20 Aug Relationship conflict seen from different angles
A close and intimate relationship from our point of view is defined as two people who have established momentum of seeing each other regularly. They might live together or not but above all, have built a connection that is strongly magnified by love, passion, commitment, friendship, intimacy and feelings. Conflict in this context is characterized as interpersonal, having mental or emotional problems, bad arguments or disagreements between them. To understand and explore conflict in close and intimate relationships, we will demonstrate two main theories, the sociocultural and the interpersonal.
The sociocultural phenomena and their widespread messages have an impact on a person’s relationship behaviour and the way they learnt how to deal with conflict. Many of these attitudes and belief systems in people are all learned, imitated and constructed, consciously or unconsciously, through norms and values of society, media, religion, politics, education, and family, defined as social constructionism. It is essential to reflect on this concept of social constructionism before entering a close relationship because each person brings a package with him/her.
By the way, a romantic relationship is regarded as one of this social construction, relatively new to western society that arose just after the 1950s. Coontz (2005)
The interpersonal theory suggests that relationship conflict happens between two people sooner or later. And is best understood in the cycle of conflict were escalation rises because each person’s comment, behaviour or emotions can activate an emotional trigger for the other.
From an existential perspective, conflict is inevitable for all human relationships. The prominent existentialist Sartre (1943) introduced the concept of objectification which sees and treats the other person as a physical object and which doesn’t see that person with his/her feelings and beliefs. Hence conflict is due to arise in all relationship.
Emotional intelligence and the know-how to manage conflicts are vital factors for success in these situations.
In comparison, both approaches seek to understand how conflict occurs. As outlined above, the sociocultural approach assumes conflict in a close relationship as a broader social construction. There is a constant pressure sociocultural norms have on people and close/intimate relationships.
In western culture, the media and education give all kinds of advice on how to be and act in a romantic relationship. Not opening to vulnerability or not making any mistakes are seen as weaknesses in our society.
Brene Brown, in her popular TED-TALK about The Power of vulnerability, highlights the importance to be vulnerable and open in all kind of relationships. Because this attitude produces emotional closeness between two persons, instead, hiding and inexpression of emotions lead to conflict in oneself and sooner or later, will affect the close relationships. Therefore, conflict is predisposed to occur out of these broader societal messages.In contrast, the existential approach sees conflict in a close and intimate relationship through other eyes. According to existentialist philosophy, conflict is universal and inevitable in the human condition.
Cannon and Lindberg (2013) suggest that conflict in close relationship arises from this dichotomy of wanting to be close and dependent versus longing for independence and freedom. There is a continuous tension between these two polarities of being in a close relationship, and most people are unaware of these opposing forces in the depth of their psyche and culture.
In the interpersonal concept, two people living together or being emotionally close will bring up dynamics between them which are best viewed in the context of the cycle of conflict and the self-justification process ( I am right, and therefore you are wrong). The existential philosophical speaks of conflict as inevitable and unavoidable in the human sphere of relationships, while the sociocultural approach sees conflict as a social construction. That highlights the complexity in which close relationships have to be understood.
Equally important is the similar desire of both the sociocultural and interpersonal approaches to finding strategies and real-world applications to resolve conflict in close relationships. From the interpersonal perspective, existentialist Beauvoir (1949) speaks of the power people and close relationships can have in finding mutuality and learning to be more empathic. Mutuality sees people as interacting amongst themselves and finding common goals, rather than manipulating others for individual gain. While empathy attempts to see and to try to understand the perspective and experience of the other person.
Resolution approaches are to put oneself in the shoes of their partner, to try to see and understand their partner’s viewpoint, opinions, and feelings as the first step to acceptance. Likewise, the interpersonal approach, especially the Gottman method (1999) which seeks strategic conflict resolution with both partners present, rather than working with an individual alone, has been applied over the last decades with positive outcomes for relationships. This success rate is dependent upon whether the emotional and behavioural interaction between the couple has a ratio of 5 to 1 (favourable vs contrary argument). And the so-called ‘four horsemen‘ (criticisms, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling) are inclined towards the effectiveness of the relationship. (The Sound Relationship Gottman 1999).
Both interpersonal and sociocultural approaches use the qualitative research method of interviewing, which bring a more in-depth understanding of conflict in close relationships. For example, existential psychologists use interviews to understand the dyadic interplay between close partners, by asking their clients to speak about how they see themselves and also how they understand and integrate their partner’s perspective and experience.
The social constructionists take a different angle by questioning how partners perceive specific sociocultural norms and the influence that these have on their close relationships, best documented in a study conducted by Burns (2000) where men and women were questioned about love and their experience of it.
It was found that men and women learnt and accepted that ‘love’ has two different socially constructed applications:
1- Falling in love and flowing with intuitive feelings.
2- Update regularly the relationship to make it work.
To conclude, conflict in close relationships can be explored from different psychological perspectives, as this gives a broader understanding of the complex dynamics at play. The sociocultural approach invites people to explore how external forces of socially constructed norms and values of ‘traditional’ relationships are at play, therefore putting pressure on them.
In contrast, the interpersonal approach, with its concepts of dyadic interaction and cycle of conflict between partners, acknowledges the internal forces at play within relationships and allows the potential for personal and relationship growth.