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How Conflicts Help You Understand Your Partner

The purpose of conflict is to more fully understand your partner.  

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Does this sound familiar?  You think the conflict is about who is going to pick up your child after school.  It’s going to be a simple decision—it’s either you or your partner. But, somehow, there is no simple resolution.  The conflict seems bigger than that.  It feels like something deeper is going on for one or both of you.

The conflict

Let’s use this scenario as an example:

Sam and Chris are discussing who is going to pick up their daughter from school.  Sam says to Chris, “I can pick her up after school today.”

Chris says, “No, I’d like to pick her up.”

Sam comes back with, “You’re so busy at work today and I have the day off.  I’m happy to do it.”

Chris persists, “You should enjoy your day off.  I can fit it into my work day.”

They go back and forth like this for a while.  

When the resolution for the conflict feels like it should be easier than it turns out to be, that is the indicator that there might be some dreams within the conflict at play.  Step back and go deeper to the dream level.  

Questions to gain understanding

To get there, Sam and Chris can ask each other these kinds of questions:

  • “Can you tell me what makes this important to you?”
  • “Does this relate to your background in some way?”
  • “Is there a deeper purpose or goal for you about picking up our child at school?”
  • “What do you feel about it?”
  • “What is your wish in this situation? What is your need?”
  • “What will happen if your dream isn’t honored?”

Chris might share that when they were growing up, Chris’s parents weren’t involved in the daily school pick-up.  Perhaps because of this, Chris feels distant from their parents.  Chris has decided to parent differently.

Sam might share concerns about Chris’s job stability and doesn’t want to interrupt Chris’s workday when Sam could do the pick-up without intruding on work.  Sam might further express a craving for financial security because that was absent from Sam’s childhood. 

Dreams within conflict

Consider two things. First, relationships are not better if they are free of conflict, and in fact, all relationships have some sort of conflict in them. Second,  the purpose of conflict is not resolution.  The purpose of conflict is to more fully understand your partner.  

With this conflict definition, understanding each other’s dreams within the conflict can lead to a successful conflict outcome.  

Learning to recognize when there is this deeper dream level in a conflict will allow you to explore the dreams within the conflict and then move through the conflict more easily and peacefully.  

Sam and Chris now understand each other’s perspectives more fully.  Even if they still disagree, they’ve deepened their understanding of one another, they’ve grown closer, and they can come to a solution.  


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Jennifer Pesetsky serves couples and individuals online from Portland, Oregon. She comes to this work with a Law degree, a Master of Science degree in Library Science, and as a grateful Gottman consumer and practitioner. Grab her free Recharge Your Relationship guide and her free tool to help you create your own realistic daily self-care plan.

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