Turning Conflict into Intimacy

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Conflict is complicated. Whether with our partners, children, bosses, or important others… we all struggle with how to engage in conflict to some degree. Some of us would love to just plain avoid all conflict, while others run, without caution, toward it. Conflict handled well, though, is different than staying away from, or running full blast into the issues. In reality, conflict that goes underground or is handled poorly leads to distance or, in some cases, to the end of the relationship. Conflict managed well, however, leads to significantly more intimate relationships. This means that, unfortunately, intimacy is always the cost of avoiding conflict in the interest of peace, or moving toward conflict poorly in the interest of just getting through it.

Intellectually, this makes sense. Conflict for most couples, though, seems difficult at best and is often quite complicated. This is why we made the decision to explore conflict and intimacy in our new book Relationship Renewal: A Workbook for Turning Conflict into Intimacy (book 2 of the Relationship Renewal Series). We work to provide a series of practical suggestions for couples on how to handle conflict so that they can work toward a more intimate relationship.

Borrowing from that book, there are 4 important principles for handling conflict in relationship that you can begin playing with today:

  1. Know what your conflict style is. Pretend that you are watching your last argument in slow motion. What would you notice about your conflict style as you focus on the way you and your partner engage each other, rather than what you were fighting about. Do you rapidly escalate, jumping from topic to topic until you are both completely exhausted? Or do you shut things down too quickly for fear of where it will go? There are a variety of conflict styles that we explore in the book - knowing your conflict pattern is an essential first step toward building intimacy.
  2. As you begin to see the pattern that you and your partner engage in, you can examine your unique contribution to the pattern. Instead of focusing on your partner, focus on what you do. Do you get defensive… do you escalate… do you change topics… do you shut down? Focus on what you do in the midst of the interaction, and then begin to experiment with doing something different. Rather than escalating, try listening and asking questions as a way of slowing things down and changing the “dance”.
  3. As you try to change your pattern, you will most likely find your anxiety increasing, making it more difficult to both create and sustain change. Explore what is driving the anxiety by exploring your beliefs about anxiety. Do you believe that conflict is inherently dangerous? Did you witness conflict becoming destructive in the family you grew up in? Are you afraid your partner can’t handle anxiety? Begin to explore your deeply held beliefs about conflict as a way of understanding your anxiety and resistance to change, and begin to talk more with your partner about your mutual beliefs about conflict.
  4. Finally, negotiate some ground rules for conflict with your partner. Once you have identified your conflict pattern, explored beliefs about conflict, and begun attempting to make changes in your role, negotiate some ground rules for handling conflict better. Here are a few basic examples:

               - Start conflict “soft”, as opposed to waiting until you are completely frustrated and then unloading.

               - Take time outs if you feel like things are escalating too much.

               - Try to stay on one topic, rather then piling on other unresolved conflicts.

               - Avoid getting into conflict late at night, or after you have consumed alcohol.

In the end, there is no right way to handle conflict. Each couple must negotiate their own style, but the style must be intentional and productive to allow for intimacy. Learning to process conflict effectively is one of the best investments you can make in your relationship. If you would like to learn more, please find our book on amazon.com, or in one of our offices. You can also set up an appointment with a therapist to aid in shifting your conflict patterns that are feeling stuck, and increasing your couple intimacy.