Jacob & Schreyer (1980) define interpersonal conflict as taking place when the presence or behavior of an individual or group interferes with the goals of another individual or group.
There are various approaches used to measure interpersonal conflict. Watson, Niccolucci & Williams (1994) examine the extent to which visitors found encounters desirable or undesirable. The concept has also been described as the direct competition over resources, physical incompatibilities and encounters interfering with enjoyment. These conflicts stem from problems associated with a given recreation experience.
Theorists argue that interpersonal conflict is a process consisting of three phases. Gottman (1982) suggests distressed couples appear to respond verbally with complaints and criticism in the first phase, followed by non-verbal and hostile behaviors in the second. The third phase involves the couple finding it difficult to agree on a resolution to the conflict.
According to researchers, the process of conflict is multi-dimensional and occurs between interpersonal relationships. It consists of emotional conflict and criticism factors. Emotional conflict is more apparent in intimate relationships. This involves key factors which include: competition for attention or affection; control and conflict over money/possession; beliefs and values; independence from one another; emotional help and support; daily activity and the ability to understand and empathize with partners. The factor of criticism involves behavior, habits and lifestyle and the inability to discuss personal issues.
It is thought that conflict between intimate partners is deeper because of the emotional nature of the relationship. This extends beyond differences regarding a specific problem, issue or argument. It appears that couples experiencing more frequent and severe interpersonal conflicts tend to be more unhappy and dissatisfied than couples who engage in fewer and less severe conflicts.
Research suggests two different categories of intimate interpersonal conflicts, according to the nature of the type of communication involved. First, specific disagreements focus on a particular issue. The second category is problem-solving discussion, which encompasses communication known as negotiation or bargaining, over an ongoing and multiple issues. Unhappy or dissolving relationships are typical of dysfunctional couples.
Barry (1970) believes that not engaging in constructive conflict management has a detrimental effect on the relationship. Stress is created from unresolved conflicts, leaving each person unhappy, doubting and irritated. Conflict is negatively related to feelings of love during relational dissolution, while marital conflicts and tensions contribute to a lack of self-concept support and accurate role taking. It also appears that negative acts from one partner, result in reciprocated negative acts from the other.
Conflict is common part of family life. Research has been undertaken among families, looking at the different dimensions of relationships critical for healthy family development, compared to those linked to less healthy or pschopathological development. The family provides an important social context for individual development and the impact on their relationships outside the family.
Baxter (1988) identifies three contradictions in close relationships that almost guarantee disruptions in a friendship: autonomy-connection, novelty-predictability and openness-closedness. The first contradiction is required because the development of a relationship requires the sacrifice of some independence, too much will dissolve a friendship, whereas too little will destroy the individual's identities. Balancing autonomy-connection is a difficult task between friends. The second dilemma is that predictability is a central goal in relationship development, although too much can damage a relationship. The final contradiction highlights the need for open disclosures that cultivate intimacy and privacy.
A major area of study in this field is the workplace, where stress can be responsible for interpersonal conflict. Schabracq (1998) argues that problems occur when workers experience a loss of control over tasks; resulting in conflict, anger, blame and anti-social behavior. Personality differences may help to explain workplace aggression and why some employees are drawn into conflict easily and others are resistant to it.
Research shows that individuals indicate conflict avoidance strategies, predominantly in intimate relations. Withholding grievances or irritations does not seem to be a functional way of dealing with interpersonal problems. Unless undesirable behavior is bought to the attention of the other person, they have no basis to infer that a problem even exists. It is believed that those who avoid conflict have more difficulty in resolving their issues with the other party, intimate, friends or family.