How Much Conflict is Normal in a Relationship?
Updated: Sep 15
Conflict vs. Abuse: What's the Difference?
This can be a troubling question to navigate if you or your partner have a history of abuse in your family of origin or in prior romantic relationships. Abuse, especially when it is prolonged, has the potential to alter a person's body, brain, and nervous system. These alterations can make it challenging for survivors to recognize the difference between normal relationship conflict and abuse.
Guiding Principle #1: Conflict that arises from differences is not the same thing as conflict that arises from abuse.
-- Conflict arising from differences is rooted in the reality that every person is having a unique experience of life based on their personality, history, family, identity, and culture. These experiences are different but equally valid. Differences often show up in the mundane details of life.
One couple told me a story that illustrates this idea. The couple was about to head out for a run. The first partner had the keys in his jacket. The second partner said, "I'll take the keys!" When this happened, the first partner worried that his partner didn't trust him with the keys, and by extension, with important decisions. For the second partner, she had changed into a different pair of running pants with a secure inside zipper that was perfect for the keys. She wanted to make use of this feature of the pants. One interaction with two completely different interpretations. One partner focused on zippers and the other partner focused on trustworthiness.
-- Conflict that arises from abuse often has a distinct feeling of power and influence being grossly misused. Examples of this type of misuse include manipulation, threat, coercion, and gaslighting. Conflict in the context of abuse results in fear for one's safety and sanity. Abuse can take many forms, including physical, sexual, and emotional. All types of abuse are real, even though many of the systems in American society are geared towards validating and responding to physical abuse more so than sexual and emotional abuse.
The rest of this article is speaking to conflict that arises from differences. Conflict that arises from abuse is not okay. If you are experiencing abuse, please get help. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or search for local resources in your area.
Living in a Conflict Avoidant Society
In my experience, white culture values being nice over being real. Of course it is important to be kind and decent. But we can have our differences and still be kind and decent. Sadly, we rarely see this modeled by our leaders, bosses, parents, friends, or partners. As a result, we don't have a framework for engaging in conflict in healthy and productive ways. Instead, normal conflict is stigmatized and anxiety-inducing.
Guiding Principle #2: There is no avoiding conflict when two or more people come together.
-- Differences produce anxiety. It's just not possible to be in sync with another person 100% of the time, or possibly even the majority of the time! The work in relationships is to recognize our differences and tolerate the anxiety that those differences produce.
-- Tolerating anxiety as a first step. In my work as a couples therapist and marriage counselor, my observation is that couples who are stuck in endless cycles of unproductive arguing and fighting don't have the capacity to tolerate the anxiety associated with conflict. The fighting is a form of acting out that protects each partner from more threatening beliefs and fears. Noticing the anxiety, and the fear of the anxiety, are often first steps towards changes. Couples can use couples counseling as a place to practice noticing these responses, and practicing ways to cope, in the present moment during the therapy session.
-- Socialization around conflict. When couples can look honestly at their socialization around conflict and are willing to explore and practice a more conflict-positive mindset, a lot becomes possible. This is not an easy task and I applaud couples who are willing to do it. It can require a deconstruction of belief systems that have been communicated to a person both implicitly and explicitly by important figures in their personal and professional lives.
Relationship Conflict Is Normal
In a September 23, 2022 Washington Post article, Tara Parker-Pope writes the following from her interview with Terrence Real, best-selling author and family therapist:
Normal marriages or long-term partnerships are not happy all the time. After four decades of counseling couples, Real has seen that all relationships follow a consistent cycle: harmony and closeness; disruption; and repair and a return to closeness. “This pattern of closeness, disruption and returning to closeness can play out at the micro level 20 times in the course of one dinner conversation. It can also play out over the macro level over decades,” he said.
Guiding Principle #3: Couples need to learn to rest in the reality that relationship conflict is unavoidable.
-- That doesn't mean we don't do the work. There are skills and strategies to learn and practice that help reduce the intensity and frequency of conflict. It also doesn't mean that conflict doesn't have a real impact that does real harm. But it does mean that conflict is unavoidable. It's going to happen. It's part of being human. It's part of the reality of being in relationship with someone who isn't you.
-- Relaxing into conflict. Many couples I work with begin their counseling journey with the belief that their conflict - no matter what it is - is inherently wrong simply because it exists. In these cases we begin our work by normalizing conflict as a part of all relationships. When couples are able to relax in the face of conflict, real change becomes possible.
Skills for Handling Relationship Conflict
In the context of couples therapy, couples can pro-actively adjust their mindset with respect to conflict and learn skills for handling the conflict that inevitably will come up. This is a powerful way for couples to invest in building a relationship with the potential to last a lifetime.
Guiding Principle #4: Conflict management skills are most effective when a person can embrace the paradox that conflict is inevitable, and at the same time, we can do something about it.
I help couples to explore the following topics with respect to conflict management, as part of the couples counseling services that I offer in Denver, Colorado:
1. Defining the kind of partner you want to be:
-- How do I want to show up in my relationship?
-- In what ways am I currently falling short?
-- What can I start doing today to improve?
2. Deciding how you will cope with relationship challenges (hurts, disappointments, frustrations, etc.) when they arise:
-- What coping behaviors do I use that are ineffective?
-- What coping behaviors can I use that are skillful?
3. Learning and practicing how to communicate under stress:
-- Recognizing your emotional dysregulation when it is happening
-- Taking time-outs
-- Checking in
-- Returning to difficult conversations
4. Learning and practicing how to support your partner in feeling seen, heard, and understood:
5. Developing a realistic mindset for your relationship:
-- Focusing on the positive
-- Reducing sensitivity to perceived criticism and neglect
-- Stopping yourself before you say or do something unkind
-- Owning the choices you have in your relationship
-- Learning how to get what you want and need from your partner by studying them
-- Accepting your partner as they are right now
-- Discerning when something has nothing to do with you
A Way Forward: Conflict without Fighting
In the work I do with high-conflict couples, the emotional damage to each partner from years of fighting is heartbreaking to witness. It's a hard thing to recover from. My aspiration is to support couples in learning how to be in conflict without fighting.
Guiding Principle #5: It's in your best interest to stop fighting with your partner.
-- Validation is crucially important. Partners can and will be different. Partners can and will have different experiences of the same interaction. Partners can and will have different values. All of this can exist in an atmosphere of love, kindness, and respect. A person can learn to acknowledge and validate a partner's experience, even when that experience is different from their own.
-- Going against the grain. Since many of us didn't grow up in families that modeled this way of being in relationship, and because we are living in a time when public leaders are motivated to divide us, we are left to our own devices to learn a different way. It's a big ask, but it is possible. As a couples therapist, I see people of all ages doing the difficult work of growing up and experiencing a mature love. This maturity is about accepting the reality of conflict, and learning skills to work with it, when two or more imperfect human beings get together.
-- It's up to you. What do you want for your life? How do you want to live? How do you want to be in relationship with others?
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a Denver couples therapist. She provides professional support to couples in all stages of relationship and has experience working with the many difficult issues couples are faced with. Diana offers premarital counseling, couples therapy, discernment counseling, and divorce counseling services to Boulder, CO and Denver, CO. All gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship styles are welcome.