"Growing each other up" - relationship conflict as an opportunity for personal development

Conflict in relationships is never easy. Many of us would like to have a relationship free of conflict, at least most of the time.

However, conflict is not only impossible to avoid, but can be healthy in a relationship. Done skillfully and with awareness of what buttons are being pushed for yourself and your partner, conflict can take couples into new territory that promotes personal growth as well as enhancing intimacy together.

David Schnarch, a renowned couples therapist, argues that relationships flourish best when partners are able to see relationship conflict as a powerful vehicle that can assist our own personal growth. 

So what might this look like in practise?

Some examples may be:-

Everything is going well until Brad and Sue move in together. Suddenly arguments get going about who does what, about budgeting, feeling valued and supported by each other. Both feel that if only the other would listen and see their point of view, then all would be well. Brad has always lived with his parents, until he moved in with Sue. Sue has lived independently for many years, after a few years in share-houses. If this couple saw their conflict through the lens of a developmental challenge for each of them as individuals, each have the opportunity to work on different goals. For Brad - changing his identity at home from that of an adult child to partner may mean he has to 'grow up' his expectations of how much responsibility he takes for housework and budgeting. Sue's challenge may be to accommodate Brad's different views on how best to do things, after years of only having to please herself.


Tania and John have recently had their first child together. They find it impossible to agree on how to parent together, and are struggling to find ways to be intimate post-baby. Tania has always struggled with self-esteem issues about her body and finds it difficult to accept that John still finds her sexually attractive while she is carrying extra weight. John comes from a traditional family where his mother did all the practical tasks of parenting, and his Dad worked long hours. If they were to address their difficulties as an opportunity for personal growth, Tania might challenge her negative self-talk about her body and experiment with acting as though she were a sexually attractive person to John. John may accept the challenge to step into the tasks of bathing and feeding the baby, and think about the pros and cons of parenting in a way that is different to how he was parented.

Encountering conflict as an opportunity for personal development is no guarantee that things will be easier - growth and change are arduous processes! However working on yourself in relationship is a sure path to increased intimacy in the longer-term, both with your partner, and perhaps more importantly, with yourself.

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