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People seem to fight over everything from how a country should be governed to how the living room should be decorated. It is as if conflict arises from very fundamental aspects of how our minds work. Some causes of conflict, from the point of view of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, are these:


  1. Differences in what we want. Each of us has many thousands of ideas or pictures of what we want. We may want a particular belief , such as socialism, dictatorship, Catholicism or Islam, to prevail. We may want to have a certain person all to ourselves. We may want to live in a certain part of a certain city. We may want to have steak, rare, with french fries and mushrooms for our dinner every Saturday night. Attempts to get what we want can bring us into conflict with other people. This is especially so if we refuse to accept and tolerate the fact that everybody else wants different things - sometimes in detail and sometimes in a wider sense - than what we want. I want to play my music loud and you want peace and quiet. I want to drink and you want me to clean the house. I want one party to win the election and you want another. I want to dress casually and you want to dress formally.
    The conflict does not have to be between me and another person. It can be in me alone. I may want to overeat and want to be slim at the same time, for instance, or I may want to have an income but not want to work.
  2. Satisfying our fundamental needs. Satisfying my need for power will bring me into conflict with other people who have an equally strong need for power. Satisfying my need for freedom will bring me into conflict with people who have a strong need for power or belonging (in the case of belonging I may be mistreating a loved one by indulging my need for freedom). Satisfying my need for fun may bring me into conflict with other people too.  

    Generally speaking, conflicts can be thought of as true or false. A true conflict has no satisfactory solution, at least in the short term. A false conflict has a solution but it may be one which we don't feel like implementing.  


In a true conflict there is no single solution which will satisfy both sides. In a false conflict there is a solution, often tough and unpalatable, which will resolve the issue.

Mary insists that she wants to live in Dublin, John insists that he wants to live in London. Neither is willing to live anywhere outside of one of these cities. This is a true conflict. There is no solution which will satisfy both.

It is not simply a matter that there is a conflict between them. There is also a conflict in each of them.

Mary has a conflict between her desire to live in Dublin and her love for John. John has a conflict between his desire to live in London and his love for Mary.

How might they handle this conflict? Here are some possibilities good and bad, satisfying and unsatisfying, from the perspective of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory:


  1. Keep the conflict going. One way is to keep the conflict going for a long time. Behaviours which either or both of them might use to do this could include fighting, threatening, coaxing, sulking resenting, depressing (getting depressed), getting sick or drinking to name but a few.

    Note that the behaviours we use to get what we want are not necessarily effective nor are they necessarily pain-free for us - especially when some of the things we want are in conflict with other things we want.


  2. Turn it over to time. In other words, postpone a decision and get on with doing things which both find meet their needs.

    The things which meet their needs may not be the same for each of them - what matters is that each can put his or her energies into satisfying activities in which they are not in conflict, while postponing a decision on the major conflict.

    Perhaps Mary wants to do an evening course which will take three months. Perhaps John wants to join a health club and get into shape.

    There doesn't have to be a conflict about it because they can each do these things separately.

    The world never stands still and something may happen in the meantime to resolve the situation that they are most in conflict about - which city to live in.


  3. Try it and see. A third approach is to agree to try one solution for a time and then to assess whether it is acceptable to both parties. So John might agree that they will live in Dublin for four months and then look at the situation again.

    This approach is common in industrial relations - usually where the union agrees to try out a new work arrangement and the management agrees to a joint review after six months or a year.

Grieving over someone who has died or over a relationship which has irrevocably ended or over a situation which has changed for the worse (perhaps children grieving because their parents have split up) is an example of a true conflict. There is a conflict between wanting the old situation and having to live in the new. There is no immediate solution which will resolve the conflict in a satisfactory way. Only time, and doing other things which are satisfying, will heal the grief.



There is no true conflict between maintaining my weight at its present level and eating all I like - so long as I am willing to run many miles a day.

There is no true conflict between working and studying for a degree - so long as I am prepared to spend my evenings studying and my money on fees instead of other things.

If there is a single behaviour which would resolve it, then the conflict is a false conflict.

Very often when we are "stuck", "in a rut", "not able to move forward", we are in a false conflict.

We may be letting our family exploit us, we may be in a job we don't want to be in, we may be in a bad relationship: but we stay there, although there is a tough alternative.

Perhaps we stay because we are afraid of failure if we try to go it alone, or for the sake of someone else caught in the same bad relationship or because we need the money to educate our children. So there are good and bad reasons for staying in a false conflict. Good reasons often reflect our values: doing our best for our children, for instance. Bad reasons may have to do with fear, a poor self-image or a habit of blaming the rest of the world for our problems.



These are false conflicts which arise out of attempts by one person to control another.

You cannot fully control another person, you can only control yourself. People are programmed to seek autonomy and if you seek to control them you will always be in conflict with them.

The man who terrorises his wife to control her will have to go on terrorising her because no matter how cowed she may be she will act autonomously from time to time.

The solution is for him to recognise that his need to control people is the problem.

Another type of control conflict involves the use of an alleged conflict to control another person. If I can convince my mistress that it is impossible to resolve the conflict between the needs of my family and my need to be with her, then I can keep her at my beck and call for many years.

If I can convince my employee that it is impossible - despite my best intentions - to resolve the conflict between his need for a decent wage and my need to make a profit, then I can keep my employee on low wages for many years.

But my mistress and my employee can make choices about their lives, instead of basing their futures on their inability to control what I do, and these choices could liberate them.