I read an article the other day from a leadership expert I respect and admire. He was arguing that one’s ability to manage conflict within one’s marriage is indicative of one’s ability to manage conflict as a leader in other contexts.
Now, while that sounds like a reasonable premise, it is in fact extremely misguided for three reasons:
1. Conflict In a Marriage Is Unlike Any Other Kind of Conflict
Couples often wrongly assume that marital conflict can be managed in the same way that you might manage a disagreement in a board meeting or a conflict about the best path forward on a project at work. But the truth is, both partners in a marriage have much more invested in every conflict – even ones that seem really trivial.
2. Partners Look for a Mate to Create a Secure Attachment With
Couples don’t just join together in a marriage and run things like a business. Well, I suppose some couples do, but generally not the highly successful ones. Instead, they work to find a level of emotional closeness and vulnerability that allows them to feel safe, known, and loved in their marriage. I don’t know about you, but I am far less concerned about feeling safe and loved by my co-workers or team mates.
3. Attachment Leads to the Potential for Safety Threats
Every conflict represents a potential threat to the safety and love that we seek in our marriages. Threats to safety tend to trigger fear-based responses (the classic fight-or-flight syndrome), and fear-based responses lead to clouded judgment and impaired conflict management skills.
The Comparison Doesn’t Hold Up
All this means that how we handle conflict inside our marriages often has very little bearing on our ability to manage conflict in other contexts. A highly skilled mediator can still lose all capacity for reason in the midst of a difficult fight with her spouse.
A better measure for how we will handle conflict (in a marriage context, or otherwise) is our emotional intelligence: how in-touch we are with our own feelings and internal emtional state; how empathic we are toward other people’s needs; and how skillful we are at calming our own fear centers long enough to regroup and try again.
If your marriage has a lot of conflict in it, it probably has very little to do with your “conflict-management” skills, and everything to do with your level of engagement with your own emotional intelligence.