Embrace Conflict as a Path to Deeper Connection

By Lori Hollander LCSW-C, BCD Relationships & Marriage

Conventional wisdom says that having conflict in a partnership is “bad.” Most couples perceive conflict or its lack as a measure of a relationship’s strength or weakness. The truth is that conflict in itself is not bad; in fact it is a necessary part of every relationship.

How could you truly be emotionally intimate with another person, live with them day in and day out, experience all the frustrations of life and not have conflict? If there is no conflict, one partner is not speaking up.

Conflict is not only vital to an authentic and genuine connection; it is the route to discovering your partner’s likes and dislikes, needs and desires. The process of exploring your differences and building consensus teaches you about your partner’s depth and character. Meeting conflict head on is the very path that bolsters connection; facing and embracing discord strengthens the bond between you and drives your relationship to a deeper, more intimate level.

In our practice, Alisa and Trey have come for their first Couple to Couple® coaching session with me and Bob:
Alisa: “You don’t make me a priority! Our marriage is the last thing on your list.”
Trey: “What do you mean? I work 70 hours a week to give you the lifestyle you have.”
Alisa: “You just don’t get it. It’s the little things that matter more to me. When was the last time you planned a date for us?”
Trey: “You only work part-time; why haven’t you planned a date?”

The dialogue between Alisa and Trey is a common example of how couples experience conflict; anger and blame underlie their exchange. Notice how often the word “you” is used in their short conversation: eight times to be exact. The word “I” is used only once.

In conflict couples’ use of “you” reflects each partner’s belief that the other is doing, saying or feeling something “wrong;” which naturally implies that the other person is “right.” Thus the “right – wrong” tug of war is born. In this mode of dialogue, anger escalates and each partner becomes more entrenched in his/her own position, making resolution even more elusive. Without attention, resentment, hostility and passive-aggressiveness grow in a dark and veiled fashion. The fate of the relationship will ultimately be decided by the way conflict is handled.

Unless parents model embracing conflict, we most likely will not learn conflict resolution skills growing up. When differences arise, we respond in the way nature has biologically wired us. Our fight or flight survival instinct, which kept us alive in cave man days, prompts us physiologically to respond to a threat by fighting off or fleeing the danger. When our partner comes at us with anger and blame, heart rate and blood pressure increase, adrenaline pumps, pupils dilate, hearing becomes more acute and blood flows away from our arms and legs and to our muscles so we can prepare to fight off the threat or run away from it as fast as we can.

Each of us has our predominant or typical way of responding, usually a result of the healthy or “not so healthy” lessons we learned and practiced throughout our lives.  Ask yourself, when conflict occurs do I typically get angry and fight, or do I withdraw and flee? Do I engage and move into the conflict or do I avoid and move away from the conflict “sweeping it under the rug?”

With couples, several outcomes result when two people engage.  If both you and your partner fight, there will be arguments that escalate. If you both avoid conflict, a standoff will occur resulting in a chasm that separates the two of you.  Since avoidance creates more avoidance, partners end up living parallel lives without much emotional intimacy. In a relationship where one person withdraws and the other one fights the result will be one partner angrily pursuing the other; or one withdrawing so much that the angry partner gets frustrated and gives up. None of these patterns are healthy.

Paradoxically what couples need most is a way to avoid, “avoiding conflict” or a healthy way to “fight.”  When you don’t avoid or get rapt in conflict and, instead, embrace your relationship “in trouble” as you would embrace a wounded child, you take the first step on a new and exciting path that will transform your partnership.  Taking on the conflict, averts the ensuing poison and prevents the potential crippling effects on each other’s self-esteem.

So how do couples resolve conflict? Here are the steps:

1)   Consciously acknowledge your fight or flight response when you become angry.
2)   Mutually agree to explore the disagreement in a respectful way.
3)   Take turns expressing thoughts and feelings, one at a time, without interrupting.
4)   Use “I” statements to avoid blame and own your feelings.
5)   Listen between the lines for understanding and meaning.
6)   Be “curious” about your partner’s point of view.
7)   Talk until you can “make your partner’s case” as well as your own.
8)   Remember the goal is not to figure out who is right or wrong, but to understand each other’s position.
9)   Then and only then, can you problem solve.

Ironically without the very conflict that tears at the fabric of our connection, you cannot achieve the deepest degree of intimacy. There is some truth to the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” Leveraging conflict stimulates the growth of you and your partner and, most importantly, of the third entity – the relationship itself.

As partners discover how to manage conflict, the vital connection begins to materialize.  A vision of you and your partner turning toward each other, rather than away, emerges no matter what the circumstances, bringing a sense of security and trust. You become strong in your belief that your partner would never intentionally hurt you, so when he/she does, you work on resolving the issue and forgiving, i.e. letting go of the anger.

What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.
-Leo Tolstoy

Miraculously the two of you engage in actively embracing and resolving issues; being direct and honest with each other; disciplining yourselves to practice empathy; and taking care not to hurt the other, despite your individual differences. You and your partner will discover a new resilience, a new peace and an inner confidence knowing that no matter what arises, the two of you will work it through.

A good marriage is the union of two good forgivers.
 -Ruth Bell Graham

In this newly created relationship, the two of you will feel bound in the healthiest aspects of a relationship waiting for you.  You begin to honor and respect your partner anew, and your commitment flourishes.  All seems secure in the relationship that you’re living – it is the dawn of a spiritual connection that you have consciously co-created.

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