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How Conflict Is Like Sex

Originally printed in Psychology Today here

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of 10 major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions — there are indeed many more.  However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

3. Understanding Conflict: How Conflict Is Like Sex

Conflict makes most people anxious, as they fear it may overwhelm or destroy. As a result, it has long suffered a negative reputation. When asked to free-associate about conflict, most people first cite anger, frustration, hurt, struggle, violence and war. Likewise, most conflict scholars and practitioners tend to view conflict as something to contain, reduce or put an end to.

However, Mort Deutsch realized early in his career that most conflicts present us with both problems and opportunities (known as mixed-motives), and so set out to debunk the myth that all conflict is bad. Some conflicts can become quite painful and destructive, but these tend to be rare. More often, conflicts present us with chances to solve problems and bring about necessary changes, to learn more about ourselves and others, and to innovate—to go beyond what we already know and do. However, it is easy to forget this because the conflicts that stick in our memory tend to be the bad ones.

In his clinical work as a psychoanalyst, Deutsch observed that conflict is a lot like sex: It is a natural, fundamental part of life. Some people are drawn to conflict, others are repulsed by it, but everyone is affected and shaped by it throughout their life. Like sex, conflict can be done alone, with others, or with groups of people. It can go really, really well, or go terribly wrong. When it goes well, the people involved tend to feel deeply satisfied — albeit a bit spent — but may grow closer as a consequence. When it goes poorly, people can feel dissatisfied, frustrated, hurt, angry, or resentful, and can even become filled with contempt for the other party. Conflict, like sex, can be a small, frivolous thing or a big deal. It can be quick or go on for quite some time. It can be done face-to-face, over the phone, through texting, or on Skype. It can even be done with the help of third-party involvement.

Conflict and sex also share certain pathologies. People can become overly obsessed with conflict and seek it out all the time or try to avoid it at all costs. They may suffer from position-rigidification (where there is clearly only one right way to do it), or prefer to engage more spontaneously, without rules or boundaries. Some suffer from premature conflict resolution (a need to resolve all conflict immediately), and yet others hold onto and ruminate about grievances long past resolved. For some, conflict is a highly intellectualized game. For others, it is a profoundly intimate, emotional experience.

The point that Deutsch emphasized is that conflict, like sex, is not inherently bad or good, but rather is a vital part of life. It is simply what happens when certain tensions arise, like when interests, claims, preferences, beliefs, feelings, values, ideas or truths clash. It is central to cognitive development and learning, to relational maturation and growth, and to societal progress and just political reform. So the issue is not whether or not we should get into conflict; it is almost impossible not to and it could be just as problematic if we didn’t. The issue is how we respond to conflict — in a way that makes things better or worse?

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today.  The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion and commitment today live on in all of us.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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