How Couples Can Turn Conflict into Connection
Conflict is something that comes up in almost every therapy session I have with couples. For many, conflict is one of those Boogeyman words that frighten, terrifies, and is something to be avoided and prevented at all costs.
Based on how some clients speak of conflict, one would think that the outcome of the conflict would be the same as saying “Candyman” in the mirror 5 times! Horror story legends aside, I can understand why men and women try to avoid conflict. Although conflict is a natural part of relationships, it can be hurtful and damaging if mismanaged.
As a well-seasoned couples therapist and relationship coach, I am fully aware of how unproductive methods of conflict management can lead to dreadful outcomes. Many couples find themselves going deep into the chaos of mismanaged conflict and it stands to reason how people connect conflict with pain and worst-case outcomes. However, what if the conflict can be viewed as a means of connecting instead of a means of suffering?
First of all, what is conflict? For many couples, conflict is a tense conversation with two people yelling at each other and someone walking away with hurt feelings or worse. Some couples use conflict to demean and disrespect their partner; there is a winner and a loser and one person walks away from that interaction feeling hopeless, hurt, and resentful.
Experiencing conflict this way would feel scary to most people, thereby connecting conflict to the demise of a relationship. This logic deduces that if we want to hold on to our relationship and our love, conflict must be avoided at all costs. I’ll admit that while some incidents of conflict may not feel great, conflict is a natural and potentially healthy part of a relationship, NOT the terrifying Booygeyman that some make it out to be!
Let’s talk about what conflict could be if utilized constructively…
Firstly, it should be noted that happy couples engage in conflict as much as unhappy couples and regarding similar issues. Conflict does not need to take away from the relationship. Conflict can be an opportunity for growth, evolving as a couple, deepened connection, and enhanced intimacy.
Through conflict, we have the ability to learn about ourselves and our partner which is how we move forward in the relationship, in ways that lead to lasting connection versus pain and emotional disengagement.
The goal of conflict is to UNDERSTAND, not necessarily agree. We do not want to persuade our partners that they should adopt our mindset in lieu of their own nor to crush them into submission but to be curious as to where they are coming from. We want to operate from a place of empathy, curiosity, validation, and compassion.
I understand that this may seem difficult when strong emotions are involved, but emotions are allowed. Emotions are human and should be accepted and worked with instead of dismissed or avoided. The following guidelines are how to manage or resolve conflict discussions like “relationship ninjas”.
Keep in mind that conflict management success has one rule that must be applied at all times: There must be a speaker and a listener.
Listening is half of the communication regarding effective conflict management.
Listen non-defensively and leave your judgments behind; they will only get in the way. After all, there are two sets of “realities” and both positions are likely to have validity to some extent. Try to hear your partner’s pain or emotions even if you don’t agree with the details of what is being said. Suspend your agenda/perspective just for a little while and try to see things through your partner’s eyes, not your own. This is not easy and takes a lot of practice.
Ask open-ended questions for the purpose of gaining clarity and elaboration. Open-ended questions are designed to get someone talking and can open their heart to you. We want to ask questions like “How does this situation affect you?” or “What do you believe about what is happening?” or “What meaning are you assigning to this?”
Another crucial aspect of listening is summarizing and reflecting back on what you hear. A powerful way to be present with your partner is to repeat back in your own words what you hear your partner saying to their satisfaction. Validate (even a small part of your partner’s position), express understanding, and communicate empathy.
Say things like “I can see how you feel this way” or “it makes sense to me that you felt this and what your perceptions and needs were”. This does not mean that you agree, but that you can identify something reasonable about where your partner is coming from. When partners feel understood and heard, this diffuses negativity, reduces emotional charge, lowers defenses, and can be instrumental in navigating through conflict while maintaining love, respect, and connection.
Speaking is the other half of conflict management and communication.
When speaking, the goal is to speak in a manner that elicits understanding and if possible, works towards appropriate and realistic solutions as a team. The task of the speaker is to talk honestly about feelings, and beliefs on a given issue.
Something I discuss with my couples is a tool called The Assumption of Similarity - If you attribute a positive trait in yourself, try to see some of that trait in your partner. If you attribute a negative trait to your partner, try to see some of that trait in yourself.
As stated previously, the goal is not to persuade our partners that we are right and they are wrong. Do not argue for your point of view, as that is unlikely to work. Instead, focus on telling your partner how you are experiencing things, including thoughts and feelings on the issue. Oftentimes, it helps to go deeper into how you are seeing things that angle towards values, core beliefs, and the meaning assigned to things based on your philosophy of life. This develops a deeper understanding of our thoughts and gains insight into WHY this is happening versus WHAT is happening.
Lastly, we always want to set our partner up for success by clearly stating what we want, need, or expect. One of my favorite teachings in the Gottman Method Couples Therapy approach is “within every complaint there is a longing. When that longing is expressed, a recipe for how to fulfill it may emerge”.
When these guidelines are followed, couples report experiencing conflict with more respect, calmness, positive regard for each other, and more attunement to each other’s needs. Although it may seem difficult, even insurmountable to navigate through conflict in healthier ways, I promise that it is attainable!
One thing to remember is that no one needs to be perfect to maintain a connection during the conflict. Listening and speaking in accordance with these strategies, will be helpful with maintaining a lasting connection amidst the chaotic emotional charge of conflict. If you and your partner are struggling with your conflict management styles and if the conflict is leading to more chaos than connection, I’d recommend working with a couples therapist.
Relationship experts are a wonderful resource to help individuals and couples to learn the tools for better communication, conflict management, and connection in their relationships. If you’re ready to see how couples therapy can help your relationship, contact me at 954-391-5305 for your complimentary consultation.
I provide counseling for individuals and couples in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs as well as across the state of Florida via our secure telehealth platform. For more information about my approach or services, click here.