Contradictions in relationships

I can’t tell you how interesting the science of communication really is. I’m still learning new things every day. For instance: did you know that there are theories that propose that contradiction is a fundamental fact of all relationships? That tension between two people is completely normal and will never go away? I suddenly feel very relieved!

Of course the most interesting communication processes are those that don’t necessarily run super smoothly. Those are the processes researchers like to study – where does it go wrong? How do two partners work together to fix their issues? How and why do those issues arise in the first place? And it’s not just communication researchers who are interested in those processes; couples themselves often wonder where their issues come from and how best to resolve them. I am no exception!

Am I normal?

The more I learn about communication science, the more I find myself evaluating my everyday interactions. It’s obsessive sometimes and also a little annoying. But it’s incredibly helpful too. I recognize some of the patterns that are considered ‘normal’ according to the communication literature. Do you know how much it helps to know that something is normal? That you’re not insane? The mere idea that a conflict is the result of certain obvious processes makes me feel a lot better.

A relationship without conflict

When I was growing up I had the that a good relationship, or a marriage, was always conflict-free. That a couple who loved each other did not fight or disagree over anything. Don’t blame me – this was the only example I had. So when I grew up and started dating men and I got confused. ‘This must not be right’ I thought, over and over again. ‘We’re fighting. We must not be right for each other’. In this thought process I completely disregarded a number of important facts, such as my own personality (flammable at times), the personality of my significant other, what we were fighting about and what caused it. To me, conflict was bad. I never even considered the fact that some people are conflict-avoidant and would rather bury their issues than openly discuss them.

Now I know better – I know that it is impossible for me to have relationships that are void of conflict. I seek conflict sometimes and I really need it. It can be a way of communicating for me – and sometimes it’s the only way. I prefer conflict over brushing things under the rug; that makes me completely mad. So I fight with people. That doesn’t mean those relationships end, quite the opposite: they often get much stronger.

Relational Dialectics Theory

Relational dialectics theory (RDT) posits just that: that contradictions are a fundamental part of relational life. If only I had known this sooner! One of the assumptions of the theory is that relational life is characterized by tensions between opposites that will never go away. In order to deal with these tensions people use a magnificent and unexpected tool: communication. Can you believe it?!

Neutralizing the issue

There are a number of strategies people use, according to RDT, in order to manage the tensions in their relationships. An example of a strategy I frequently use is an integration strategy, called neutralizing. This doesn’t mean that an issue is ignored, it means I deal with it by ‘finding a happy medium’. For example, if my boyfriend prefers to go out every weekend and I prefer to stay in most weekends, we might try and find a way to compromise so that we’re both happy. That could mean going out once every two weeks, or only going out when there’s a big party somewhere. This resolves the tension, as we’re both finding a solution that makes us happy and makes the tension disappear.

Another example is in openness. I have a friend who feels that she should be able to say whatever she wants. She’s an over-sharer and doesn’t really care if what she says shocks people. She’s had quite a bit of tension in her relationships over this. Not everyone likes the fact that she reveals everything about everyone – even though she’s quite honest about it. Nevertheless, in order to manage these various conflicts she chooses to share a little less with certain people. She’s still as honest and direct as before, but doesn’t share absolutely everything anymore. A huge compromise for her.

Tension will arise – and be resolved

What I’m trying to point out is that if there are communication theories that posit that conflict is a normal and ongoing part of relationships, then why worry about it? It’s much more interesting to discover where it comes from and how best to manage it, than to worry about the fact that you’re arguing in the first place. Instead of wondering about how to avoid fights, it’s better to just accept that there will be arguments and that there will be tension between the two of you – but that this tension can (often) be easily managed and resolved. Sometimes it may take some time, but conflicts rarely mean that a relationship is doomed. It’s how you manage those conflicts that really matters. Conflict is healthy, it’s sparks communication and according to RDT – it’s a fundamental part of relationships. So the key is not to stop fighting – it’s to learn how to effectively manage those fights.


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