, playing a mindless game on your phone, writing in a journal, deep breathing, talking to someone else that you trust, or distracting yourself. There is no one tailor-made approach for everyone; think about what would work best for you.

Principle 4: Keep in mind that you will get through this conflict. It may feel painful, or scary, or frightening while you are in it, but knowing that you can and will negotiate this conflict and get to the other side allows you permission to accept it, let it run its course, and engage when you feel ready. Having a conversation before you are ready will lead you to make concessions you may regret, or reignite your explosive anger. When you are truly ready to engage, your conversation will be that much more productive.

Principle 5: When you are sitting and talking, don’t hit below the belt. We all know how to “push the buttons” of our loved ones. We all know their vulnerabilities and they know ours. Going for their most vulnerable emotional place or delivering a psychological punch that is so damaging can absolutely rupture a relationship very deeply, and those wounds can be hard to heal from (think of someone getting hit versus stabbed). No matter how upset you are, make a conscious decision to try to protect the person you love, while protecting yourself. Don’t express the comment that will cause deep levels of anguish and enter the level of cruelty.

Principle 6: Compromising is different than sacrificing. Sacrifice is feeling like you are giving up your own needs and happiness to make the other person happy. This can cause resentment and stress in the long run. Compromise is when you and your partner each show flexibility and openness, but it also takes into account each of your individual perspectives. If you feel closer at the end of the conversation, then you have compromised successfully. If you feel resentful, there is more work to be done. On that note, if you are not sure how you feel you can always say, “Let me think about it.” Thankfully, most problems do not need to be solved immediately.

I believe that by practicing some of these principles you will find that you are less frightened about the notions of anger and conflict, you will feel less out of control and explosive when your anger does hit, and hopefully with time you will see and feel a deepening of your closest relationships.


Dr. Sandler is a psychologist with a practice in Teaneck, NJ. She can be reached via her website at https://www.reflectiontherapygroup.com/. This article is based on a recent talk Dr. Sandler gave on Elie Katz’s Community Mental Health call.

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