You and I would be hard put to name someone who has never had an argument with a friend, spouse or other family member. Differences of opinion, disagreements and conflict are inevitable in any human relationship, no matter how close it is. The thoughts and actions of one will not always be acceptable to the other.

It is natural for you to make efforts to maintain and even grow a relationship with another individual that you value. This makes the two of you interdependent, so that when conflict does occur – as it inevitably will – you instinctively look for resolution. When the conflict is over something relatively trivial it is easily dispensed with. Disagreements over substantive issues, however, can put relationships to the test.

Healthy Conflict

While we all have a few friends, colleagues and family members who relish arguments, most people tend to shy away from disagreements, especially when they begin to get heated.  Let’s agree to disagree, they say. Conflict is commonly perceived as ‘bad.’  However, clinical psychologists and experts in the field tell us that conflicts create opportunity for growth; that they have the potential to bring people closer to one another.

One research study found that expressing anger can help a relationship, “with the short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation benefiting the health of the relationship in the long-term.”  According to Professor Robert Allan, arguing is actually a sign that you’re deeply invested in the other person. “People don’t fight with you if they don’t care about you,” he says.  Psychologists tell us that conflicts provide opportunity for people to grow and understand themselves better, and encourage argument rather than its avoidance, provided some fundamental rules and guidelines are followed. Paramount among these is respect for the other person.

Top Conflict Triggers

Why do couples fight? What causes conflict in relationships?  Psychology Today summarized the top conflict triggers :  condescending behavior; being possessive, jealous or dependent; neglecting or rejecting the other person; being abusive, unfaithful or inconsiderate; being self-absorbed or moody; and sexual (mis)behavior. Other common sources of conflict – especially across cultures – are division of labor, finances, decision making, role expectations and raising children.  All experts agree on one thing:  the key to conflict resolution is how well partners communicate with one another.

Long-lasting, sustained conflict can take a toll on the physical and emotional health of one or both partners in a relationship. This is true for any type of relationship: with a partner, parent, sibling, child, friend, or co-worker. A two-year study at the Institute of Aging at Portland State University found that sustained conflict leads to high levels of stress, resulting in a weakening of the immune system, which in turn leads to a variety of health issues.  Other research has shown that sustained conflict and stress make some people more susceptible to infections like colds and the flu, and chronic headaches, and neck and back pain. Chronic stress can also lead to health conditions such as anxiety disorders, burnout, depression, diabetes, hair loss, insomnia and obesity.

Finding Middle Ground

Denial and avoidance of the issues underlying the conflict – pretending the problem does not exist, or trying to smooth over the problem will not resolve it in the long term. Competing or fighting invariably leads to a “winner” and a “loser.” A negotiated compromise, where each gives up something in order to find middle ground, can yield acceptable results. Better yet, open and active collaboration – working together to achieve a shared outcome – invariably yields lasting solutions to the conflict. However, neither compromise or collaboration can occur without clear and respectful communication.

This brings us to the question: how do we have a better, healthier argument? How do we resolve a dispute without injecting negative emotions, laying blame or attempting to force or coerce one another to accept our way? Professor Allen and Dr. Maria Thestrup, a practicing clinical psychologist, have several tips for us.

Keeping Relationships Healthy

First, always treat the other with respect, even when disagreeing with them.  Avoid emotion, try to be flexible and maintain a positive dialog.   Keep an open mind: avoid judgement, listen carefully and set ego aside. Many disputes recur over the same issue, with repeated arguments that get nowhere. When this happens, step back and identify the other person’s pain points.

Understand the underlying cause for each person’s feelings. Share your feelings.  Explain why you feel the way you do; what it does to you in a factual, objective manner. Practice active listening. Try to understand both the message being conveyed and the depth of the underlying emotions. Listen and ask questions as needed, instead of focusing on framing your response.

What’s Bothering You?

Never forget that you are in this together; which is why you are engaging in the argument instead of ignoring the situation. If things get heated, pause and revisit the conflict later at an agreed-upon time. Stick it out and reach a resolution, even if it takes time to get to one.

Finally, practice introspection and stay curious: what triggered the argument? Why are you in it? Can you tease out what is actually bothering you? This last step is likely to result in personal growth.

Some other helpful advice from experts: always attempt to keep the lines of communication open and try to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Say you are sorry if you realize you’ve made a mistake. Apologizing goes a long way towards healing wounds on both sides. Instead of complaining about something the other person has said or done, frame your thought in the form of a request. Focus on the big picture and let go the little things that do not matter. Don’t assume you know how the other person thinks or feels.

Building, maintaining and growing any meaningful relationship takes work.  Seize every opportunity to nurture and enhance it even as you grow in the process!

Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com. More by Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...