A recent article published by Time Magazine asked this loaded question: Is it better to be happy or right in a relationship? The article explained the findings of a study done on couples in New Zealand in which the husband was to agree with everything his wife said during the course of the study. The wife, on the other hand, had no idea the study was taking place. The results? The man grew (understandably) more and more angry and after 12 days, he called off the experiment.
While we can appreciate the researcher's pursuit of cracking the code of marital bliss, one is tempted to ask why in the world this study was even conducted. It's a bit like asking, "Would you rather breathe or let your heart beat?" In other words, being happy and being right are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they have no relationship with each other at all, except when juxtaposed by some weird study.
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The underlying question in this study is on the role of conflict. We assume that the researchers were hoping to come up with a way to minimize conflict in a relationship — and by doing that, create harmony and have Mr. and Mrs. holding hands, gazing at each other like they're teenagers again. But right from the start, the researchers got off on the wrong foot. Here's the thing: Conflict is actually needed in relationships. Without it, we'd never learn about each other, never get to know each other, never let each other "in", and never have the benefit of being known by the other person.
In fact, without some conflict, we'd never have satisfying sex. And that would be a pity, since sex is the safest and most intimate place for two people to share together. Here's a way to look at it conflict as being more helpful: Conflict isn't something to be afraid of. In fact, it's a beautiful thing. Every person in the world wants to be known, truly known, by someone else. Conflict is what allows us to do that.
Conflict chips away at the walls we put up to keep people out. We think we build these walls to keep ourselves safe. Life is painful at times, and most painful of all from the people we love most. But as we know from experience, those walls of isolation create loneliness, fear and the feeling of being unloved. As the singer Ray LaMontagne put it: "Don't put your trust in walls, they'll only crush you when they fall."
"But I don't LIKE conflict!", I can hear some people saying. Well… why not? If we look deeper, we'll find the reason why is that conflict scares us. It's because it forces us to be vulnerable. In a conflict, we may think we have only two choices:
- Get mad and retaliate
- Roll over and be taken advantage of
Neither of those appeal to me, and I'll assume they don't appeal to you either. Those two choices are the easy routes. Easy because they're familiar, like habits that we've gotten used to. We don't like the result, but the habit makes them easy to go with. But there's a third choice, and it's hardly ever spoken of. It's the choice of people who do have great marriages, great friendships, great love lives.
And, I'll bet you've done it before, even if on accident. The third choice is to open up to why the conflict is happening. To be honest with yourself and be honest with the other person. No accusations, no self pity, no manipulation. This might take longer, and it might be hard to do because in the midst of the conflict, we might not even know the answer to these things at first. But if we resist the impulse to run for safety in anger or giving in, we'll find a deeper connection with ourselves, our partner, in fact, with our fellow men. Kind of like the difference between getting a burger from a fast food drive in, or going to sit down restaurant for a filet mignon. The filet will cost you more, it will take more time, but it's way more satisfying.
A nice but unrealistic philosophy, some may say. Maybe it is. But it requires a great deal of courage, character and self-esteem to use this "goody goody" philosophy. And, if we must use a goody goody philosophy to love ourselves and each other more, so be it. Better that than leaning on the crutch of our own habitual patterns that end up destroying our relationships with ourselves, our lover, and our friends and family.
And here's the best part: By breaking through the crust of our own defenses, we get to the center of ourselves. In exchange for our courage, we get levity, gaiety, love, light-heartedness and life free from the fear of someone else's approval. Like when you were a kid and got a blow pop. Once you broke through the hard outer shell of the lollipop, you got the gooey center of the bubble gum. So it is with us!
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