There are many core stresses, opposing values or “dialectical tensions” in any relationship. These tensions never go away. They are normal real-life discrepancies in wants and needs which are a part of every relationship. These lead to normal relationship conflicts.
If you’re experiencing this in your relationship, take heart – nothing is necessarily going wrong. Successfully negotiating these tensions is a crucial part of normal relationship development. Normal doesn’t mean we have to like it. Normal means that we will all, at some stage, experience these discrepancies within ourselves and between us and our partners.
It’s normal for one partner to want more, different or better of something than their partner does. Instead of fighting and getting stuck in a power struggle, we can use these differences to help ourselves and our relationship grow. The challenge is how to handle the task of working with these tensions so that we can accept or perhaps eventually embrace our differences.
Below are some examples of normal sources of relationship conflict which reflect tensions between the need for:
Connection and Autonomy: The desire to have a close bond and connection with your partner so that you feel you belong to a relationship versus the need to identify yourself as a unique and separate individual by maintaining individual interests and friends.
Openness and Closedness: The desire to be open and divulge information, like chatting with your partner about a colleague at work, versus the desire to be exclusive and secretive, so you leave out certain details about your attraction to this person.
Novelty and Reliability: The desire for the relationship to remain new and exciting so that you’re both interested and inspired versus the desire for it to be predictable and something you can count on.
Equality and Inequality: The desire to be considered equals, such as sharing the housework/childcare responsibilities, versus the desire to take the lead in transparently managing a joint bank account due to your expertise in finances.
Reason and Passion: The desire to be logical and to approach decisions in careful, considered ways versus the desire to throw caution to the wind and be spontaneous and wild in some area of your relationship.
Before exploring how we can address these tensions, it’s not about thinking that each individual’s behaviour has equal weight, equal power or equally produces relationship problems. If you are in a relationship with someone who irresponsibly acts out, who has an unmanaged mental health issue, who has violent behaviour, or has a drug, alcohol or process addiction problem, you do have influence but you are not responsible for that individual’s behaviour.
There is a key difference between the partner who is enacting the problem behaviour and the partner engaged with/enabling the problem behaviour pattern. The ultimate responsibility for behaviour lies within the individual who is acting out. This important distinction is necessary because sometimes people conclude that they are equally at fault for a partner’s addiction, battering, or other seriously dysfunctional behaviour. If this is your situation, you are not at fault. I recommend you seek help and get support for this issue.
If the above patterns are not an issue in your relationship, one major thing to understand is that in all areas of relationship there is always a higher desire partner (HDP) and a lower desire partner (LDP). For example, one partner may desire more care to be taken with spending money while the other doesn’t like to budget, one partner may want more time with their social network and the other may desire more time alone, one may desire more intimacy and the other less intimacy, one may desire more sex while the other wants less sex. These differences between partners provide endless potential for creating normal relationship conflicts.
The big question is – how do we use these dialectical tensions to help our relationship grow? A lot of our thinking has been shaped by ideas about how individuals function. The world of the couple operates under a different set of principles and assumptions than the individual world. The good news is that strategies that have been developed from systems concepts work, even when both partners aren’t equally motivated to change.
Often there is one partner who is more motivated than the other to bring about change in the relationship. This is quite common. Because there are always two unique individuals in a couple system, the one which is in more discomfort with the dialectical tension in the relationship, is usually the one who is more motivated to make changes. This fuels their individual process of differentiation. Differentiation (according to Ellyn Bader & Peter Pearson), is the active, ongoing process of defining self, expressing and activating self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either more intimacy or potential separation. This often promotes growth because individuals must practice managing their own anxiety in the face of their partner’s different desires.
Because a couple is a whole system in which there is mutual dependence, when one person makes a change, the other person will respond with a change and the relationship itself will be different. A small change in a specific area can lead to a ripple effect. When there are many problems in a relationship, people assume that a major overhaul is required. Not necessarily. Many times, a small adjustment, strategically employed, is all that’s needed. The challenge is naturally to find a way to change that will produce a positive, not a negative ripple.
In couples where both partners are motivated to clarify and explore their differences, a couple can begin to know themselves better as well knowing and understanding each other better. This helps each make improved choices, both for themselves and for the relationship, despite their contrasting needs and values. Our normal relationship conflicts create a force that can help the system to become more balanced and more complex if we work with it rather than run away from it. This force has many names, but one useful one is “gridlock”, which occurs when the interests of one partner are in direct opposition to the interests of the other.
Gridlock doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything going wrong in your relationship. It’s another name for dialectical tension, which describes the opposing drives that exist within each individual and within each couple. We all have opposing drives within ourselves and between each other. Have you ever wanted to go to a party when your partner wanted to stay home? Perhaps there was even a part of you that wanted to go and a part that wanted to stay home? This is an example which, in some couples, can turn into gridlock, especially if one partner insists the other goes against their individual desires.
By making choices and taking action on these desires, it creates, re-creates and changes the nature of each individual, causing each to grow via the process of differentiation. By struggling with normal relationship conflicts, each partner can become a more mature person because they’re learning to tolerate and work with opposites, while at the same time expressing their own truth in respectful and loving ways.
Differentiation, in turn, causes a relationship to keep changing and developing, strengthening the bond between partners. This promotes a process called integration, which deepens partners’ attachment to each other. Both differentiation and attachment are necessary forces to keep their interest and desire for each other alive.
Because all behaviour is communicative, what one partner does or doesn’t do sends a powerful message to the other. There is no such thing as not communicating. Even silence conveys some message, so everything we do can be seen as communicative and relevant to our relationship. In addition, we all create meaning in our relationships. Meaning arises from our interactions with others and the world and is made up of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experiences which we combine to create an organised whole. The meanings we make are not always useful or relevant, especially when it comes to normal relationship conflicts. We all can learn to create a context for relationship change that allows an ongoing opportunity for the generation of more positive meanings, and therefore, more satisfying relationships.
A large part of becoming a balanced and mature adult is doing the hard work of understanding yourself, your partner and relationship dynamics so as to become more capable of love and intimacy. This is how normal relationship conflicts contribute to growth and development.
In summary, here are three key points to remember:
- Dialectical tensions are normal and inevitable in all relationships.
- Working with the tension of opposites provides opportunities for you to grow individually and as a couple.
- Finding new meaning in relationship conflict enables you to develop yourselves in powerful ways inside and outside your relationship.
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