Conflict as a Catalyst for Greater Intimacy

Written by Hannah Eaton, M.S., LMFTA

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the concept of conflict. For many of us, it feels like a charged word, and just the very thought of it can make us cringe and cause our stomachs to knot. If that’s you, you might have the urge to stop reading this just to avoid thinking about that word.

But, if you can stick with me a minute, I want to encourage you to reframe this word. Specifically, I want to invite you to consider conflict in a different light:

Conflict as a catalyst for greater intimacy.

Yes, you heard me right. Conflict actually holds powerful potential to help us grow closer to our partners (or family, friends, and coworkers). 

Over the first few years of my relationship with my (now) husband, I grappled to make sense of conflict. We handled conflict very differently-- I typically couldn’t restrain myself and would bring up any type of differences and stressors in or on our relationship (and not always in the most healthy way), whereas he would have the tendency to freeze up, or want to run the other direction. 

I wondered to myself, when would we arrive? When would there be a time that we weren’t dealing with some new or repeating conflict about our differences (some of the same differences that ironically also attracted us to one another). 

We would painstakingly work through different conflicts as they would arise, but there was a big part of us that simply wished we could be conflict-free. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

Fortunately, being in the profession of Marriage & Family Therapy, and having worked at The Gottman Institute for the past several years, I have been gifted at a young age to learn some incredibly useful knowledge. This has entirely reframed how I view conflict, and has consequently unlocked greater intimacy in my own life, as well as the couples that I have the privilege to serve and work alongside. One of the greatest nuggets of knowledge I have learned is that:

Underneath every conflict is an unmet desire or longing.

A desire for… Love. Freedom. Respect. Security. Adventure. Connection. 

When we experience discord or conflict with our partners, there is typically an underlying desire or longing to experience these dreams, many of which we’ve held for years, but may have never even put words to. However, what happens so often is that we don’t actually tap into those deeper longings, but instead, we stay on a superficial level that has us spinning in circles and getting caught up in pain and disconnection.

Game Changing Ideas to Shift Conflict

In order to tap into these deeper levels, there are a few powerful ideas that I’ve learned from The Gottman’s pioneering research on thousands of couples. While these ideas can be discussed at great length, I have distilled down several key points that can help begin to shift the culture of conflict in our relationships:

1. Learn to manage conflict.

Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that 69% of problems are perpetual in relationships. If we find that we are having the same problems over and over again, or that you’re getting gridlocked on a problem, this could be a perpetual problem. While this is an alarming statistic at first glance, I’ve also found it incredibly validating that this is normal, and liberating, in that we can begin to address this type of conflict differently. Instead of just trying to solve the problem, approach it from a stance of curiosity and interest, and shift into culture of dialogue about conflict. Take time to try to understand your partner’s point of view, and seek to understand how this is a sacred opportunity to learn to better love him or her. Recognize that not all problems will have a one time solution, but instead may need to be managed over time.

2. Avoid the four horseman.

In studying thousands of couples, four characteristics showed up in the more distressed partners that are pertinent to eliminate in our relationships. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. If you notice these starting to creep up in your relationships, try using the antidotes.

  1. Criticism → use a gentle startup 

  2. Defensiveness → take responsibility 

  3. Contempt → build a culture of appreciation

  4. Stonewalling → self soothe to help yourself calm down and stay engaged

3. Use softened startups.

Dr. Gottman found that the way you start a conversation can predict how the rest of it will go. In other words, if you start it with a statement like, “You never help out around the house!” or “You’re so selfish and never think of me!”, the rest of the conversation is likely to spiral downwards and leaving both partners feeling defeated and disconnected. So, instead, try to bring up a difficult topic in a way that elicits help from your partner, such as, “Honey, I’ve been feeling rather lonely lately when you’ve been working late. I’m wondering if we can talk about how we can prioritize spending more time together?” Share your own emotions around the situation, and let your partner know how you can work as a team to have your needs met and to experience deeper connection.

4. Make repairs.

It’s normal to get misaligned or to experience disconnection from time to time. Don’t beat yourselves up over this. What’s key however, is how you respond to it, and how you “get back in the game.” Repairs can vary dramatically, from apologizing and asking “can we start over?” or “try that again?”, to bring in play or humor to diffuse the situation. Sometimes you might even need to make three or four repairs to get back on track, but I promise you, it’s well worth it.

5. Prioritize Weekly Check-ins.

Another element that I find extremely useful is to do proactive weekly check-ins, to touch base with one another about how you’re feeling loved and supported, and to bring up any barriers to your connection from the past week. Instead of letting anger or frustration about your conflict stew for weeks on end, take purposeful time to check in with one another to learn about how you can best love and support one another.

These skills and practices are not rocket science, but they are absolute game-changers. 

As my husband and I have learned to integrate these ideas in our marriage, it has been incredible to witness how the presence of conflict has dramatically shifted. Even though it’s still uncomfortable at times, we have learned that when conflict arises, it is a key opportunity to learn about ourselves, how we can better love and support one another, and ultimately… how we can experience greater connection and intimacy.

When you reflect on your own perception of conflict, and how you view it in your relationship, how does it feel? Are you uneasy with the idea, or starting to become more comfortable recognizing the valuable role it can play? See if you can make small tweaks or adjustments in how you view and handle conflict this week. I hope you’ll discover that when you shift your perception and integrate these ideas, you will find greater intimacy through the process.