Numerous sources of perceived incompatibility can trigger interpersonal conflict. Sometimes one person’s goal clashes with another’s. Other times parties disagree about the means to achieve a common goal, or they mistakenly perceive incompatibility due to miscommunication or lack of communication. Conflicts often emerge when behavior violates expectations or runs contrary to social or relational rules. Under such circumstances, one person perceives another’s behavior as annoying, inappropriate, interfering, offensive, or otherwise dispreferred.
Conflict issues can be inferred and expressed at various levels of abstraction (Braiker & Kelley 1979). At the most concrete level, conflicts stem from particular behaviors. These can range in seriousness from a one-time trivial irritation, to a cumulatively annoying habit, to a serious relational transgression. Meta-conflict occurs when disagreement pertains to the manner in which conflict is enacted (e.g., “I don’t like it when you yell at me when we discuss our differences”). More abstractly, conflicts can reflect broader relationship issues such as power, intimacy, privacy, respect, trust, and commitment. Conflicts can also be about disagreeable personality traits. Conflicts about relationship issues and personality tend to be more serious and more difficult to resolve than conflicts about particular behaviors. One study found, for example, that the frequency of conflict regarding issues of power and trust was associated with relational dissatisfaction (Kurdek 1994).
A particular episode of conflict can revolve around multiple and sometimes complex issues, although they may not all be expressed. One person’s complaint about another’s particular behavior (e.g., failing to do laundry) might reflect a hidden agenda; that is, an unexpressed dissatisfaction regarding a broader relationship issue such as power or intimacy (e.g., who has more control in the relationship). Occasionally the source of conflict is not about the incompatibility that is expressed. In such cases the confrontational person creates a conflict to vent latent (and perhaps subconscious) dissatisfaction unrelated to the expressed conflict. For instance, a friend may criticize a companion’s behavior, but the real source of discontent is a bad mood due to a stressful day at work.
Dimensions Of Interpersonal Conflict Behavior
One common distinction used to characterize conflict behavior is its constructive versus destructive nature (Deutsch 1973). Constructive conflict conveys neutral or positive affect, assumes a collaborative orientation, and tends to be relationship preserving. Constructive conflict is reflected in behaviors that focus on problem solving, show respect, save face, share information, and validate each person’s worth. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, conveys negative affect, assumes a competitive orientation, and tends to be relationship undermining. Behaviors that demean, ridicule, attack, and coerce are typically destructive. For example, Gottman (1994) identified a common destructive pattern of behavior in marital conflicts. He found that distressed marital couples, compared to nondistressed couples, engage in personal criticism, which elicits contempt, characterized by bitter scorn and disdain. Contempt, in turn, leads to defensiveness marked by a whining tone, making excuses, and denying responsibility for untoward behavior. This can lead to stonewalling, which conveys smugness, icy distance, and unwillingness to participate in the conflict. When these behaviors become habitual and reciprocated, they undermine relationship satisfaction and are highly predictive of eventual divorce.
Although negative conflict behaviors undermine interpersonal relationships, particularly when they entail the reciprocation of negative affect, there is also evidence that positive behaviors play a role in preserving relationships. Nondistressed married couples, regardless of whether they exhibited a high or low frequency of disagreements, tended to enact five positive behaviors for every one negative behavior during conflict interactions. Among distressed couples the ratio of positive to negative behaviors was roughly one-toone (Gottman 1994). Partners prevent conflict interactions from escalating into chains of reciprocating negative behavior through accommodation (Rusbult et al. 1991). When a negative pattern of behavior emerges, one partner accommodates by resisting the impulse to respond destructively and makes an effort to put the discussion back on a constructive course. In addition, the negative effects of recurring serial conflicts are mitigated when partners provide reassurance by conveying relationally confirming messages (Johnson & Roloff 2000). Aside from the satisfaction that positive behaviors engender, they also help nullify the adverse relational consequences of negative behaviors.
When individuals perceive a conflict, they can choose either to confront the issue or avoid it. Although confrontation is most commonly associated with the occurrence of conflict, it is also common for individuals to avoid the expression of disagreements. In particular, people withhold their dissatisfactions when the issue is relatively trivial, when they see little hope of resolving the conflict, or when they feel that confrontation will yield irreparable damage to the relationship. The manifestations of conflict avoidance are varied, and include withholding complaints, deflecting another’s attempt to confront, giving in to another’s demands, repeatedly dodging a sensitive subject, and withdrawing from interaction.
Neither confrontation nor avoidance of conflict is always constructive or destructive. Effective confrontation can yield a host of positive consequences. These include promoting desired change, finding fair and creative solutions to problems, creating opportunities for mutual gain, defusing negative arousal, attaining mutual understanding, and developing solidarity and a mutual sense of accomplishment. When confrontation goes awry, it can lead to polarization, stalemate, relationship damage, enmity, and even physical violence. Thus, strategic avoidance of some conflicts is necessary for interpersonal relationships to develop and be maintained. However, systematically withholding complaints is damaging to relationships when the avoided issues are important, recurring, and foster growing feelings of resentment.
One commonly studied pattern of conflict behavior, the demand–withdraw sequence, involves a dyadic combination of both confrontation and avoidance behaviors. During episodes of demand–withdraw, one person issues criticism and pushes to gain compliance while the other person resists confrontation and attempts to avoid the issue. Either demanding or withdrawing can initiate the sequence; demanding can lead to withdrawing, but withdrawing can also lead to demanding. Research indicates that chronic demand– withdraw patterns are often, but not always, associated with relationship dissatisfaction and dissolution (e.g., Caughlin & Huston 2002).
Factors That Influence How People Respond To Conflict
People’s beliefs about conflict in general can influence their orientation toward it. Some individuals, for example, regard conflict as negative. They believe that disagreement is destructive and confrontation should be avoided. Individuals with such beliefs respond to interpersonal conflicts in ways that damage their relationships, and they experience lower relational satisfaction compared to those who do not endorse these beliefs.
Individuals possess mental schemas that shape their expectations for how different types of relationships ought to operate. These schemas guide how individuals behave in their relationships, including how they manage conflict. For example, Fitzpatrick (1988a) demonstrated that there are different types of marriages, and different couple types possess different expectations about how to manage conflict. Traditionals, who possess a conventional ideology of marriage and value closeness and interdependence, engage in overt conflict on particularly important issues, and exhibit less negativity in confrontations compared to other couple types. Independents hold an unconventional ideology of marriage and value both autonomy and interdependence in their marriage. They prefer to resolve disagreements through overt confrontation. Separates hold a conventional ideology of marriage and value autonomy over interdependence in marriage. Consequently, they prefer to avoid confrontation. Research regarding the role of schemas in conflict has been largely confined to marital relationships. Future inquiry should reveal how schemas in other kinds of interpersonal relationships (e.g., between friends, co-workers) influence conflict tendencies.
Relationship climate tends to foster a self-fulfilling character to conflicts. Satisfying relationships are marked by constructive management of conflict, which perpetuates the stability of the relationship. This is partly attributable to the tendency to possess positive illusions about one’s partner (Holmes & Murray 1996). When the overall relational frame is positive, individuals idealize characteristics of their partner and downplay their faults by interpreting them in optimistic and trusting ways. These perceptual tendencies naturally militate against destructive conflict tendencies. In similar fashion, relationships that are troubled are more likely to exhibit destructive behaviors and reciprocity of negative acts and negative affect. Such relationships lack the benevolent and optimistic appraisals that preserve relationships by diminishing the likelihood and intensity of negative perceptions and behaviors.
The causal and responsibility attributions one makes about another’s conflict behaviors exert a particularly potent influence on how one responds to that behavior. Compared to individuals in stable and satisfying relationships, individuals in distressed or troubled relationships are more likely to view their partner’s conflict behavior as global rather than confined to a single issue, stable rather than fleeting, and personality-driven rather than context-driven. Moreover, they perceive their partner’s conflict behavior as intentional, blameworthy, and selfishly motivated. These chronic interpretations foster defensive, hostile, and otherwise destructive responses, which in turn, further erode relationship satisfaction and stability.
Personality also exerts an influence on how one responds to conflict. Individuals can manifest a conflict style that transcends situations and relationships. Some people behave in ways that are dispositionally competitive, cooperative, or avoidant. Agreeable individuals tend to enact constructive conflict behaviors whereas neurotic individuals tend to enact destructive conflict behaviors. Individuals who are characterized as verbally aggressive tend to engage in personal attacks, teasing, ridicule, and insults more than their less aggressive counterparts. Some people are thin-skinned and predisposed to take conflict personally. Because they feel persecuted, threatened, and hurt by interpersonal conflict, they avoid it (Hample 1999).
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