By Robin Levick, MFT
If you don’t brush and floss your teeth, crud builds up, and things get ugly. Eventually sores can develop, disease can grow, and cancer can metastasize. A lack of hygiene compromises the ability of the mouth to perform its functions.
You already heard this from your parents and dentist? Not sure why you are reading about this on a psychology blog? Stay with me…
Conflict is hygiene for relationships. If you don’t have conflict, crud (resentment) builds up, and things get ugly. Eventually sores (unvalidated hurt) can develop, disease (hatred) can grow, and the relationship can become toxic. The relationship can no longer fulfill its function.
The function of a relationship is to foster safety and growth, provide emotional nourishment, and to be a wellspring of joy and excitement. A lack of conflict compromises a relationship’s ability to perform those functions. Avoiding conflict involves abandoning one’s vulnerability, and the relating part of the relationship itself. The conflict doesn’t go away, and when it erupts after being avoided, it is worse.
Maybe you are wondering…isn’t a toxic relationship one that has too much conflict? Doesn’t it make sense to let the bad stuff go, and focus on fun positive time? Well yeah…that sounds nice, but so does having candy before bed and not brushing your teeth. In the end, that approach causes problems. It’s built on a fantasy that two people can ever be completely on the same page, or on the idea that emotions can or should be handled on their own. At every stage of life, humans need help bearing difficult feelings, and need validation and understanding of their experience. Healthy, functional conflict is the process by which these needs are eventually met. Of course there is a balance here, and it doesn’t make sense to project every passing discomfort onto the relationship…but generally speaking, if something doesn’t feel right, talk about it!
Fighting and conflict are not the same thing. If you attack your gums with aggression, or compulsively floss every hour, the health of your mouth will also suffer. Having a conflict is not an excuse to attack, control, or criticize. Having a conflict means acknowledging when something happens between you and your partner that feels off, bad, disappointing, or hurtful, and then together exploring, explaining, understanding, and validating each others perspective. This will involve feeling feelings. It might be unpleasant. If you neglect it, there will be consequences.
As we have learned more about hygiene, (from the Greek hugieinē meaning the “art of health”) life has gotten dramatically better for humans. Disease is less frequent, surgical procedures rarely cause infections, and people live longer lives with less suffering. This idea can be applied to mental as well as physical health. If you are having trouble with conflict in your relationship, consider couples therapy. A couples therapist will identify the conflicts that need to be addressed, and help you learn how to work through them safely and productively.