Try as we might to wish it away, conflict is an essential and inescapable part of being human. If you are a human being who occasionally interacts with other human beings, conflict will arise from time to time even if you are as peaceful as the Dalai Lama. And do you know what? Contrary to popular belief, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are many benefits that can come from conflict.
Conflict allows us to learn about others on a deeper level than we might otherwise. Through conflict we might learn about people’s triggers, their deepest motivations, and their wildest dreams…and of course, we will also discover such things about ourselves. And, a well-repaired conflict strengthens a relationship so much that a couple who effectively repaired after an argument are actually stronger at that moment than a couple who didn’t have an argument (Gottman, 2015).
Each of us has our own unique style of managing conflict when it inevitably crops up. There are five main styles, although you’ll probably add your own unique flair to your preferred style. You will probably notice yourself mixing and matching, sampling different styles for different scenarios. Nevertheless, most of us tend to default to using one particular style more often than the others.
Quiz: What is Your Conflict Management Style?
For each question, take note of which letter you selected. Try to ask yourself “which one is most like me?” and not “which one do I wish was like me?” There are no right and wrong answers; different conflict styles have their benefits and drawbacks in different situations.
Your mother doesn’t seem to like your partner very much. She frequently comments on his flaws, and she doesn’t act happy when he’s around. The two of you haven’t talked about it yet, but it’s palpable. After work one day, your partner says “I get the feeling your mother isn’t my biggest fan, and I don’t really feel like going to see her again next weekend. What has she said about me?” Your reply is probably something along the lines of…
A. “I don’t remember, really…she and I usually talk more about recipes than relationships. By the way, what do you feel like doing for dinner? I heard there’s a really good Ethiopian place that just opened downtown.”
B. “It’s true that she might be a bit too critical. She wants the best for me, and sometimes it comes out wrong. If you don’t want to come, how about if I go by myself next weekend, but you still come for the Passover seder next month?”
C. “Please stop worrying about this. Just come with me again next weekend. It will be fun, I promise.”
D. “Hmm, I can see why you feel that way. Maybe she’s a little bit overprotective. I would really love for you and my Mom to have a good relationship. Can we brainstorm ways to make that happen? Also, what would you need in order to feel safe around her? Maybe we can all talk about it together.”
E. “I totally understand. She’s not being fair, and I get it. If you don’t want to go visit her next weekend, you absolutely don’t have to feel obligated.”
You and your fiancé are looking at honeymoon destinations. She really wants to try an off-the-beaten-track jungle holiday staying at a hike-in treehouse lodge in the mountains of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. You’re more partial to an all-inclusive resort on the island of Cozumel. You…
A. Don’t want to break her heart by telling her that you actually hate the jungle and all its bugs, so you yawn and say “let’s talk about this tomorrow”.
B. Suggest that you spend half the time at a resort in mainland Mexico, and half the time in a rural mountain town nearby.
C. Try your hardest to convey all the advantages of Cozumel and convince her that a resort is truly the way to go after all the stress of planning a wedding.
D. Pause and ask her if you guys can think about if there’s any way to scratch her itch for adventure while satisfying your desire for ease and luxury.
E. Your relationship is more important to you than the destination, so you suck it up and say yes to her plan. Maybe you’ll get over your bug phobia in the process!
Christmas is coming, and the topic of where to spend it arises over a Sunday brunch. You want to spend it with your family, because they live close by and you’ve both been so busy at work that the added stress of travel during the holidays won’t make for a very peaceful vacation. Your husband wants to spend it with his family, because they live a 6-hour flight away and you haven’t seen them in over six months despite seeing your family frequently. How do you approach the issue?
A. You say “hmm, well, I am not sure, that’s a tricky one, let’s sleep on it” and change the subject.
B. You suggest that you stay close to home this time, but use both of your vacation time to make an extended trip out to see your husband’s family within the next 2 months.
C. You tell your husband that you really don’t want to travel during the holidays and that you’d be extremely surprised if he actually still wanted that after giving it more thought. You also remind him that the last time you traveled during the holidays, it was a complete disaster.
D. You ask your husband if there is anything else not involving holiday travel that would equally satisfy his need for family time. At the same time, you ask yourself if there’s any way you might be able to make holiday travel less stressful for yourself, such as flying first class or signing up for TSA pre-check.
E. You know how important your husband’s family is to him and it truly has been a long time, so you agree to endure holiday travel in order to nurture these important relationships.
After dinner, while discussing the latest wedding plans, your fiancé nonchalantly asks if you’ve given any thought to getting a prenup. You know that you probably have opposing views on this. You…
A. Say, “I think we really need to get these flower arrangements and tablecloths sorted before we move on to the next thing, ok? There will be plenty of time to talk about that later.”
B. Tell your fiancé that although you suspect the two of you might feel differently about this issue, you are sure you can find a middle way in between your opinions.
C. Give your (strong) opinion on the prenup, politely insist that this opinion is very important to you, and say that you hope your fiancé can understand where you’re coming from.
D. Scratch your head and say, “well, how can we satisfy your need to respect and protect your family’s estate and my need to know that you’re indeed committed to this relationship for the long haul? Let’s think about ways to make both of those things happen.”
E. Put your relationship ahead of your personal needs by smiling, putting your hand on theirs, and saying “don’t worry, we can do whatever you need to feel secure.”
You and your partner are looking at houses, and she suggests having a look at a quirky and stylish-looking house in an up-and-coming but slightly rough neighborhood about which you’re not very enthusiastic. How do you address this issue?
A. You bite your lip and say, “yea, maybe…hey, what do you think of this one?” and show her a newspaper clipping with another one that could also be interesting.
B. You suggest that you go look at the house together, but remind her that although you will try to keep an open mind, you’re really not excited about that neighborhood so far.
C. Ask her, “Babe, are you sure you want to live in a place where you have to carry pepper spray in your hand if you walk around alone at night?” and reiterate your thoughts on the neighborhood.
D. Tell her that you understand her need to live in an artistic area that inspires her, and assert that you need to feel safe to feel at home. With that in mind, you ask if the two of you can sit down together and think about ways to meet both of those needs.
E. Agree to go look at the house. You should learn more about this neighborhood before writing it off, and the house did look cool.
Mostly ‘A’ answers: Your default conflict style is avoidance.
You don’t like conflict, and you try to avoid or diffuse it at all costs. You might change the subject, put an important talk off until later, or play down the importance of an issue.
Avoidance can be a useful conflict management strategy when there are more pressing issues demanding attention, or when the potential conflict is unlikely to affect the relationship in a meaningful way (Asante, 2020). If you or your partner is triggered, defensive, or otherwise unable to be on their best behavior, avoidance can also be good as a temporary measure taken only to avoid conflict escalation when one or both people are not in the state that will allow for a constructive discussion.
However, avoidance is not constructive when the issue at stake really needs to be dealt with in order to move forward or solve an ongoing problem.
Mostly ‘B’ answers: Your default conflict style is compromise.
You are an expert at finding a middle ground, being ready to make concessions, and enticing your partner to do the same.
Although compromise is usually thought of as a good thing (and rightly so–in most cases), it might not work well if the issue at stake hinges on any core values central to either person’s identity (Asante, 2020). Compromising on something integral to who you are may lead to resentment or long-term dissatisfaction with the “solution”.
Mostly ‘C’ answers: Your default conflict style is competing. You take a strong stance, don’t easily empathize with opposing perspectives, and keep pushing your viewpoint until it is accepted.
Competing can be a very effective conflict management style when you need to stand up for yourself, when you are in a leadership position and need to make a decision quickly, or when you must prevent a horrible opposing decision from being made (Amaresan, 2019).
However, in a romantic relationship there are few scenarios that would be well-served by competing as a conflict style, so if competing is your default it might benefit your relationship if you learn to be more flexible.
Mostly ‘D’ answers: Your default conflict style is collaboration. You’re an absolute genius at seeing the underlying needs beneath your and your partner’s positions, and finding creative ways to meet all needs without sacrificing core values or compromising on important issues.
Collaboration is widely touted by conflict experts as the best strategy (see Cloke & Goldsmith, 2011, for example). However, it can entail a lot of time and involvement, so if you need to make a quick decision it might be too troublesome. Collaboration also sometimes proves a bit awkward if employed indiscriminately even when making minor decisions.
Mostly ‘E’ answers: Your default conflict style is accommodation. Accommodation can be similar to avoidance in that it can be a way to avert a potential conflict by signaling agreement even when you don’t agree.
It can also be a way to prioritize maintaining a relationship over asserting your own needs or desires. When you can reinforce the relationship without sacrificing something central to your being, accommodation can be a good strategy.
When it leads to resentment, it’s not great. When it creates a lopsided, non-reciprocal dynamic in which you’re constantly bending to the whims of your partner, it’s not great. A lopsided dynamic can shape your relationship in an unhealthy way and lead to power struggles later on.
Conflict Style and Prenups
Competition, avoidance, and accommodation are big no-nos when it comes to discussing a prenuptial agreement.
It goes without saying that pushing your own view on an important topic can alienate your partner and be destructive to the relationship.
The discussion will have to happen eventually, so delaying or sidestepping it will only lead to a buildup of tension that might be detrimental to the conversation whenever it actually takes place. Delays borne of avoidance also can lead to a rushed decision, which is the absolute last thing you want when talking about an agreement that will affect your life at such a deep level.
Finally, giving in too easily to your partner’s wishes could land you with a binding legal agreement with which you’re secretly unhappy. Not good for you, or your relationship.
Compromising can be an effective way to approach this crucial conversation, but be careful that neither of you sacrifice something that’s important enough to you to trouble you for years to come. When it comes to your prenup, it’s important to check in with yourself before offering or accepting a compromise: Am I really ok with this? Will I really be at peace with this in 5, 10, or 30 years?
As for the absolute most desirable strategy with which to arm yourself before discussing your prenup, our vote goes to collaboration. Whether to get and how to structure your prenuptial agreement is a major relationship decision, so it merits the time and involvement needed for collaboration. If done skillfully, partners can collaborate to make a decision that satisfies both of their needs and brings them closer together.
Collaboration is neither the simplest or most intuitive of strategies, which is another reason it’s advisable to seek professional help crafting your agreement in order to receive expert guidance throughout. The process of collaborating on such an important decision is also an excellent relationship-building exercise. Successful collaboration on a prenup plants seeds which will flower and bear fruit throughout the seasons of your life to come. Come at this with intention.
Amaresan, Swetha. 5 Conflict Management Styles for Every Personality Type. 2019. Retrieved from: https://blog.hubspot.com/service/conflict-management-stylesAsante, O. (2020). Leadership strategies to manage workplace conflict. ProQuest
Dissertation Publishing, 28028170.Gottman, J. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony.