The causes and drivers of conflict can be very confusing. One day, our relationships are on track and the seemingly the next day we find ourselves fighting about every little thing and unable to reconcile quickly and effectively. But, no matter who the relationship is with (friends, co-workers, spouse, children, etc) there are often common reasons why any conflict arises. Understanding these reasons, together with a little self-reflection, can sometimes allow us to resolve conflict without even having to change our behaviour or getting to the bottom of the issue.
We touched briefly on why conflict arises in relationships in a previous post but given how much people struggle with conflict in their day to day personal and professional lives, we think it is a topic that justifies further exploration.
In relationships, fights often arise because each person wants a certain, but different outcome which is important to them. In most cases, each person is trying to get the other person to accept their view point. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing. Learning how to have constructive conflict has the potential for growth in your relationships as a result of resolving issues.
Emotional triggers to conflict
Conflict often starts as a result of how you are feeling at a particular time. We are usually accepting of our connection's behaviour and conduct, but when our resilience is low (either as a result of exhaustion or frustration) it may cause us to negatively lash out in reaction to a given situation.
The process may look something like this: an incident occurs (whether as a result of your connection’s behaviour or not) and you react. Your connection then reacts back and so on until you are both in a state of high emotion, usually anger or frustration. It is the anger that you both experience in this interaction that is destructive. When we speak out in anger, we don’t filter our words and thoughts as effectively and we damage the relationship further by saying callous and hurtful words, which once spoken can never be retracted. When we are in a state of high emotion, logic and reason fly out the window. Our difficulty in expressing our point of view, and our connection’s failure to grasp it further contributes to the stress and anxiety caused by the fight. We’ll talk more about what to do when an fight reaches this stage in a later post - keep an eye out!
4 common causes of conflict in relationships
There are typically four areas or behaviours that trigger an emotional response in us, leading to conflict in a relationship. By avoiding, or at least minimising these behaviours in our relationships, we are able to also reduce the frequency and severity of conflict.
1. Criticism - this one is fairly self-explanatory and intuitive. When we demean or undermine our close connections, we create an environment where they feel hurt, offended and defensive - the opinions of our close friends and family mean a lot to us and to our own feelings of self worth. This negative environment will inevitably lead to conflict. Additionally, according to a leading relationship therapist John Gottman, this kind of demeaning criticism is a huge predictor of break-up or relationship breakdown. No one comes out ahead when we criticise our loved ones!
2. Illegitimate demands - in every relationship, we have certain demands and expectations that we put on the other person. These expectations can be practical, like that they'll put their weight with the housework or emotional, such as that they'll support our dreams and aspirations. When someone fails to meet our expectations, we feel let down and maybe even feel like we've been taken advantage of or used. This causes relationships dissatisfaction, and resentment which will often lead to conflict. If demands or expectations are unreasonable or illegitimate, then there will almost always be conflict as one or both parties feel that the relationship is being abused. Illegitimate demand may be things like asking your boyfriend not to see their best friend anymore, or demanding that your friend change their plans so that they can help you move house.
3. Rebuffs - this one is often closely linked with illegitimate demands and arises where a connection responds to you in a way that deflates or upsets you. For example, if your partner is excited to present you with a meal they've cooked and you respond with "oh, yeah, it was okay, I guess", they feel upset and disappointed because they thought you would be happy or pleased with the meal.
4. Cumulative annoyances - we all have our pet peeves, things that our friends or partners do that just get on our nerves. Things like chewing too loud or leaving the toilet seat up. Over time, we may become less and less tolerant of things that get on our nerves and eventually may "snap" at our loved ones (particularly if we're already tired or stressed). In a conflict that arises from cumulative annoyances, we may cross into the other areas of conflict above, like making an illegitimate demand that they stop a certain behaviour, or criticise how they act. This causes the conflict to worsen and may lead to relationship breakdown.
These causes can trigger certain feelings in us including feeling:
5 common topics of conflict in relationships
In addition to the causes of conflict above, there are also common topics of conflict that we see again and again in couples that come to us for help. These are conflicts about:
finances and spending habits;
parenting styles and values;
sex and intimacy;
work (whether too much, too little, not earning enough, etc); and
household matters including division of chores, living habits, etc.
These topics of conflict are not causes in and of themselves, but rather arise as a result of one of the conflict causes above. For example, conflicts about living habits may arise as a result of cumulative annoyances. Conflicts about sex and intimacy may arise as a result of one person rebuffing the advances of their partner. Understanding what the cause of the conflict, as opposed to just the topic of conflict, can help us to heal any hurt feelings and repair the relationship quickly and more effectively.
This is part of a series on conflict in relationships. In next week's post, we'll look at common conflict styles and how to use your understanding of conflict styles to reduce conflict. Don't miss it!