Conflict Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The Good Fight

Call me cynical but I worry whenever I hear a couple say, “we never argue.” Tiptoeing around disagreements might feel good in the short term, but in the long run undermines the quality of the relationship. The pressure to have a fairytale romance is more intense than ever thanks to social media. If one were to believe all the gushing posts about people’s significant other, it would be impossible to imagine anything other than a blissful frictionless co-existence. Cue the champagne and roses.

Contrary to what social media leads us to believe, perfect harmony is not the defining characteristic of a high quality relationship. What matters is not being in sync all the time but how you work through times when you are out of sync. As Drs. Ed Tronick and Claudia Gold noted in The Power of Discord, the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building meaning and trust. Their research found that mismatch—i.e. being out of sync with each other—is to be expected and is the situation over 90 percent of the time. Put simply, there is nothing to worry about if you and your partner aren’t always on the same page. They liken healthy relationships to an imperfect dance:

“An idealized notion of romantic love is conveyed in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing … We get the impression that in good relationships, people step together perfectly in sync. But the partnership of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, where at one point she steps on his toes and he pokes her in the eye, is closer to the truth. The mess of missteps is necessary for the creation of the graceful, coordinated dance of the final scene.”

Apologies to Fred and Ginger, but it’s Jennifer and Patrick we should seek to emulate. Learning how to move through the messiness turns out to be essential for growth and is the building block of an enduring and meaningful relationship.

Tune In

Relationship expert, John Gottman, says the key to reconnecting after a rift or a rupture is attunement. When you are attuned to one another, it’s possible to build trust and move forward.

The acronym ATTUNE explains:

Awareness: Express curiosity and interest about what is going on in your partner’s head. Saying “tell me more” conveys that you care.

Turning Toward: This is key. Rather than turning away or being avoidant, make the decision to be present. Being emotionally available is a choice.

Tolerance: Be willing to consider a perspective that is different from your own. You don’t always have to agree with each other, but it’s always possible to show respect.

Understanding: Listen actively. Make the effort to understand their perspective before launching into your own opinion.

Non-defensive: Hear the other person out and respond without judgement. Paraphrase what they have said to you. Before saying anything out loud, ask yourself, “will my comment add value to this conversation?”

Empathy: Whatever the disagreement, do your best to ensure the other person experiences “felt love.” Empathy can take many forms—it might be in words or actions or gestures.

Attuning to each other unlocks connection, trust and security. It serves as a reminder that you have the ability to overcome problems and navigate challenges. Learning how to make amends also teaches a crucial life lesson: that you have the power to change negative feelings into positive ones. Put differently, your relationship isn’t just happening to you. You have a say in how it unfolds. Disagreements may be inevitable but disrespect is optional.

Perfect Is the Enemy of Good

I cannot help but think that the rise in perfectionism is contributing to unrealistic expectations of relationships. A study published in Psychological Bulletin found that not only do we increasingly demand perfection from ourselves, we demand it from others too. According to the research, other-oriented perfectionists expect the people in their lives to be faultless. When they ask someone to do something, they expect it to be done flawlessly. They believe that the people who matter to them should never let them down. No excuses. I have had patients deeply disappointed by a loved one for failing to meet an expectation the offender was never even aware of. Expecting perfection distorts all of our relationships, not just romantic ones.

In a viral Instagram post, motivational speaker Mel Robbins suggests that instead of demanding people always match your expectations, we should take a more laissez faire approach known as the “let them” theory.

According to Robbins, “If your friends are not inviting you out to brunch this weekend, let them. If the person that you’re really attracted to is not interested in a commitment, let them. If your kids don’t want to get up and go to that thing with you this weekend, let them.” Rather than wasting energy on molding or controlling them, decide how you want to behave in response to their action or inaction. A “let them” mindset allows you to reclaim agency. While it might not apply to all interpersonal situations (alas, one would never want to just let them speak rudely to you) it might also help you make peace with people’s imperfections.

Bottom Line: For better relationships, allow for conflict, focus on attunement, and stop expecting people to be perfect. Remember, you have agency. As the old saying goes, the grass is greener where you water it.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman