The following is an expert from The Emotionally Secure Couple. Chapter 8 deals with conflict. The book can be bought wherever quality books are sold and at our offices.

Storytellers love conflict. Seriously. Think about our modern-day bards—they all tell tales of high conflict. This conflict gives the hero or heroine in the story purpose and meaning. It challenges the heroine to overcome. The hero chases down monsters and faces certain destruction. The consumer of these stories will often sit with rapt attention as the conflict unfolds. Many times, the consumer will relate to the heroine in some way and will seek to tell a similarly great story with their own life. They typically have a problem, though. The great story they want to tell will require them to engage in conflict. They hate conflict. They run from it as though it were a plague promising the most violent death. They believe conflict is the problem. Well, of course, the problem isn’t actually conflict. It’s their belief about conflict. That belief drives our assumptions about conflict and those assumptions ultimately drive our actions regarding conflict. To help me illustrate my point, do me a favor. Take out a piece of paper. Any size will do, but a notebook size is ideal for this exercise. Draw a circle in the middle of it. Write the words “Circle of Conflict” in the middle of that circle. Now populate the rest of the page with everything you do in your normal life. If it’s part of your life, put it on the sheet. Your sheet should look like the drawing below except where mine reads “hobbies,” yours might list the actual hobbies. Now let me ask you a question: What if I told you that the only way to get to the healthy, vibrant relationship you want is to go through that circle? Moreover, you have to go in that circle and stay there until you can solve the conflicts in your life. Almost everyone I meet has an assumption that that circle is the most dangerous place in the world for them to spend time. They avoid the circle of conflict as though death itself inhabits it. It is impossible to live our life outside the circle. We cannot spend our entire life avoiding conflict. This is the root of passive-aggressive behavior. Go back to your paper. Draw a line running around the circle that darts in and out of the circle. This is how almost everyone I come across handles conflict. They get in long enough to feel a little better and then get out. This is destructive to healthy, happy, and thriving relationships because it tells the other person we are more concerned about our own comfort than we are about the well-being of the relationship or them. It makes us untrustworthy to the other person. The best-case scenario is that we have a stockpile of other behaviors to cause the person to believe we are trustworthy. This stockpile may be destroyed when we engage conflict with the other person because we will probably reveal our own deceit. This duplicity will cause pain in the other person. In order to have healthy relationships, we must be willing to do the following three things: Engage conflict in a healthy manner. Stay engaged in conflict long enough to resolve the issue. Find a way to exit the circle of conflict in a manner that reflects the fact that we resolved the issue and leave the issue there. We must find a healthy way to disengage. What If I Could Show You a New Way? Which brings me to my favorite question to ask couples: What if I could show you a way to go through conflict and come out the other side with a stronger relationship? Would you be interested? Okay, that’s two questions, but think about that possibility for a moment. It can literally be life-changing. We have to create a culture in our families and communities that come to appreciate conflict for the beautiful opportunity that it is. Yes, you read that correctly: I believe that conflict is a beautiful opportunity. Conflict lets us know we are being shaped by those we are in a relationship with. We are being changed. Conflict is an opportunity to grow. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to show those we love that we care about them more than we care about our own comfort or more accurately, our discomfort. We say, “I care more about our relationship than I do about seeking perceived safety. I want our relationship to grow and be deeper so I’m going to stay involved in a way that is not destructive and seek to deepen our relationship.” This is vital for relationships to be healthy. Conflict allows relationships to grow and to be strengthened through the process. What’s worse is that when conflict is avoided, it’s often avoided in dangerous and unhealthy ways. We try to suppress our conflict by pretending it doesn’t exist and stuffing our feelings deep down inside of us. Like a poison, it spreads through our bodies, infecting us internally before eventually destroying us externally. We must learn how to handle conflict, and we must enter the circle of conflict long enough to solve the conflict. Sometimes, we don’t try to suppress the conflict. Sometimes, we try to avoid conflict by razing the ground it stands on. We attempt to avoid conflict by scaring it. We falsely believe we can scare conflict by scaring the people with whom we have the conflict. We do this by yelling at those people or using sarcasm. We attempt to hurt them because we believe that will give us safety. We’re wrong, but we do it again and again. Like a scratched LP, we return to the same tired and skewed tune because we view conflict as threatening and lack the emotional intelligence to differentiate between those we love and conflict. It is this ability that we must cultivate and develop. At least part of my mission is to show you that conflict is good. Conflict is necessary to create healthy relationships. Society has become so conflict adverse that we are killing relationships with the very means with which we are trying to protect them. Conflict has several benefits: 1. Conflict tells the other person that you love them more than you love your own comfort. Everyone knows we hate conflict. Your partner knows how much you hate it (even if you’re running around blowing people up and loving the drama, which is another day). By engaging properly in conflict, we tell our partner we love them more than we love our own security. You are telling your spouse you love them and will engage in difficult things to grow that love. 2. Conflict allows your relationship to grow by moving both parties into deeper water. So often, we want a deep relationship, but we’re afraid to wade into the deep waters of our emotions to experience it. This creates a shallow that seems safe but in reality is truly dangerous. You simply cannot have a deep relationship that never leaves the shallow waters of total agreement. Whenever I do premarital counseling, I will ask the couple to tell me about their last two fights. To be certain, I get nervous if they tell me that they fight all day, every day. I get more nervous if they tell me that they never fight. I wonder how deep their relationship can truly be if they’ve never pushed off shore and truly plumbed the depths of their emotions. 3. Conflict helps each person to become a better version of themselves. Conflict shapes you. It changes who you are and who you are becoming, if you allow it to do so. The difficult reality is that even if you don’t want it to change you, it still will. Avoiding conflict will just change you into someone you don’t want to become. The same result will happen if you simply engage in conflict but refuse to process it. Processing is accepting what happened and the feelings that were experienced. Processing starts with the experiences and feelings and ends with a discussion about what kind of person you want to be and how you want to react to those experiences and feelings. 4. Conflict teaches us to differentiate our emotions. One of the best abilities that everyone can foster is to differentiate between emotions. This is often very difficult because we are uncomfortable dealing with any emotions, including our own. Because of this discomfort, we often run to the delusional safety of the emotions that we use the most. One of the most common emotions we feel in a relationship is fear (vulnerability is probably more accurate), but we tend not to know how to deal with fear so we deal with it by being angry—because anger is what we are used to using. Like a dog that sits on your lap sharing its heat and then suddenly gets up. When your dog leaves, you shiver. When your anger leaves, it too often leaves you with a shiver. That shiver scares you and you react by fueling more anger. 5. Conflict fosters teamwork. There is no better skill for a couple to develop than teamwork. Teamwork is what allows them to handle the difficulties of marriage and parenthood. Indeed, teamwork helps them to navigate the difficulties of life—and life is hard. Marriage and family are about connection. Teamwork is connection. 6. Conflict develops our self-control. We all have a built-in response to conflict. For many people, that response is destructive to the health of their relationships. Engaging in conflict affords each of us the opportunity to develop our use of those responses. That is the epitome of self-control. 7. Conflict creates a repository of memories that affirms to us that our relationship is secure. One of the key signs of a healthy couple is the litany of memories they have regarding conflicts that have been resolved. Your willingness to engage in conflict with your loved one is, in a very real sense, exposure therapy. I have a friend who loves spending time in nature. He recently bought a portable hunting stand for his photography. There was one major problem: he’s extremely afraid of heights. He went up just a few feet and began to have a panic attack. He talked himself down but was ready to quit the use of the stand. A friend encouraged him to keep it and go up again. The next time, he went up a few more feet and just sat there. Eventually, he was able to use the stand as it was intended. What he did to himself was an example of exposure therapy. He allowed his body to experience that which it feared and mentally catalogued the results. As a result, he was creating a cache of memories that told his body and emotions that going up that tree was safe. This is what we do when we engage our fear of conflict. There’s a Native-American saying: “The wolf in your head is often louder than the wolf in the field.” I have no idea if that saying is accurately ascribed, but I will say I have found truth in those words both personally and professionally. 8. Conflict creates emotional security. Ultimately, conflict creates emotional security and that is our goal! We cannot have a healthy and vibrant relationship without having gone through conflict. It is impossible. By engaging in the conflict and staying engaged long enough to solve the problem, we create rich soil for emotional security to take root and grow. If you are both willing to engage in conflict without blowing each other up and if you are both willing to sit in the discomfort of conflict and fear of anger that comes with every relationship without demanding false safety by using hurtful words, you can build your own memory list of danger avoided by being together. This is the essence of emotional security. Handling conflict is like any other skill we need. It takes time to learn. It takes practice. Rarely do I find couples willing to practice. Practice requires handling conflict with intentionality. Practice requires forcing ourselves to be proactive until the action we want becomes our reaction. If you don’t practice these tools to improve your relationship, they will do nothing for you. They will simply take up space. Questions for Deeper Interactions: How do you feel about conflict? How does your spouse feel about conflict? How do you feel about the statement that conflict is necessary for a healthy relationship? What actions do you need to take in order to improve your conflict skills?

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