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The Right and Wrong of Conflict

78057026Whether filing for divorce or not, relationships usually deal with conflict at one point or another. Anyone who has ever been in any kind of argument knows it feels good to be right, and not so good to be wrong. However, psychology research has shown that the right and wrong, or “the truth,” of relational conflict is much more relative and fuzzy than we tend to believe.

When an incident or disagreement takes place, there is almost always two, or perhaps multiple, sides of the story. Each person believes their version of the truth is right and any other is wrong. But what if all versions are right, or all versions are wrong? Or what if there is no right or wrong?

These questions are probably more frustrating than enlightening, so I’ll go ahead and get to the point now.

Cognitive Dissonance: The “I Am Always Right” Syndrome

“People selectively hear and see what matches their beliefs and experiences,” explains Christina Curtis, a leadership coach who writes for Psychology Today. “They then lace each action of the event with meaning, and seek validation from those around them.”

In psychological terms, the above theory is called cognitive dissonance, when you find or sometimes actively create supportive evidence that you are right to avoid any feelings of being wrong. It’s a self-protective defense mechanism we use to avoid those negative feelings and instead keep ourselves standing in an angelic, heroic light.

The downside of this mechanism is the way it becomes destructive in relationships, especially the most intimate, conflict-ridden relationship of all: Marriage. Playing the right vs. wrong game allows disagreements to escalate and belittle the opponent, preventing quick resolution and reconciliation that can follow under ideal circumstances.

Victim vs. Villain

Another way of terming what is right and wrong within relational conflicts is calling out the victim and the villain. The victim is the right one and, of course, the villain is the one in the wrong. In order to protect yourself from being wrong, the other person slides into a downward spiral in your eyes, as you find evidence that they’ve been wrong all along and have characteristically selfish, villainous tendencies.

The main problem with this conflict approach is the way cognitive dissonance emphasizes the negative and downplays the positive in a partner. The victim ends up ignoring certain facts while self-servingly highlighting only the facts that support viewing the other as a villain. Rather than alleviating conflict, it’s simply worsening it.

The Potential Upside of Conflict

By escalating conflict, the two opponents bypass the opportunity to work through it thoughtfully and come out the other end stronger as a couple. Researcher John Gottman “found that stable marriages consistently had 5 times more positive behaviors than negative behaviors during an exchange.”

Even though there may be negative things to express during marital conflict, or conflict that occurs while going through the divorce process, focusing on all the positive facts about the other person produces more positive results. Seeing conflict with objective, all-encompassing eyes, instead of biased, self-serving ones helps you see all sides of the story, not just one version of the truth.

How does the theory of cognitive dissonance affect your view of relational conflict?

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