The difference between whether damage will slowly destroy something or make it stronger is whether that thing is alive.
Every time you lift weights, you damage your muscles. In a few days they heal, stronger than before. The damage causes growth as a response. Things that can grow will do so in response to challenges – they quite literally rise up to meet them.
Compare that to a block of wood. Damage it a little bit, and it stays damaged. Even if the damage is minor each time, and the incidents of damage are spread out, they’re all cumulative. Eventually the block will break.
In this same way, conflict can strengthen a relationship – if the relationship is living.
Think of two business partners that hate each other. They’re bound by their initial contract, but they’ve long since grown to loathe their arrangement. Every tiny slight or mistake by one adds to the contempt by the other until eventually it boils over and their partnership detonates.
Now think of two business partners with a healthy respect for one another. They make the same slights and mistakes, but each one prompts discussion and communication that gives them new insights and strengthens their bond. Every year they’re stronger partners because the conflicts are dealt with in a healthy way that enables growth.
The first scenario is a dead block of wood. The second is a healthy muscle.
The foundational difference must be the way you treat and view the relationship. If you don’t have the underlying care and respect, then the relationship is “dead” – and it doesn’t matter how careful you are, because even minor damage will add up over time and there’s never any healing or growth. But if the respect is there to begin with, then all but the most severe and catastrophic damage can be recovered from, stronger than before.
If you have faith in the life of any relationship, don’t be afraid of conflict within it. Approach it in a way that honors that life, and the conflict will be healthy. And thus too, the relationship.