What if I told you that conflict can be a source of strength and connection in your intimate relationships? Growing up, we are taught that all fights must have a winner and regardless of the context, being that winner is the most important thing. We take this mindset into our relationships as we plan our arguments, tally our grievances and sharpen our words to cut our opponents. When I see this pattern play out over and over again in therapy, I wonder how our most beloved partners became a threat instead of an ally? When did simple household tasks like folding towels become representative of our fears, doubts and insecurities so that we pick up our shields intent on making our partners bleed?
As we strive to better understand conflict and its role within your relationship, my first call to action is: Take a step back from the content and question what is really happening for you during your fights. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end of criticism, what is being activated and what message are you receiving from your partner as a result? Famed couples’ therapist, Esther Perel (2021) says, “The deeper issues that drive escalation are rarely about the content of our fights—dirty dishes, too much time on our phone, politics, the kids—they’re about the needs, vulnerabilities, and biases that get triggered over and over.”
For example, imagine you return home from work to find your partner gazing intently at their phone and when you open the door, they barely look up let alone greet you with a hug or kiss. You feel angry, hurt and dismissed because a tiny electronic device means more to them in this moment than your feelings. How could they not get it?! Move the argument from content i.e. the phone to the emotional process… “After I come home from a long day, I really miss you and need your acknowledgment… so when you do not greet me, I feel alone and rejected.” How could that level of communication change your experience as a couple?
The people that we love hold the greatest amount of power to create harm and threat. It is important to acknowledge that, as mammals, our brains are hardwired to seek and avoid threats to our survival. Understanding how our brains respond to nonverbal signals from our partners and how we project our own signals of threat can be incredibly helpful in minimizing distress during conflict. To do this, the PACT Institute (Power, 2020) recommends following a few simple guidelines:
Maintain eye contact, keep a steady relaxed tone in your voice and a warm facial expression.
Reduce physical distance by sitting close together.
Use physical touch, such as a hand on your partner’s forearm, to convey affection, admiration and safety.
Since conflict is unavoidable and we now know it has the potential to create connection instead of stifling it, I would encourage you to communicate issues to your partner regularly. When we fall into conflict avoidance, we tend to start keeping track of our injuries and grievances. By maintaining constant, open communication, which means addressing issues often and as they occur, your conflicts will not escalate into full-fledged battles (Lisitsa, 2012).
Moving forward, I hope that your relational conflicts present an opportunity to engage and create a greater connection. This connection can be possible by increasing your communication frequency, maintaining safety by curbing the brain’s natural threat responses and understanding the emotional process that is often buried in the content of your arguments. Ultimately, the more we can understand the inner workings of our partners and ourselves, the less we require the need to deploy our swords and shields.
Lisitsa, E. (2020, December 18). Six tips for the Six skills of Managing Conflict. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/manage-conflict-the-six-skills/.
Perel, E., & Miller, M. A. (2021). The 3 types of relationship fights you Keep Having-And what to do about them. Esther Perel's Blog. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.estherperel.com/blog/the-relationship-fights-you-keep-having.
Power, C. (2020, December 9). 4 quick strategies to Resolve Couple Conflict. The PACT Institute. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.thepactinstitute.com/blog/4-quick-strategies-to-resolve-couple-conflict.