“As long as you live under my roof…” my father said. He didn’t finish because I responded with “Then I won’t live under your roof.”
It is safe to say we were in conflict.
Conflict is a serious dispute. It is more than a casual disagreement or passing issue. Conflict has underlying core issues. Conflicts are prolonged battles. Sometimes they can be mediated; not so much eliminated, more of a cease fire. My mother talked us off the ledge but the underlying conflict of dependence-independence was still present.
Conflicts are common. Married couples who have been together for many years still report unresolved conflicts. They manage to avoid the issue, limit its significance and/or agree to disagree. As it turns out, not every conflict can be resolved. Many couples find that not every conflict needs to be addressed.
Conflicts aren’t limited to interpersonal relationships. You can have an internal conflict. Some would argue that all conflicts are ultimately about internal struggles. We fight with others because of we are fighting with ourselves.
I don’t have a conflict; I know what exactly what I want. I want to make major changes in my life, as long as they don’t involve change. It life must change, I only want positive changes, no bad stuff. See, no conflict.
Types of Conflict
The work of Dollar and Miller help shed light on the types of conflict we face. Six situations produce four types of conflict: approach, avoidance, approach-approach, avoidance-avoidance, approach-avoidance and double approach-avoidance.
Approach. This is Dollard & Miller’s term for want. When we want something, we approach it, we get close. This is obviously not a conflict. If you put food at the end of a tunnel, a rat will run toward it. If you see a chocolate cake you like, you eat it.
The interesting thing about approach situations is that the closer we get to the cheese, the better it looks. There is a gradient you can chart. The closer you get, the more you want it. If you really want to get your kids excited, start 3 weeks before vacation with “Soon we’re going to Disneyland. Not today but soon.” By the time you get there, they will be flying high with anticipation.
Avoidance. The second condition also doesn’t produce conflict. If you put a rat in a maze (straight run) with punishment at the end (small electric shock), the rat does what you would do: avoid it. It stays as far away from it as it can. If there is something you dread, like paying taxes, you put it off for as long as you can. There is a gradient to avoidance too. The closer you get, the more you want to avoid it.
Approach-Approach. This is the first type of conflict. It is pretty mild, as conflicts go. Yet it is surprising how difficult a choice between two good things can be for some people. Approach-approach is a choice between two things you like. Do you want pumpkin or apple pie? An approach-approach conflict is how you choose your bank, gas station or grocery store. Assuming there are no major differences between them, you pick whichever is closest or most convenient.
Avoidance-Avoidance. The second type of conflict is a choice between two things you don’t like. Do you want to take out the garage or get yelled at? Which of two jobs, policies or candidates will you choose when you don’t want either option?
Put rats in a straight-run maze with punishment at each end and they will stay in the middle, not approaching either end. Put a rat in a shuttle box (no place to run) with shock on each side, they will jump from side to side. Like you, they try to stay in the air as much as possible.
The comic Jack Benny played a character who was so cheap that when confronted with a robber saying “Your money or your life” he had to think about it. When you are confronted with a choice between two negative options, you try to avoid making a decision.
Approach-Avoidance. The third type of conflict is more difficult. Put our fictional rat at one end a straight-run maze. Put both food and shock at the other end. Now you’ll see the approach and avoidance gradients at work.
The ran starts to run toward the food (approach) but the closer it gets the slower it goes (avoidance). This is like a date with someone who is good looking but has bad breath. From a distance, the approach is strong but the negative issues become stronger the closer you get.
The avoidance gradient is steeper than the approach gradient. Both go up but avoidance rises faster. Getting paid (approach) for working with people you don’t like (avoidance) is approach-avoidance. When you’re at home, getting paid looks really good. The closer you get to work in the morning, the more you remember you don’t want to be there.
A wedding is wonderful a month before the event. Every day it gets closer the better it looks. But every day it is closer the worse it looks too. As the avoidance gradient crosses the approach gradient, you start to wonder if this is the right person. Maybe marriage isn’t for you. It’s only a piece of paper. Maybe you should look at other candidates, someone taller or shorter. Or someone the same size.
Double Approach-Avoidance. This fourth type of conflict is where you can really drive yourself nuts (non-clinically speaking). In our straight-run maze, the rat in put in the middle. At each end there is both food and shock. What would you do if you were the rat?
The rat runs to toward one end (doesn’t matter which) but slows down when the avoidance gradient gets too high. It then turns around and runs toward the other end because the approach gradient is stronger than the avoidance gradient. The rat slows down when the avoidance gradient increases, turns and runs the other direction. The rat spends all of its time running back and forth, never making a decision.
In human terms, the double approach-avoidance conflict is the choice between two alternatives, each with positive and negative factors. It is the choice between going home for Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you hate or staying in your apartment eating a TV dinner all alone. It the choice between a job you would love in a city you hate, and a job you can tolerate in a city you love. It is the choice between a pleasant woman who loves cats and a slightly less (or more) pleasant woman who loves dogs.