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Couples

Why conflict-avoidant couples are heading for trouble

“Every relationship needs an argument every now and then. Just to prove that it is strong enough to survive. Long-term relationships, the ones that matter, are all about weathering the peaks and the valleys.” -Melchor Lim

It used to be thought that couple therapy should focus on increasing harmony between the partners, but these days there’s a growing recognition that being able to have healthy conflict is really important.

Of course, some couples fight a lot and that can corrode the relationship if partners end up feeling attacked or disrespected. But in many relationships there is a fear of allowing too much conflict and that, in its own way, can be equally corrosive as when there is a high level of conflict.

There’s a great interview here with author Ian Leslie,  discussing his recent book Conflicted* . The interview begins by looking at conflict in rock bands, such as the Beatles, but it you’re mostly interested in the couple relationship stuff you could begin from about the 20 minute mark.

Leslie says there used to be an assumption that arguments should be avoided. But it’s actually the couples who are willing to argue about something that is important to them that tend to be happier: “[For those couples] it can get quite heated and it can get quite passionate and it’s not always super pleasant, but it’s seen as part of the rhythm of the relationship and it doesn’t signal some terrible flaw.”

In 2008 New Zealand academic Nickola Overall, began filming couples discussing a problem in their relationship. The study,  cited in Conflicted, returned to the same couples a year later and found that those couples who were more willing to argue had made most progress with the problem.

For many couples, however, they can find themselves repeatedly arguing about the same thing without ever resolving it. This is where couple therapy can help because the therapist can introduce a different perspective and help them see the issue in a new way.

Another key point  is that it’s not just being willing to argue that is important but how a couple argues.

If we’re angry and we’re just out to shame or insult our partner that’s going to end badly. Equally unhealthy is a kind of constant, low level bickering that saps the joy out of any relationship.

I think it’s about us being willing to show we’re annoyed about something that’s important to us and to allow things to get heated. It’s about allowing in passion. We may sometimes say the ‘wrong’ thing in these arguments or feel uncomfortable because we’ve got angry, but that’s ok.

By expressing our frustration, or even our anger, we have allowed our partner to see what’s really important to us. In a strange way, by allowing ourselves to be in confllict we are also communicating to them that they, and the relationship, are important.

  • Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber & Faber, London.

For more information visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

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