We manage conflict in our close relationships in many ways. Some people like to take a conflict head-on and immediately address concerns with a partner. Others like to avoid addressing concerns or annoyances with a partner in order to “keep the peace.” Prior research indicates that there is also another way to approach conflict that involves conversation: to oblige a partner’s preferences so that a conflict is addressed by one person going along with the other, despite other needs and concerns.
An obliging conflict style places a high value on a partner, but a low value on oneself. In other words, an obliging person elevates the options and actions of another person to make them feel better about a conflict. Meanwhile, the obligor puts their needs secondary to the needs of a partner.
So why do people oblige? My own research shows that people wish to oblige when they are not highly invested in a conflict, or it would just be easier for a partner to get “his or her way.” My own research suggests that an obliging style reflects a strategy to give a partner more power. For example, consider a simple example of a couple deciding about where to go to dinner. One person prefers Indian and the other prefers Italian. So how does the couple make a decision? The obligor would go along with the partner’s food preference to dissipate further disagreement. Gross, M. A., and Guerrero (2000) suggest that giving in to a partner’s preferences is a fine way of managing conflict, as long as both partners’ needs are met over the long term of a relationship.
Research by Croucher (2011) and Kim & Kitani (1998) suggest cultural differences in the likelihood that someone would be obliging during conflict. Croucher (2011) examined the influence of influence of national and religious identification on conflict behavior among Christians and Muslims in Western Europe, including France, Germany and the UK. His findings indicate that national and religious identification had a significant influence on conflict behavior, such that Muslims preferred a more obliging style, compared to Christians. In a study of multiethnic populations in Hawaii, Kim and Kitani (1998) generally found that Asian Americans were more likely to prefer the obliging style compared to Caucasian Americans. Thus, in addition to individual experiences, cultural expectations appear to drive the desire to oblige to a partner (or not).
In summary, our decision to oblige to a partner during conflict may be heavily influenced by culture and our own experiences. How you manage conflict with a partner is up to you, but remember that you have to treat conflict as an important process where you and your partner both learn and grow from one another.
Croucher, S. (2011). Muslim and Christian conflict styles in Western Europe. International Journal of Conflict Management, 22(1), 60–74.
Gross, M. A., & Guerrero, L. K. (2000). Managing conflict appropriately and effectively: An application of the competence model to Rahim’s organizational conflict styles. International Journal of Conflict Management, 11(3), 200–226.
Kim, M. S., & Kitani, K. (1998). Conflict management styles of Asian- and Caucasian-Americans in romantic relationships in Hawaii. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 8(1), 51–68.