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Return to Articles about Relationships

Interactions of Conflict in A Loving Relationship

by: Patrick Flaherty
Interactions of Conflict in A Loving Relationship

Loving relationships exhume our most intense feelings and emotions, as individuals invest so much of themselves in their lover. It seems that the more important the relationship becomes in one’s life, the greater the risks involved if the relationship breaks down. Yet it is no surprise that with all of the time spent and personal intimacy one shares with their lover, this is where some of the greatest conflicts arise from. A loving relationship is often characterized by its “ups and downs” we like to say; the happiest moments to the most conflicted. So social psychologists often observe the human response to conflict and the nature of human behavior during a conflict. While every reaction is obviously distinctly different, there are general patterns of behavior that can be identified by social psychologists. While the two different paradigms of Cognitive Social Psychology and Symbolic Interactionism have differing conclusions about human behavior regarding conflict, both paradigms have valid points. Both paradigms can be analyzed and applied through a hypothetical conflict in a loving relationship. While Cognitive Social Psychologists emphasize ideas like game theories like mixed motive and the prisoner’s dilemma in conflict, Symbolic Interactionists will tend to stress ideas like strategic interaction and expression games.

To give some background on the loving relationship that will serve as the lab-rat for this paper, the conflict should be explained. Robert and Stephanie have been dating for three years now, as they met while attending graduate school at Brown University. They found that they had many of the same interests, and immediately had a mutual connection that they could not put into words. After a period of flirtation that lasted several weeks, the pair began to officially date. Both were experienced with intimate relationships, but neither had felt so confident about a relationship as this one. After eight months dating, they began to say “I love you” to one another and they truly meant every word that they said. However, it wasn’t until a full year of dating until Robert met Stephanie’s parents.

As expected, the in-laws just didn’t get along with Robert’s dogmatic ways and felt he was a bad influence on their precious daughter. Yet Stephanie was able to ignore their urging for a breakup and they have been dating for two more years since that first incident. However, the problem of dislike still lingers between Robert and Stephanie’s parents (the Franklins). For some reason lately Robert and Stephanie have been arguing all the time over the most trivial issues, and both of them know that in the back of their mind it’s probably due to the stress that the Franklin’s put on their “possible future together.” So it comes as no surprise that when deciding on where to go for Thanksgiving, a conflict arises. The Franklin’s have invited the couple over, yet Robert knows that he will be miserable as they degrade him the whole time and attempt to push Stephanie away from his loving grasp. But Stephanie hasn’t seen her family in four months and desperately wants to be around them again. The final decision is given to Robert, so should go to spend Thanksgiving with Stephanie’s parents, Robert’s parents, a mutual friend, or just home together amongst themselves? The conflict is quite tough to resolve, and will be reviewed from several different angles.

The paradigm of cognitive social psychology sees meaning as inherent with the individual’s job being to find this meaning. Researchers in this paradigm ask questions of “why?” They explain that conflict can turn into hostility when feels vulnerable and has a weak sense of self. By using game theories like that of mixed motive games where there are at least two options during each turn and the options and outcomes aren’t always clear, researchers can study the human response to conflict. A classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners are given a chance to confess about a crime they committed together. The consequences come out that 1) if both confess, the sentence is mediocre 2) if one confesses but not the other, the confessor is given no sentence while the other is given a heavy sentence 3) If neither confesses, they both receive a light sentence. The results of the game showed why people act in conflict, as the best route would have been for both to remain silent yet because they aren’t trusting they usually take a worse road. Gender differences that were shown through research imply that females are less cooperative, retaliate more, prefer accommodation, and use the “tit for tat strategy” more often. (Elliott Lecture, November 18th) The tit for tat strategy basically says that “I’ll cooperate as long as you do, but if you turn on me then I’ll turn on you too.” So by exploring various game theories, cognitive social psychologists can learn information about “why” people act the way they do in conflict.

The whole game theory idea can be applied to Robert’s dilemma with Thanksgiving, as shown below (assuming that the Franklins can express interest in having Robert over or not express any interest):

Franklins’ Choice

Express interest in No interest in being together

Being together

- Franklins see Rob as caring about Stephanie

- Stephanie happy

- Rob unhappy because he is with Franklins

- Chance to work on things and better relationship - Rob sees Franklins as offensive

- Stephanie is upset

- No chance to work on things

- Franklins see Rob as offensive

- Rob happy because he’s not around Franklins

- Stephanie is upset

- No chance to work on things - Both parties offended

- Rob happy he’s because not around Franklins

- Stephanie is upset

- No chance to work on things

The best course of action for both parties is clearly to express interest in being together. The only negative here is that Robert is unhappy, yet with the prospect of working on things it is the only option that allows a bright outlook on the future too. Robert is a male so his tendencies in playing the game may not be quite as aggressive as if the choice was given to Stephanie and the situation was that the Thomas’ disliked her. Yet Robert must still be mature and choose to express interest in being together with the Franklins, and they must in turn do the same thing. This mutual course of action clearly has the best outlook for the future.

Symbolic interactionists view the individual as a process, with the surrounding world having no inherent meanings as we must assign meanings to everything. We are always adapting and changing; we are dynamic, not stagnant beings. Symbolic interactionists are always asking questions involving “how”, attempting to define the world around them. When a conflict arises, strategic interaction is a way that individuals will act and think, that is closely identified with symbolic interactionism. Strategic interaction is a method of behavior whereby individuals examine the world around them, identify actors involved, possible courses or action, and then use all accessible information to act based on projected outcomes. Erving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life discusses this idea in depth identifies its various characteristics. He defines strategic interaction’s conditions where, “Two or more parties must find themselves in a well-structured situation of mutual impingement where each party must make a move and where every possible move carries fateful implications for all parties involved.” (Goffman, 1959)

To apply this to the situation of Robert and Stephanie, look at how their interactions affect so many separate individuals. No matter what course of action Robert decides to take, more than just he and Stephanie will be affected. If they decide to go to the home of the Franklins’, Robert will be viewed as caring by Stephanie and possibly even by her parents. But regardless, they will still abuse him at every possible chance and put him down behind his back to Stephanie. If they decide to go to the home of Robert’s parents (the Thomas’), Stephanie will be upset about not seeing her family and the Franklins will surely talk badly about Robert to Stephanie because he is “being selfish.” If they decide to stay home alone then the Franklins perceive Robert as taking their daughter away from them, and if they visit mutual friends then both sets of parents are offended. It seems that every path will encounter problems; just through strategic interaction Robert can take the path where he faces the least amount of dilemmas. He should examine each possible course of action, place priorities on certain actors and decisions, and go from there.

Another term that Goffman identifies and goes on to describe in his book is referred to as expression games. In these games, the actors have different roles and take turns making moves against their opponent. There are various terms that should first be explained so that the game theory is completely understood. Each actor can be a party, player, pawn, token or informant. A party is anything with a “unitary interest to promote” and can often be a combination of several of the above terms. Individuals are referred to as players when they exercise intelligence by assessing their situation and following through on a selected course of action for the party. Pawns are those individuals whose social or bodily welfare is in jeopardy and can become the interest by which the stake of the game depends on. Tokens are simply those people who openly express the position that the party has taken. Lastly, informants possess information and pass this on to other actors involved. (Goffman, 1959) Next, there is the issue of a turn versus a move. Turns are the opportunity that an actor is given to take a course of action, whereas moves are the actual course of action that is completed. Turns are merely opportunities, while moves are the acts that exemplify usage of that opportunity. Expression games are based on different actors taking different turns to make moves, all of which will have some influence on the other actors within the game.

In reference to Robert and Stephanie, it is very possible to apply expression games to their specific situation. In this case Robert acts as his own party, and is a player, pawn and token within this party. He represents his own party whose interests are to please those around him while strengthening his weakened loving relationship with Stephanie. He acts as player by making a specific move when deciding where they should spend Thanksgiving, yet he is a pawn because his own social welfare (his loving relationship) is at stake. Lastly, he is a token because he must announce to all those awaiting his decision what course of action the couple will take. Another example of a party involved is portrayed by the Franklins, as their interests involve the separation of their daughter from her relationship with Robert. These two parties appear to be the most significant in regards to the current dilemma.

While expression games explain the roles of the actors involved, it also explains how and why the actors will make their moves. As with any game, there will always be an opponent. In order to outplay one’s opponent, actors use a few pieces of knowledge about their opponent that they may gather. These include the opponent’s operational code, resolve, information state, resources, gameworthiness and integrity. Here is how Goffman defines each of these terms:

• Operational Code- “the orientation to gaming that will diffusely influence how the opponent plays... the opponent’s preference pattern…”

• Resolve- “the opponent’s determination to proceed with the game at whatever price to himself.”

• Information state- “the knowledge the opponent may posses about the important features of his own situation and of (his opponent’s).”

• Resources- “the stuffs that the other as a party can draw upon in his adaptations to the situation”

• Gameworthiness- “the intellectual proclivity to assess all the possible courses of action and their consequences from the point of view of all the contesting parties…the ability to think and act under pressure… the ability and willingness to dissemble about anything…”

• Integrity- “the strength of their propensity to remain loyal to the party once they have agreed to play for it…” (Goffman, 1959)

By evaluating and calculating each of these characteristics within one’s opponent, it becomes possible to determine the best possible course of action. Knowledge of one’s opponent gives an individual a major advantage, as he or she can think moves ahead of the present. By determining the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, individuals can better estimate how a course of action will be received so that they may make the most successful move.

While there are clearly many parties involved in the current conflict that Robert and Stephanie face, it is clear that the party of Robert is faced with an opponent represented by the Franklin’s. Stephanie may also be considered a part of Robert’s party, yet her loyalty to the opposing party of the Franklin’s may be greater than her loyalty to Robert’s party. She also is a semi-informant to Robert as she surely tells him some of the information she knows about her parents and even their opinions of him, yet she definitely withholds a lot of information as well. When deciding where to spend Thanksgiving, Robert needs to first examine his knowledge of the Franklins so that he can predict their response to his move. Their operational code is against Robert, as they are always protective of Stephanie and critical of Robert. Their resolve to deface Robert appears to be without end, yet their information state about Robert is very limited because they never want to hear anything but the negative aspects of his life. However they do know that they have a great influence over their daughter. The resources they have are pretty much limited to Stephanie, and their integrity is without fault and they are highly loyal to each other and their daughter. Also, Robert must have great respect for the gameworthiness of the Franklins, as they are obviously willing to put up a fantastic fight to win their daughter back.

Robert is armed with all of this knowledge of his opponent, so he must utilize this to make his decision. To be successful in this game (of winning over the Franklins and Stephanie) his move should be to attend Thanksgiving at the Franklins’. All other parties involved (their mutual friends and the Thomas’) will not be greatly offended if the couple doesn’t join them for the holiday, so their relationships won’t be jeopardized. The only way that another party won’t be truly offended is if Robert and Stephanie will go the Franklin home. This move will show the Franklins that Robert cares about their daughter’s desires and needs, and the well-being of their family as a unit. Their integrity and resolve for their daughter to be happy are strong and will not change. Yet their information state about Robert is quite small and their resources will grow if they spend more time with him, so perhaps by interacting with the family he can make some minor movement towards winning them over. This is the most prudent move for the time being, so now the Franklin party must decide how to respond to Robert’s gesture once the couple arrives at their home for Thanksgiving. The game will be truly kicked into high-gear then.

One thing is for certain among all of these differing paradigms and opinions- conflict promotes growth. While conflict is thought of with a negative connotation, it is actually beneficial to life. Without conflict individuals would not face the underlying problems that each person faces, nor would they proceed into future development. (Elliott Lecture, November 18th) Conflict is a necessary and automatic part of daily human behavior, and individuals learn and develop through its eventual resolution.

Whether from the vantage point of a cognitive social psychologist or a symbolic interactionist, it is irrefutable that love is “fertile grounds for conflict.” (Essay prompt) With so much of an individual being invested into this one relationship, there is almost no way for there not to be a conflict at some point in time. The example of Robert and Stephanie’s dilemma shows an example of the little quarrels that loving couples experience, and the varying ways that they are resolved and acted through. Symbolic interactionists like Goffman use strategic interaction and define expression games to navigate the “hows” of human behavior through conflicts. Cognitive social psychologists will attempt to explain “why” specific behaviors occur in people when conflict is present, through the observation of various game theories. The most important concept is that universal idea that conflict cannot be ignored and only serves to strengthen individuals. It should not be observed as a negative event to be avoided, it is truly beneficial and essential to an individual’s maturation.

Works Cited

Elliott, Professor George. Lecture. November 18th, 2002.

Elliott, Professor George. Lecture. November 20th, 2002.

Elliott, Professor George. Lecture. November 22nd, 2002.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books. 1959.

Patrick Flaherty

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