When hearing the word conflict, many people associate it with something that signals a deeper serious problem, something to be avoided or a problem to solve. This is often based on lived experiences of watching others fight in unhelpful ways, not having the emotional skill set to navigate conflict effectively or having gone through conflict without resolution or repair in the past.
Conflict can be painful, lead to disconnection and even be traumatizing for couples who get caught in cycles that are unproductive and enact hurtful behavior on one or both sides of the interaction.
I’d like to make a case for conflict as a purposeful and important process for couples who seek fulfillment in their romantic partnership. It certainly can cause more problems when conflict is enacted in hurtful ways. It can also bring partners closer when done consciously and lovingly without enacting hurtful or unhelpful behaviors.
Conflict comes about when our perspectives, needs or communication styles clash. It can be an uncomfortable moment to discover you see things differently than your partner on something that is core to who you are, what you need most in the world or what you stand for. It can be painful to uncover your needs are in direct conflict with your partner’s needs. Further, it can feel especially challenging when you’re trying your hardest to communicate and your partner responds back with something judgmental, hurtful or in a way that is difficult to understand.
Conflict can lead to disconnection or it can inspire a new level of connection. It’s all in the approach and the skills you bring to the moment of interaction. Conflict done consciously, with the understanding that it can be both healthy and inevitable if both people are being open and honest about their lived experiences, can bring two people who are struggling and distant, closer together and soothed in their nervous systems.
A few core skills to support conscious conflict that leads to deeper intimacy are turn taking, sharing the stage and listening to understand. These three core skills can give some structure, support a spirit of mutuality and fairness, and also give each person an opportunity to feel seen, heard and understood. Many couples I see in my therapy practice do not practice any of these three while fighting- some struggle to give their partner a turn or check in after sharing for a significant period of time, or simply don’t know how to listen in order to understand. These couples really struggle to feel emotionally safe, supported or connected when they fight. As a result, many will avoid conflict or enact the same ineffective patterns in ways that get entrenched and unfortunately reinforce the belief that conflict is bad and not possible to work through.
Turn taking is a format that many couples benefit from. While it seems logical, for many who are distressed and disconnected, giving their partner a turn to speak can feel terrifying or may not even occur to them as important to work through something together. When we refuse to take a turn or neglect to give our partner a turn, we block progress in such a way that leaves one person behind in the process. In order to move forward together, both partners have a need to feel seen, heard and understood. It can be difficult to feel aligned and move forward until both people have those needs met.
Sharing the stage is a skill set that holds the perspective that both one’s own needs and their partner’s needs are equally important, and that tracks the amount of time taken to focus on one person’s subjective experience as well as the other’s. It’s ideal when there is more equanimity in most situations of stress or disagreement because disconnection can be alarming for both partners. Taking the time to tend to both experiences can soothe and reset both partner’s nervous systems. In order to connect we must feel safe enough to open and take necessary risks to share about our inner world.
Listening to understand is both a simple skill in that it’s a focused on the speaker’s intended meaning- and it can be one of the hardest skills to practice in the face of talking about something that feels threatening, scary and divisive. Our agenda, unmet needs, biases, assumptions, personal values and even past trauma can interfere with the process of receiving our partner’s experience with an open mind and an open heart. Challenging ourselves to practice openness and trying to understand can be extremely daunting while managing uncomfortable emotions, compartmentalizing distracting thoughts and resisting the urge to listen in order to respond (maybe even preparing our argument to win or prove a point?). It is one of the most loving offerings we can do for our relationship and it is essential if we seek to connect during a moment of conflict.
So, what does this look like all put together? Something like a deep heart to heart conversation, paced in a way both people can keep up with both logically and emotionally, with both respectful communication and a lack of competitive energy. It looks like two people choosing to grow, learn and change in new ways in order to find their way back to each other. Conscious conflict supports each partner to embody wisdom, share in emotionally vulnerable ways and looks like two partners finding the willingness to get uncomfortable in order to find even better ways to love each other.
There’s so much more I could say about conscious conflict, and I will continue to come back to this topic as I practice, learn and expand both my personal and clinical skill set. I think defining conflict in this way allows us to reclaim the process of disconnecting and finding each other again in moments that can surprise and inspire each person to become an even better version of themselves. I think walking away from an uncomfortable confrontation feeling more confident, more whole and more loving is an incredible gift that can resound throughout the world and uplift community members, acquaintances and almost anyone else we come into contact with in it’s ripple effects. Here’s to uncovering new ways to support each other, and create that lasting, loving conscious partnership that we long for.