“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].
Q: Why is it that some couples are able to work through their differences, while others just go on hurting each other without ever reaching an understanding?
My parents have been married for 25 years and every time they have a disagreement, they always seem to work things out. My in-laws, on the other hand, seem to fight continuously and always seem so bitter and unhappy.
A: You’ve touched on one of the issues central to social relationships that deals with strategies for conflict resolution. Because humans are social animals, it’s normal for conflicts to arise from time to time. And whether we’re talking about intimate, family, working, or large-scale group relationships – the same underlying principles apply.
When faced with times of conflict, individuals can take one of several approaches. The approach we choose is typically determined by whether or not our tactics/responses are active or passive and constructive or destructive. These two dimensions interact to result in one of four approaches to conflict, and our tendencies toward one approach or another are often a function of our personality traits and what we have learned from our social environments (family dynamics, media, etc.).
Those with “active” personalities are out-going and extroverted, and tend to be vocal and direct about their thoughts and feelings. When taking a constructive approach to conflict, these types are more likely to lay their cards on the table and say, “We need to talk.” Individuals taking this approach are willing to hash things out until a mutual understanding is reached. And while the discussion or argument may be heated at times, the exchange of words is always respectful, fair, and mindful of protecting their mutual integrity. The couple that agrees to “never go to bed angry” exemplifies this active/constructive dynamic and is likely to do whatever it takes to restore understanding and harmony in the relationship.
However, when active personalities take on a destructive approach, the results can be volatile and highly damaging. Due to their direct and vocal nature, arguments can become hostile and physically and/or emotionally abusive – leaving a trail of deeply hurt feelings in its wake. Arguments of this nature are seldom played out fairly. Verbal assaults, insults and sarcasm are common (hitting below the belt), leading to a vicious downward cycle of resentment, contempt and alienation.
Those with a more “laid-back” nature fall on the passive dimension. These individuals have more introverted personalities and are generally less likely to be vocal and direct when expressing their feelings. Taking an indirect approach to communication – they may use body language, gestures and facial expressions, rather than words. However, if constructive – their strategies toward conflict are respectful and fair. They may not come right out and say, “Let’s talk about our problems,” but they will remain physically close, and may express care through gestures of kindness and consideration.
But passive individuals may also possess a destructive approach to conflict. This approach, while not actively hostile, can still result in abusive strategies that are “passively-aggressive.” For example, if your mate responds to your efforts of communicating concerns by slouching back on the couch and clicking on the television – thereby ignoring you – a passive-destructive method has been utilized. In fact, many psychologists have argued that ostracism is one of the cruelest forms of social punishment and may be even more damaging than verbal and/or physical attacks. The classic “silent treatment” of neglect and dismissal characterizes this approach. Also referred to as “stonewalling,” this tactic is highly destructive and one of the warning signs of relational deterioration and demise.
It is always wise to reflect on our own individual tendencies when it comes to resolving conflict so that we can better equip ourselves with strategies that will lead to peaceful resolution rather than perpetuating hardship by dehumanizing those around us. To complete the quote that closed last week’s column, I leave you with this food for thought:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or dehumanized…” – Goethe