Disagreements, arguments and conflicts are certainly a normal, and perhaps, even a necessary part of long-term loving relationships. They are certainly an occurrence experienced by all couples. If a couple says they don’t disagree or have arguments, they are either not being truthful or one of the partners is extremely oppressed and controlled. Although neither is healthy, the couple that denies having conflicts is acceptable as long as they realize they do have conflicts but they just want to keep the matter private. The couple that truly doesn’t argue cannot have a healthy relationship with dissatisfaction or depression usually occurring in the oppressed partner. When a couple experiencing unproductive conflicts begins therapy with me I make it clear to them that the goal cannot and should not be to stop their arguments. Growth and problem solving evolve from productive arguments. Since conflicts are necessary and inevitable, couples must attain a level of what is known as “Conflict Intimacy.”
Undoubtedly, you have heard of emotional intimacy-and you are certainly familiar with the term sexual intimacy. Both are commonly associated with healthy long term relationships. But couples need to understand that it is equally important to attain healthy conflict intimacy. Conflict intimacy is the couple’s ability to deal with disagreements relating to values, morals, child rearing, money management, relationship issues and needs, or any problem solving they encounter in a healthy, productive manner. Psychologists Steven Solomn and Lorie Teagno define conflict intimacy as “each partner’s “. . . ability to both openly and constructively voice his or her hurt, disappointment, anger, and other negative affect as well as to be able to be “curious not furious” in the face of his or her partner’s pain and anger. It is the ability to stay differentiated in conflict and to be able to do a good job standing up for one’s self as well as being there for the partner when he or she is in pain and angry.”
When a couple is able to reach a healthy level of conflict intimacy, they can actually feel closer after a “fight” instead of harboring unresolved anger. Residual anger chips away at relationships. Resolving arguments in a way that each partner feels understood and listened to helps the couple grow through growing pains that are associated with the on-going development of the relationship. In essence, attaining conflict intimacy can facilitate emotional and sexual intimacy. Thus, the power of “make-up” sex.
Conflict Intimacy Strategies
- Focus solely on the issue at hand, making “I” statements regarding how the issue makes you feel.
- Prior to explaining or expressing your own thoughts or feelings, it is a good idea to use reflective listening. That is, reframe your partner’s statements keying into how they might be feeling as a result of your actions or the issue at hand. For example, “I understand how upset you are that I have been working late, and frustrated when I promise you that I will be home early.”
- Ask questions to further your understanding as to what your partner is thinking and feeling.
- Try to avoid problem solving until both of you have a thorough understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings. This requires good listening skills.
- Avoid being defensive or making excuses. Take responsibility for your actions or your position on the matter.
- Avoid blaming, hurtful, and attacking statements.
- Avoid bringing past issues into the present conflict.
- Restate the resolution and action plan so both of you understand the result of the conflict. This may also help with not repeating the same conflict throughout your relationship.
Understanding how to argue fairly and productively will enhance your conflict
intimacy. Imagine how satisfying and closer you and your partner can feel when your conflicts are resolved in a productive, growing manner instead of maintaining anger and resentment?
Dr. Michael Osit is a Licensed Psychologist practicing in Warren, and author of The Train Keeps Leaving Without Me: A Guide to Happiness, Freedom, and Self Fulfillment (2016), and Generation Text: Raising Well Adjusted Kids In An Age Of Instant Everything (2008).