Many years ago I stumbled upon a truth that I have come to rely upon now when working with couples in marriage counseling in Orange County, CA. Back then I worked as a camp counselor under the searing summer sun in Texas. With an interest in dating the other counselors at the camp, I developed a quick way to determine which ones I wanted to spend more time with by starting a practice called “dumping the canoe.” I would take a prospect out on a canoe ride and at some point tip the canoe. What I was looking for was someone who would be upset, but be willing to talk, work through it and then be able to happily continue on together sopping wet.
You see, without conflict, there is NO possibility of building trust and closeness in a relationship. Yes, I meant exactly what I just wrote. You just don’t know what kind of a partner you have until there are problems or differences in wants and needs. Only then do you find out if you have a partner who is willing to stay engaged, negotiate fairly and be willing to truly forgive so you can move forward as an even better team.
When couples in counseling or marriage counseling with me say they never have conflict, then I wonder who isn’t showing up in the relationship to state their wants/needs, and what they fear will happen if they did. People who call themselves “easy-going” are often either unclear about what they want, or are used to complying with what others want to avoid conflicts. Unfortunately, attempts to avoid conflict usually lead to even larger conflicts, or the relationship fizzling away to nothing with no explanation. Both are the beginnings of an end.
Conflict is not bad. No, that’s not a typo. Conflict simply means that either you don’t really understand each other yet, or what you want and think and feel is different the other person. Of course, this is going to happen since no two people are the same, even in a marriage. It’s how the conflicts get addressed that says how likely the relationship is to succeed. All conflict holds the potential to increase trust and connection in a relationship when both are invested in understanding and respecting the other person.
Marriage researchers, John and Judy Gottman have done a lot of research with couples in Washington state. They have found that about 70% of the conflict issues couples bring into marriage counseling will never or could never change. They like chocolate, are financially conservative, like the color red, and need the thermostat set higher etc. It just is what it is. Even more interesting is that it didn’t matter if the couple were angry and loud during a conflict. It actually had nothing to do with marital success or satisfaction. What mattered most was when both believed “My partner is truly interested in and values my perspective.” These were the couples the Gottmans find will rate themselves as happy and describe the relationship as thriving.
I have found the same to be true with the couples I see as a psychologist in Orange County. Whether you live here in the OC or under the searing Texas sun, I believe, people want to be understood and appreciated for who they are by the people that matter the most to them. When that’s true, then differences aren’t really problems anymore, and a solution to moving forward as a “team” is much more simple. If you want some guidelines for how to do this you can check out my article on “Communication tools” and also “Can you hear me now?: going beyond communication tools.”