A Healing Approach to Conflict in Intimate Relationships

man holding a woman's little finger“In love we face challenges and in embracing these challenges, conflicts, and dark places, there is immense potential for transformation.” – J. Welwood

When conflict happens in your relationship, how do you react? Do you fly under the radar hoping to avoid detection, or come out fighting and go on the defensive?

Relationships can be wonderful, uplifting, and joyful, as well as challenging, painful, and destructive. When things are great and we’re getting along there is a feeling of deep connection and safety. But when there’s a sign of pain, misunderstanding, or disconnection, defenses are triggered and vulnerability goes into hiding. When conflict is viewed as a threat and met with defensiveness we get stuck in a power struggle that takes our relationship on an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Conflict isn’t a threat to your relationship. Sometimes we view conflict as a threat and respond to it as if it’s a sign that our relationship is in need of fixing or that one of us is at fault. In reality, conflict isn’t the problem—it’s how we meet conflict that becomes the problem.

Why We Don’t See Eye to Eye

When two people who grew up in two different homes decide to make a life together, conflict is going to happen. Each of us comes into relationship with different ways of seeing the world and when these perspectives clash, we encounter conflict. It isn’t about right or wrong; it’s about perception and how we see the world.

For example, if you grew up with a parent or sibling(s) who yelled and criticized you when they were angry, and this scared or frustrated you as a child, you might have learned to avoid angry confrontations at all costs. Now, in your present day relationship, if your partner gets angry your defensive reaction might be to ignore, shut down, or try to get your partner to calm down.

While your partner might benefit from learning how to tone down his/her anger, it’s also possible that your reaction to anger needs to change. The same goes for the partner who is angry—they may have grown up in a family where their needs weren’t being met so they learned that in order to be heard they had to yell, sulk, or complain.

If you both continue to meet this situation with defensiveness, then you’ll be mired in a power struggle that fills your relationship with negativity and resentment. If, on the other hand, you meet conflict with a willingness to listen and an intention to understand, and have empathy for each other, then there’s a potential for healing and growth to happen.

Shift from Conflict to Connection

Learning to become a healing partner takes patience, time, and commitment. Dr. Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, states that couples have the potential to become healing partners. He says, “It’s in relationship we are wounded so it’s in relationship we can heal.”

Learning to become a healing partner is what helps us develop a safe, intimate, and loving relationship. To get there it takes practice, patience, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

It’s when we learn to soften our defenses and become vulnerable and open that we begin to connect in a way that creates a feeling of safety, love, and connection. It only takes one partner to shift out of the power struggle and into connection. Below are some steps you can take toward helping yourself, your partner, and the relationship.

Steps to help soothe reactivity and calm difficult emotions:

  • Develop awareness of your triggers. Notice when your body goes into flight, fight, flee mode. (I.e. rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, muscles tensing, etc.)
  • Take time out to soothe reactive emotions.
  • During the time out, don’t dwell or analyze what happened. Let go of thoughts and stories and take care of yourself.
  • Connect with your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly, and attune to the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of your body.
  • As you breathe, scan through your body and soften the places that are tense.
  • Feel a sense of self-compassion as you acknowledge feelings of hurt.
  • Engage in activities that help alleviate stress, such as exercising, walking, meditating, or doing yoga.
  • Once you are less reactive, see if you can connect with the need or hurt that’s beneath the trigger. Notice if you’re hooked into a story about what your partner’s intention was when you got triggered. Use the line, “What I told myself was_____. For example: “What I told myself when you were late to pick me up was that I’m not important to you.”
  • Share what was going on for you (your feelings and needs) without blaming, criticizing, or attacking your partner. Use “I” statements and take responsibility for your reactivity. For example, “I feel hurt when we make plans and aren’t able to follow through.”
  • Learn how to use intentional dialogue as a healing way to connect and learn about each other’s triggers, needs, and hurts. During this exercise, one person speaks as the other person listens with the intention of understanding, validating, and empathizing with the other, then switch.
  • Feel compassion toward yourself and your partner when conflict happens.
  • Be patient as you learn how to shift from a reactive response to one that heals and connects.

Meet Conflict with Acceptance, Understanding, and Empathy

Conflict in relationships is a catalyst for healing and growth. Learning to approach it in a healing way is challenging. It takes time, patience, and practice. In the end, if you want to develop an intimate, safe, and loving relationship, then it’s essential that you learn to approach it as an opportunity for healing and growth.

Remember, we come into relationship with past hurts, unmet needs, defenses, and parts of us that are in need of growth. When we let go of defenses and open our hearts to each other in a relationship, we create an opportunity for both of us to heal and grow—as individuals and as a couple—as we journey together through life.

May you have love, joy, and peace in your life.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kyla

    January 6th, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    Unfortunately I think that there are too many times we let the past cloud our present and dictate how we react in certain situations. What I have to take a momet to ask myself is whather this really has anything to do with how I am feelling at this moment and if this person is not responsible for those feelings, then I need to step away from that and find antoher, a better way, to raect, and deal with the issue.

  • Tom Cloyd MS MA LMHC

    January 6th, 2014 at 6:46 PM

    Excellent article – well thought out, well expressed. Plenty of good and useful ideas here!

  • Teena

    January 7th, 2014 at 4:24 AM

    Why do we always feel the need to shy away from conflict?
    I agree that having conflict with someone, when handles in the right way, can be a great way to learn more about yourself and to grow as a person and as a couple.
    But there are those who are so afraid of this kind of disagreement that they will go to great lengths to avoid it, and that either manifests in a way that they have to be right all the time or else they cower and let their own beliefs be buried by those of someone else.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 7th, 2014 at 6:31 AM

    Hi Kyla…yes your comment is very insightful. I agree that it is at times really challenging to take a step back or pause instead of reacting in ways that add more hurt. Especially as you pointed out is the need to really find a better way to approach the issue. Thanks for your comment! :-)

  • Lynne

    January 7th, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    And all of these things are things that can be done via the help of a marriage or couples counselor who puts the focus back on the couple and the relationship instead of focusing solely on the individual. I think that many times this is when the couple gets off track, when too much attention is apid to one part of the puzzle instead of looking at the whole picture. There will never be any sort of completion or fulfillment whne only one person is receiving anything from the relationship. Instead this has to be work that is being done by both partners and where there is conflict there now needs to be talk and communication. You have to take this as a chance to grow and learn, and if you then see that this is never going to work then you also have to be an adult and see that this is a chance to walk away too.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 8th, 2014 at 6:53 AM

    Hi Teena, I like your question “Why do we always feel the need to shy away from conflict?” because this is a common source of power struggles in relationships. There isn’t one answer to this question as all of us have a unique history about how conflict was/wasn’t addressed growing up. The one thing common to all relationships is a fear of disconnection and this often plays out in how each partner approaches conflict. This makes sense as we really want to feel safe, connected and happy in relationships and when this doesn’t happen we can get triggered and defensive and this then creates even more disconnection and on and on… So it’s about creating safety in your relationship space and you both do this by letting go of judgments, opinions, interpretations, mind reading, criticism, sarcasm and I could go on and on. Safety, openness and a compassionate heart are what helps us find our way back to each other. Thanks for you comment and sharing your thoughts! :-)

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 8th, 2014 at 6:57 AM

    Hi there Tom! Thanks for stopping by, reading the article and posting feedback. Please feel free to pass it on and share it with others. My hope is that it is useful to all and that couples can use it to help themselves and the relationship when they are reactive or in crisis mode.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 8th, 2014 at 7:06 AM

    Hi Lynne, thanks for your feedback. Yes, it is important to handle conflict in ways that lead to more connection and less distance. I agree that it’s best if both partners are on board however, sometimes this doesn’t happen. In the end each partner is responsible for their feelings, reactions and behaviors and at times they can’t see it because they really believe if their partner is in the room when they are triggered then it must be the partner’s fault. It is when we begin to accept that we each contribute to what is in the relational space (not in a punitive or judgmental way) that we can begin to shift out of reactivity and into responding in a healing way towards ourselves and each other. This is what has the potential to shift the relationship out of the power struggle. Again thank you for your insightful and thoughtful response. :-)

  • OranMor Counselling

    January 10th, 2014 at 8:34 AM

    It’s important to remember that in all our relationships, friendships, work mates and spouses, etc that as an individual you cannot control the reaction of another.
    However that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t recognise when your behaviour is inappropriate. I agree the core principle is seeking to understand and appreciate anothers point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. But recognising the boundaries of your own reactions is something that regularly requires a counsellor to play intermediary or highlight where miscommunications may be happening.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 22nd, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    Hi OranMor Counseling…thanks for your response. Yes it is essential that partners understand they have no control over each others reaction and that it’s important to recognize when their reaction is defensive and creating more pain in the space between them. It is also important that they realize that in a conflict (when it’s not an abusive relationship) they both contribute to what exist in the space between them which is where the relationship lives. Sometimes, if they are stuck in repetitive frustrations or if there is a lot of defensiveness in their communications then a couples counselor can help create a safe space where they can learn to set down their defenses and learn to listen to learn about each other and to see the places of hurt and the places where they need to grow.

    Again, thank you for your response :-)

  • grngiant

    January 23rd, 2014 at 9:03 PM

    Well said. Love this

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 29th, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    Thank you grngiant :-)

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