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  • Writer's pictureNichole Hart

Conflict in Relationship: Threat or Challenge

“When you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” ~William James

Think about conflict** in your relationship with your significant other.

What sensations or feelings do you notice in your body when you focus on the word - conflict?

Many people, myself included, notice tightness, guardedness, and a feeling of defensiveness when we think of being in conflict. The word and the experience of conflict tends to bring with it a sense of dread or heaviness.

Conflict by definition is a disagreement that has surfaced. When we have conflict in our significant relationship, we want something different, or we see something in a different way from our partner. We usually want something to change.

Ironically, as I mentioned in my last blog post, when in conflict in our relationship, we often end up solidifying the very thing we want to change. I’ll explore that dynamic a bit more here.

Something that often happens when we feel discomfort is that we are drawn deeper and deeper into what we see as "the problem.” Partly, this is our body’s natural way of working - to take note when something is wrong and focus resources toward “repairing it.” Overall, this is a good thing. It’s what keeps many of our body’s systems functioning in a healthy way.

The noting that “something is off here,” can even be a helpful thing in our relationship. However, what starts off as a helpful prompt of, “Something needs tending to here,” can quickly go off track. Without the awareness and practice to use that prompt in a helpful way, our focus ends up being drawn increasingly into what we are unhappy or mad about, and what isn’t working. From this standpoint, we bring the energy of anger and frustration, along with a good amount of blame, into a discussion about what we are struggling with. In doing this, we essentially set ourselves up for failure from the beginning.

When we approach our partner from this state of mind, it’s a safe bet that all sense of curiosity, openness, and caring is lost. Our ability to open to learn something new about ourselves, our partner, and our relationship is significantly diminished. Remembering here the gist of a quote from my last post:

When we think we know, we’ve lost the ability to learn, to be curious.

Something that has helped me in understanding this dynamic comes from a book I have been listening to the last few weeks: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It’s an interview with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in which they talk about how they have cultivated and maintained a deep sense of joy in their lives. Douglas Abrams is the interviewer and narrator, and he also includes findings from other fields of study that support, from a scientific basis, what the Dalai Lama and Archbishop share from their respective traditions.

One particularly interesting study, relating to our ability or inability to stay in touch with curiosity within ourselves, has to do with how we view and interpret a stressful situation. Research shows that when we assess a situation as stressful, we filter it in one of two different directions. We either see it as a threat or as a challenge. This assessment is critically important, as it has a significant impact on how our brain and body respond to the situation.

In an article by Luke Raskopf, he summarizes the following:

“Put simply, the Challenge Mindset (or gain orientation) is when we view a stressful or competitive situation as an opportunity to increase our set of resources, while a Threat Mindset is when that stressful situation is viewed as an opportunity in which we may lose some of our already existing resources.”

To see a bit more about what happens in our system based on the initial interpretation we make, I gathered the following information from a couple of different articles. One is linked here, and the second is the article from the Somatic Movement Center linked below.

When we interpret a situation / conflict as a Challenge, the following happens in our body:

  • Increased cardiac efficiency

  • Vasodilation (Increase peripheral blood flow)

  • The adrenal gland releases a shot of cortisol, giving us energy; then cortisol levels drop to normal after the stressful event is over

  • Blood flow to the brain increases

  • Higher performance (accuracy, effectiveness, coordination)

  • More favorable emotions

When we interpret a situation / conflict as a Threat, the following happens in our body:

  • Decreased cardiac efficiency

  • Vasoconstriction (Decrease peripheral blood flow)

  • Heart rate speeds up, blood pressure increases

  • Adrenal gland releases cortisol, increasing blood sugar and giving us energy

  • Blood flow to the brain decreases

  • Lower performance (impaired decision making, cognitive decline, increased cardiovascular diseases)

  • Less favorable emotions

You might be wondering what this has to do with conflict in your relationship. As you think about the idea of conflict with your partner, would you say that you tend to put it rather automatically into the threat category or the challenge category? Because many of us have never been shown a productive way to deal with conflict, we tend to shuttle it into the “threat” category.

In Imago, we have a different idea about conflict. We have the following saying about conflict:

“Conflict is growth trying to happen.”

I invite you to reflect on this statement. How is this different from how you might generally view conflict?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the idea that, “What we focus on tends to become our reality.” When we see conflict as dreadful, bad, painful, something to be avoided, then we are much more likely to interpret it from the beginning as a threat. The moment we do this, we’ve encouraged our system, and all its resources, to respond accordingly: to brace and prepare to defend. From this stance, we are no longer able to utilize the brain, mind, and body’s vast store of resources in a helpful manner, resources that can help us feel grounded, interested, generous in our assumptions, and wanting to learn and grow.

In my own life, and with my clients, I focus on the phrase, “Small changes, sustained over time, make a big difference.” I’m a big proponent of taking very small, but ultimately impactful steps. In that light, I like the following suggestions in an article by the Somatic Movement Center. The author in this article focuses on any general stressful situation. I’d like to ask you to think about the following in regard to potential conflict in your relationship.

“When you feel stressed out, consider the situation objectively and ask yourself:

First: Could this situation cause me harm or loss, or is there potential benefit?

Second: Am I capable of handling this situation?

If you’re able to answer “yes” to the second question, you will immediately begin to react to the situation as a challenge instead of a threat. You’ll stop worrying about it, you’ll visualize yourself succeeding, and you’ll imagine how confident you’ll feel when you’ve completed the task.”

Admittedly, the latter parts may seem not very realistic if this is a new way of thinking. You may find it hard to imagine that you would, “stop worrying...visualize yourself succeeding….feel confident” in dealing with conflict. And, it’s true, you will not magically and suddenly change the way you feel during a conflict. However, with repeated choices to approach conflict in a new and different way - as a challenge instead of a threat, and as a pathway to growth - you will establish a new relationship with conflict.

It is possible to use and experience conflict as a pathway to growth.

The great thing is that you don’t have to make some unrealistic, enormous change. The small step to start with for now is simply to ask yourself,

“Am I capable of handling this situation?”

If that feels like too big of a step, you might ask,

“Am I capable of learning a better way to deal with conflict in my relationship?”

...or, even,

“Am I interested in learning a better way to deal with conflict in my relationship?”

There is always a place to start.

If you are struggling and feel that you need support in dealing with conflict in a more productive and helpful manner, I encourage you to reach out for support from a therapist, and/or to find additional articles, books or other resources that you relate to. Coming to experience conflict as a friend is a great gift you will give to yourself and your relationship.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~Winston Churchill

**If you are experiencing conflict in which someone is being physically, sexually, spiritually, or psychologically hurt, please do reach out to your local shelter or the national domestic violence hotline (800.799.SAFE (7233)) for support.

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