Why We Fight: the Origins of Conflict
The Origins of Conflict
The reasons for personal conflict between people are as varied and complicated as individual human beings are themselves. However, there are quite a few obvious sources of divergence that are clearly easy to understand. In order for conflict to arise between two or more people, there must first be some type of existing relationship. Although conflicts can and do arise between strangers, these are often straightforward disputes that do not involve your emotional investment. For instance, if you have ever been in a fender bender in which both parties feel the other is at fault, you have been in a conflict with a stranger. In these types of situations emotions may run rather high, feelings such as anger, frustration and annoyance may all surface, however, these encounters are usually brief and your emotional investment in them insubstantial. The conflicts that cause us the most difficulty are those that occur between friends and loved ones. A conflict with a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, parent, child, sibling, good friend, or a new friend will cost us much more emotionally in the long run if it goes unresolved, than those we have with random strangers.

Even the best of relationships experience conflict from time to time, and admitting that there is a conflict that needs to be resolved in no way implies that the relationship is bad or should end. This article will explain seven of the most common causes of conflict between people. In article 7, we will examine some methods of resolving each of these conflicts.

While we cannot cover all the reasons people conflict, we can examine some of those that cause the majority of disagreement between those in close relationships. In the examples given below, try to put yourself into the shoes of the first party as you read. When you are done, put yourself in the position of the other party. This will help you to experience the conflict from both sides. It is not important at this point who you believe is right or wrong in each scenario. It is only important that you relate to the example, or can relate it to something similar that has occurred in your own life, or that of someone you know.

The seven most prevalent reasons for personal conflict between people are as follows:

1. Two or more parties have differing or opposing agendas, goals, or desires.

Imagine this "Opposite Agenda" Conflict:

You and your fiance have a date for the movies. You want to see the new romantic comedy, but he wants to see the newest shoot-um-up, action-adventure flick. As you stand in line discussing which movie to see, you realize that the last time you went to the movies together you compromised and saw the movie of his choice. Now you are beginning to feel a little annoyed. He should know that it is your turn; he should simply compromise this time as you did last time--right? But he continues to try and convince you to see his movie. You protest and remind him of your prior compromise, but this does nothing to change his mind. He begins to get annoyed and can't understand why you are being so stubborn. To avoid an embarrassing full-blown argument in the movie line, you give in again and agree to see the movie he wants to see.

This is just one of many examples of two parties disagreeing on a point. The fiance could be someone you are dating, a friend, sibling, or parent. The situation could be in reverse, (the guy compromised the last time and it's the girlfriend who is pushing for her romantic comedy). In the end the conflict is not resolved, rather an argument nearly ensues and one party simply gives in rather than fight. Giving in is not conflict resolution. Do you see how the first party would feel resentful towards the second, particularly if this scenario happens again the next time they go to the movies?

Opposite agenda conflicts may be as minor as disagreeing on which movie to see, or as major as deciding whether or not to have children. Some other examples of opposite agenda conflict may include: vacation planning, deciding on large purchases for the home or apartment, deciding on a restaurant for dinner, or choosing a place to live. Can you think of any possible sources for conflict in this category? Can you think of instances when you conflicted with others because their agenda was different from yours?

2. One party has something the other party wants or needs, but he or she will not comply.

Imagine This "You Have Something I Need" Conflict:

You have a big interview but can't afford to purchase a good suit. You happen to know that your friend, who wears the same size, has a several great suits that he wears to work. You really need this job, so you politely ask if you can borrow one of his suits for the interview. He refuses. You explain that you really need this job and having a good appearance will help tremendously. He reiterates that he doesn't lend out his clothes to anyone, that he only has a few suits and can he really can't spare one. You are upset by his lack of generosity and don't see what the big deal is -- after all, he can't wear three suits at the same time, can he? He is annoyed that you won't take no for an answer and are refusing to understand his point of view -- after all, he thinks, "Why don't purchase your own darn suit; you're going to need something to wear to work if you get the job!"

As with Conflict One, this is only one of many examples and situations that can occur wherein, one person refuses to give the other something they need or want. Neither party is necessarily wrong or right, they simply have different views.

Some other examples in this category include: asking to be fixed up with an attractive family member or friend, asking for a job at a friend or family member's work place, asking to borrow a car or asking to borrow money. Can you think of a few examples in this category that might cause "withholding" conflict? Can you think of instances when you needed something from someone and they refused to comply? Can you likewise think of instances when you had something someone else needed or wanted, and you could not, or would not, give it to them?

3. The personalities between two people creates tension.

Imagine This "Personality" Conflict:

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Conflict Resolution Techniques course?

You are with your sister at a cousin's engagement party. Whenever she is in big groups she tends to become very animated and loves to be the center of attention. This annoys you because she often makes you the brunt of her jokes to get a laugh from strangers and other family members. You see her in the ladies' room and comment that you don't appreciate her making you her "straight-man." You ask her to find another way of entertaining the crowd. She tells you that you are being too sensitive and that you are just jealous because she is getting all the attention. She goes back out to the party and continues to make you the brunt of her jokes. You are hurt and embarrassed by her jokes concerning your life, personal flaws, past boyfriends, etc. She is annoyed because she doesn't see the harm in making a few jokes -- it's all in good fun.

This situation may seem clearly cut and dried; the sister making the jokes is wrong -- right? No one wants their life, flaws, and mistakes made fun of for a quick laugh. But it is not that simple. Tell a professional comedian that they should stop making jokes at their audience's expense and they will tell you that people pay to be made fun of and see others made fun of. They will also tell you that a lot of their material comes from making humorous observations about their own family and friends' flaws and oddities. As far as the comedic sister is concerned, she is simply making harmless observations about her sibling that make others laugh. She is not being intentionally malicious and she is not doing anything wrong.

As you can see from the above example, personality conflicts can arise even when you have known the person for long time; they do not just occur with people you just meet. Our personalities often change slightly when we are with other people. Also as we grow, learn, and change, our personalities may likewise change. Can you think of any other examples of personality conflict? Can you think of instances where another person's personality has caused you frustration, hurt feelings or even anger? Can you remember instances when your personality clashed with another's and you caused them to be annoyed, hurt, frustrated or angry?

4. Something significant in life, or an ongoing relationship has changed.

Imagine This "Significant Change" Conflict:

Your husband is promoted at work and while at first this appeared to be great news, you soon realize that he must be away from home much more often than usual. He comes home very late several times a week, and must travel on business over weekends at least once a month, and sometimes twice a month. When he is home he is tired and stressed and just wants to "unwind." You work also and are having difficulty caring for the children, working all day and maintaining your home with little or no assistance from him. You tell him that you don't think the new job is working out well as far as the family's quality of life is concerned. He feels that without the extra money he is making from the new position, he will not be able to give his children the things that they need and want. You counter that what they really need is quality time spent with him and furthermore, that you need a partner who is working with you raising a family. He becomes upset and feels that you are not being appreciative of all his hard work.

This is another instance where one might automatically assume that the wife is right and the husband is wrong. However, from his perspective, he is working to provide his family with the things he did not have, such as participating in sports, taking music lessons, taking family vacations, purchasing nice clothing, and a paying for their college educations. Keep in mind that perspective plays a huge role in a person's point of view. The wife may have grown up in a moderately wealthy, two-parent household, while the husband may have grown up in a single-family home in which money was always tight, and thus they have completely different perspectives about this conflict. . Significant change conflict may seem similar to "opposite agenda" conflict, however, they differ in that the change creates the source of conflict, rather than opposing goals or desires.

Some other situations that may cause conflict in this category include: the addition of a baby, the death of a loved one, one partner going back to school or work, one person taking up a new, time-consuming hobby, the selling or purchase of a home, a geographical move, the loss of a job, a huge career success, the discovery of a serious illness in the family, the significant weight loss or gain of one person, an engagement, the addition of a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a grown child going away to college, or an extramarital affair.

Can you think of some examples of this category of conflict? Can you remember instances where significant changes took place in the life of a friend or loved one, or in the relationship, that caused conflict? Do you know others who have had conflict because of changes in life, or in their relationship with another?

5. One person betrays the trust of another.

Imagine This "Betrayal" Conflict:

You confide to a close friend that you are having marital problems, and that you and your husband are considering a divorce. You don't want to make it "public" yet, because you are not sure if divorce is imminent, and you don't want the children to know until the decision is concrete. She sympathizes and promises to tell no one. Two weeks later, your son comes home from school very upset and asks you if you and your husband are getting a divorce. You inquire how he heard about this and he tells you that his best friend (your close friend's son) told him he overheard his parents talking about it the night before. You sit down and explain to your son that you and his father have been having some problems but that you are trying to work things out. You assure him that if you decide to get divorced, that you will sit down and discuss it with him and his sister first. Then you get on the phone to call your "friend," and give her a piece of your mind. She betrayed your trust, she promised not to tell anyone about your secret. She counters that it was purely accidental; she thought that her son had gone to bed when she was talking to her husband about it and realized, too late, that he was snooping in the hallway. She told her son to keep it to himself, but he apparently didn't. You tell her that she wasn't supposed to tell anyone -- not even her husband. She counters that she tells her husband everything and that he really doesn't "count." He is very close to your husband, and she wanted to share it with him to see if there was some way they could help. She apologizes, but feels that your son finding out was truly an accident. This friend has never done anything like this before, and your family spends a lot of time with their family. Her husband and yours are close friends, and your children are very close as well.

In this conflict there is a clear betrayal of trust. When you ask another to keep a confidence private, it should be private from everyone. However, perception again enters the picture here. The friend truly feels that sharing this confidence with her husband was not the same as sharing it with outsiders, and some would reason that she is partly correct. Most others would agree that when she agreed to keep this to herself, that meant that she vowed that she would share the news with no one, surely that is what the woman sharing the confidence believed it meant, or else she would not have disclosed this information to her. For many people, keeping a secret is very difficult, the weight of it can be hard to bear, especially if it is of an upsetting nature. An easy solution is to be careful about who you confide in; however, this does not resolve the conflict created between two people when one betrays the trust of the other.

Betrayal of trust conflicts can include incidents such as being dishonest with, stealing from, cheating on, or verbally maligning the other person in the relationship, whether or not they are aware of the betrayal. Can you think of any examples in this category? Can you think of instances where another person betrayed your trust in some way? Do you remember times when you intentionally, or unintentionally, betrayed someone else's trust?

6. One person creates conflict by saying or doing something thoughtless or irresponsible.

Imagine This "Thoughtless/Irresponsible Behavior" Conflict:

You have to work late two days a week at your new job, and your husband doesn't get home until after six at night. You need a sitter to walk your two children home from school and care for them for a few hours, or until you get home from work. A retired neighbor, who you know well, offers to take the job for a reasonable rate and you tell her that you will talk to your husband and get back to her with a decision in the morning. That night, your older brother asks you to give the job to his fifteen year old daughter. She needs to learn some responsibility, earn some extra money, and she would love to do it, plus they live close by and it would be simple for her to walk your kids home from school. You agree with his request, thank your neighbor and tell her that your niece will be taking the job. You hire your niece to babysit two times a week, after school for three hours. For the first two weeks, things go smoothly. Your niece is doing a great job, the kids love her, and she's happy to be earning some extra spending money. On the third week, your niece asks if she can bring her boyfriend along with her to babysit, and you agree that this is fine as long as she takes good care of the children. When you get home you see that the house is a total mess, the kids are still in their school clothes, and they tell you that they haven't had anything to eat since lunch, except potato chips and soda. Your niece is sitting on the living room sofa watching a movie with her boyfriend, totally oblivious to the situation at hand. You speak to your niece privately and tell her that you don't think it's appropriate for her to bring her boyfriend along again and you explain why. You tell her you are only going to pay her half of what you usually pay her because she only did half the job she was supposed to. She quietly agrees, but when she gets home she tells her father that you treated her unfairly and did not pay you. Your brother calls and tells you that he thinks you acted unfairly with his daughter and that she won't be babysitting for you any longer. You are very angry and frustrated by your niece's behavior and your brother's one-sided opinion on the subject. Your niece feels that you agreed to let her boyfriend come over and that she was being responsible by asking. She is upset that she didn't get paid. Your brother, not having the full story, and being somewhat biased in his daughter's favor, feels that you slighted his daughter. You call your neighbor to see if she is still available, but she is not. You now have no sitter and are in a conflict with your brother and niece caused by your niece's irresponsible behavior.

While this situation was clearly caused by the niece's behavior, she and her father refuse to take responsibility, thus creating a conflict. It was perfectly appropriate for the girl's aunt to refuse to pay her in full for sitting on the sofa watching movies. The fact that she is in the right does nothing to resolve the conflict, however.

Other causes of this type of conflict may include: being continually late for dates or get togethers, repeatedly forgetting a birthday or anniversary, borrowing something and not returning it (or breaking it and not replacing it), making insensitive comments about the other person's appearance, and continually breaking plans for frivolous reasons. Can you think of times when another person's irresponsibility, or thoughtless behavior, caused conflict, difficulty or harm? Have there been times when you have acted thoughtlessly or carelessly and caused problems for someone else?

7. One person's needs in the relationship are not being met and the other party refuses to acknowledge this lack, or do anything about it.

Imagine This "Needs Not Met" Conflict:

Your good friend's long-time boyfriend has recently broken up with her and she is very upset over this. She really thought he was "the one." She has been talking about it to you constantly in her efforts to get over her pain and sadness. She calls you nearly every day and comes to your apartment often to hang out and have dinner. You do your best to be there for her and listen to her frustrations. Sometimes you are on the phone with her for hours discussing this one situation. A month later, you find out that your mother is ill. She needs to have surgery and you are very worried about her. You call your friend to confide in her, but she is out on a date and tells you she'll call you back later. She calls you when she gets home, and you tell her about your mother. She listens for a few minutes, tells you how sad she is for you, but then changes the subject and starts talking about her date. You try to talk about your feelings concerning your mother again, and she abruptly tells you that she has to go, she has an early morning at work, and she is really tired. She promises to call you tomorrow. You hang up and are left feeling that the friendship with this person is inequitable. When she needed a shoulder to cry on, you listened and made time in your busy schedule to be there for her, but when you needed her to listen to you; she is suddenly "busy." You realize that her needs are being met in this relationship but yours are not. A conflict has occurred in this relationship.

While we all know and believe that our relationships should be "give and take," many are not. Even though, ideally, each person's needs should be met for a relationship to be enjoyable, healthy, and strong, relationships with friends, partners and family are often inequitable. This is usually caused by one person allowing the other to take advantage of them emotionally, financially, or otherwise and not expressing their dissatisfaction out of fear, frustration, or habit. Of all conflict, this is the one that most often becomes habitual in relationships. Because this pattern does become habitual between two people, the "taker" eventually becomes oblivious to their one-sided behavior. They simply assume that it is okay for them to take without giving.

Other examples of this category include: one spouse or partner doing all the housekeeping, one friend always paying for drinks or dinner because the other is always broke, one person always being in a "jam" that you or others always have to rescue them out of, or having a friend or family member who needs a place to stay, moves in with you, and never leaves. Is there someone in your life who takes much more from you than they give back? Are there people in your life that you take more from than you give, whether consciously or unconsciously?


The sources and reasons for personal conflict between people are numerous and varied. However, there are seven basic reasons people tend to conflict. The examples in this lesson serve merely as illustrations of situations that may occur in each type of major cause of conflict. Similar situations may have actually occurred in your own life, or in the lives of those around you. Alternatively, you may believe that you cannot relate with the examples given because you are not married, or you don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend. If this is the case, you should think about instances in your own life where conflict was caused by one of the seven reasons listed. Unless you live on a deserted island, chances are that you have experienced conflict due to at least several of these major reasons at some point in your life. No matter what your identification level is to the examples given, take a look around your everyday life and pay attention to the personal conflicts others are having. You will begin to notice that most arguments or disagreements fall into one of these seven categories.