Communicating about Conflict in Intimate Relationships

October 17, 2012 | By

A famous family therapist, Carl Whitaker, has said, “Conflict is the pathway to intimacy.” What on Earth did he mean by that?? Doesn’t conflict feel uncomfortable, and tense, and like an argument? Isn’t each side is trying to win, and avoid losing? How could that lead to intimacy?

Whitaker understood several things about conflict. First, if each member of the couple is being real and honest, conflict is bound to come up at times—couples should expect it. Second, even though conflict isn’t fun (for most people), once the couple trusts their ability to communicate fully until it is resolved, conflict is not something that needs to be feared or avoided. Third, since both people are putting their thoughts, emotions, and ideas onto the table, albeit some of them contradictory, the couple has the benefit of more ideas to consider. (Two heads are better than one). Finally, dealing with conflict successfully adds depth to the relationship, and brings the couple closer together. It vulcanizes the couple’s bond, like fire refines metal and makes it stronger.

Unspoken issues can lead to problems or conflict “under the surface,” which needs to be confronted and brought to the surface, so that it can be discussed. Such confrontations should be done in a sensitive and supportive manner, however (with constructive feedback). This helps the recipient of the feedback to look at himself or herself more objectively, identify things he or she needs to work on, and become more effective as a person. The giver of such feedback should do so carefully and out of love. It is important to note that the giver of (accurate) feedback is taking the risk of upsetting their mate to point out something that greatly needs to be recognized and addressed. Such feedback truly is a gift to one’s mate. Although it can be uncomfortable to receive, the recipient should consider it seriously, “taking it to heart.” Even if the recipient disagrees with the feedback, he or she should thank the giver for the concern they showed in sharing it.

There is a set of 3 helpful questions a person can ask themselves, before attempting to give constructive feedback to their mate. The 3 questions are like a litmus test: Until all 3 can be answered in the affirmative, the confrontation should not yet happen (or perhaps not at all). Submitting constructive feedback to the “3 Questions Test” will greatly increase the possibility that one’s mate will hear, receive, and potentially use the feedback. The 3 questions are:

  1. Is the feedback necessary? Does it involve something that I cannot simply ignore? Am I being too “picky?” Am I prepared to state a good reason that my spouse needs to know about this, and consider changing it?
  2. Am I ready to give the feedback? Am I calm enough, or am I still too angry or upset about it? Do I need to wait longer, narrow it down, word it better? Would I hear and receive this feedback well? Can I state it positively and constructively? Am I using “I” statements (“I feel angry when you ________,” or “I perceive that you are talking down to me when you say ________”) instead of “you” statements, which more easily are perceived as an attack or threat?
  3. Is this a good time to give the feedback? Is my spouse rested, relaxed, and feeling OK? Is he or she in a decent mood? Are interruptions likely? Will we have enough time to discuss it? (Picking the right time is all-important, in the delicate world of loving confrontation.)

Again, marriages universally must face conflict, and are helped and strengthened by it, provided it is handled properly. However, as mentioned before, conflict still is not pleasant. It can help to have some templates, or “road maps,” regarding possible resolutions already in mind, as well as various tools or aids to keep the communication flowing. Here are 6 common approaches to conflict: 4 are resolutions, and 2 are not, although one of the 2 is still an acceptable approach.

  1. Acquiescence: This resolution to conflict is presented first on purpose, because most couples could stand to use it much more often! Acquiescence is where one of the two parties realizes he or she is wrong (and their spouse is right). He or she then does the noble thing and acquiesces (or yields) to the other’s point of view, but does so graciously, and without loss of face. This is accomplished by saying something like, “You know what? You’re right. I get it now.” or “Maybe you’re right.” Wise couples practice acquiescence often, as it saves a lot of time and energy, and breeds goodwill.
  2. Compromise: Compromise involves “meeting in the middle,” where the resolution involves each party both getting some and giving up some of what they originally wanted. In other words, compromise involves finding a balanced position that is acceptable to both parties. A helpful mathematical analogy to compromise is 1+1=1_.
  3. Consensus: Consensus is a useful resolution to employ when the two parties do not agree, but one party realizes that the issue at hand is not that important to them, and/or they cannot come up with an alternative solution, hence they yield to the other party’s decision or point-of-view. A consensual solution might sound like: “I don’t fully agree, but it’s not that big of a deal to me—let’s go with what you want to do.” or “I don’t know what we need to do, but I can’t think of anything better than your idea.” Consensus should not be employed unless the party that yields truly is OK with that with which they are going along. For example, even if one party has not come up with an alternate solution, this does not mean that a consensual solution has to be offered or accepted.
  4. Synergy: This is the last of the four resolutions to conflict. A synergistic resolution is one where the initial conflict (disagreement) stimulates each party to “think outside of the box,” and come up with a different and better solution than either party had reached on their own. Like with compromise, the mathematical analogy is helpful here, where synergy is represented by 1+1=4, or 1+1=9, or even 1+1=83!
  5. Peaceful Disagreement: This is not a resolution to conflict, but it’s the next best thing. The often-used suggestion “Let’s agree to disagree.” exemplifies peaceful disagreement. Additionally, this suggestion is often used to signal that the one party feels that the discussion has stalled (i.e., is not moving any closer to resolution, or generating new ideas) and needs to be “tabled” until a later time (or permanently). In the absence of a resolution, “agreeing to disagree” is an excellent way to protect and prioritize the relationship, and not allow a stalled conflict to fester and become damaging. In the sense that it clearly “chooses” the relationship over the issue, peaceful disagreement often feels like a resolution, and serves to draw the parties closer.
  6. Hostile Disagreement: This is the one approach to conflict that needs to be avoided, as much as possible. This is warfare, and has the power to damage a relationship permanently, or end it. Sadly, millions of good marriages have ended over small and trivial conflicts, because one or both parties were not able or willing to “agree to disagree,” (and perhaps seek professional help with resolving the conflict). Whereas peaceful disagreement chooses the relationship over the issue, hence pulling the parties closer, hostile disagreement does the opposite, often polarizing the couple into rage, bitterness, and even hatred.

Communicating through conflict requires that the couple pay close attention to the emotional “temperature” between them. Maintaining dialogue (two-way communication) is crucial. Both people have to share honestly, and both have to be heard, which requires that both closely listen (which is more difficult for most than is talking). Dialogue can only happen in a free, voluntary, non-coercive context. Either person needs to have the ability to withdraw from the discussion, if they begin to feel threatened, hurt, angry, or uncomfortable in any other way. Thus, either party can call for a “time-out” in the discussion, which must be respected by the other party. However, Dr. Pitts offers the following guidelines for the time-out period:

  1. Whoever calls for the time-out can take as much time they need to regain a sense of calm and control.
  2. There is no set length for the time-outs from discussion, but the party calling for the time-out should be sensitive to the fact that the other member of the couple was left hanging. As such, it is incumbent on the party who called for the time-out to resume the discussion, preferably within 1-2 hours, time permitting, or at their partner or spouse’s convenience the following day.
  3. After returning from the time-out, the party who called for it should thank their mate for their patience and understanding. If the second party is not yet ready to resume the discussion, it is up to them to notify their mate when they are ready.
  4. Time-outs should only be used to regain calm and/or control of one’s emotions. Under no circumstances should a time-out ever be used to avoid discussion, simply because it is unwanted. (Doing so is indirect and avoidant at best, and dishonest at worst.) If discussion is unwanted by one of the parties, he or she should simply state that, and the other party should respect it.

In contrast to time-out, there are various communication tools which can aid a couple in continuing to dialogue even when the discussion becomes more intense (but only if desired by both parties). The first is called the “Speaker-Listener Technique.”

The Speaker-Listener Technique is a simple but elegant technique which, if done properly, ensures that both parties will be fully and completely heard. Why is this important? Human nature is such that, during conflict (especially that with rising intensity), people are prone to stop listening to one another, and start competing, focusing instead on their rebuttal or “comeback.” The argument escalates precisely because both people have stopped absorbing and are only reacting (i.e., to “hot” words, phrases, and fragments—without taking the time to consider the meaning of the spouse’s complete thought—and immediately launching into their comeback). Think about how often we or our spouse have to block an interruption by demanding, “LET ME FINISH!”

Have you ever noticed how most of your conflicts with your spouse involve small and trivial matters? If we and our spouses were truly listening to one another, as opposed to simply “reacting,” we likely would not waste our energy on nearly as many miniscule issues. Family therapists often estimate that 90% of couples’ arguments could be eliminated or drastically shortened, with the solitary addition of listening. But again, for the human animal, once it feels threatened, this is much easier said than done.

Sensing that the intensity or emotional temperature is rising over some issue, either person can request that the couple begin the Speaker-Listener Technique. Here’s how it works: Get an object to pass back and forth, which will function as the “floor.” (Some couples buy a floor tile, and write something sweet on it, like “Susie + Joey = True Love”). The couple turns two chairs where they can sit knee-to-knee, facing one another. They decide who will be Speaker #1, and that person takes the “floor.” (The other person is Listener #1.) Speaker #1 proceeds to say what he or she desires to say, striving to be succinct. Before Listener #1 may have the floor, he or she must paraphrase back what Speaker #1 said, to Speaker #1’s satisfaction. After the paraphrase, Speaker #1 gives Listener #1 constructive feedback on his or her listening, i.e., “Honey, that was great. You got 95% of it. There’s just one detail I didn’t hear, and that is ___________.” (The Listener #1 repeats the part that was missed.)

In contrast, let’s say Listener #1 misses most or nearly all of it. In that case, Speaker #1 should still be positive, i.e., “Tell you what…let’s try again…I’ll see if I can be more clear this time.” Once Listener #1 has demonstrated that he or she has completely heard Speaker #1, the floor can change hands: Listener #1 becomes Speaker #2, and Speaker #1 becomes Listener #2, and the process is repeated. If either speaker has a large amount to say, it is good to break it up into chunks, and allow the listener to paraphrase back each chunk, before the next chunk is presented.

After both parties have had a turn speaking and hearing their message repeated, more cycles of speaking/paraphrasing can be done, if needed, (but sometimes only one cycle is enough). The Speaker-Listener Technique usually demonstrates to couples rather quickly and dramatically the importance of listening. Interestingly, the technique often ends with couples not necessarily agreeing about or having resolved the issue at hand, but no longer in conflict over it! In other words, most couples actually can tolerate disagreement and/or unresolved conflict more than they think…what nobody can tolerate is not being heard. (Unfortunately, it hurts so much that, instinctively, people respond to it by rushing into defensiveness and fighting for their life, instead of listening.)

Another tool a couple can use to defuse intensity and maintain dialogue (while slowing it down, which helps) is the Marital Journal. This is an excellent thing to try during time-outs, if acceptable to both people. The couple purchases and designates a notebook as their Marital Journal. During the time-out period, either person might decide to get the journal, open to a clean page, and write a concise summary of what they are feeling/thinking about the issue at hand. When finished, the journal is given to their partner, or left in a conspicuous location, so that the other will easily find it. After the entry is read, a response is written, and again, the journal is given to or left for the other to see.

Some people are much better at expressing themselves in writing than they are doing so verbally and face-to-face. They may find the Marital Journal much more conducive to continuing dialogue, when it becomes too intense or conflictual. Many couples opt to use their computers and send e-mail “entries” back and forth, which is fine. In this case, it is recommended that each entry be saved, or that couples cut-and-paste the entire dialogue onto each e-mail. The key is that, if desired, either person, or the couple together, can refer back to previous entries (or entire dialogues)—and learn, over time, how to become more and more effective in the all-important skill of dialoguing about conflict.

One final variation on the Marital Journal involves the couple, during a time-out, both (simultaneously) summarizing their feelings and thoughts (instead of one after the other, as above). When both have finished and are ready, then the pages can be exchanged. (Then if desired, the couple can write and exchange one or more responses.) Using the Marital Journal in this way also works well as an intro into the Speaker-Listener Technique. In other words, the couple does one or more rounds of simultaneous writing/exchanging of their feelings and thoughts about the issue at hand, then attempts to “go knee-to-knee” and discuss it face-to-face, using the Speaker-Listener Technique to ensure complete listening and dialogue.

Handling conflict head-on can be a little intimidating at first, but with practice, the couple will become more and more facile with how it works. Ever so gradually, the couple will gain confidence and esteem regarding their skill at listening, dialoguing, and resolving conflict. If a couple is trying to communicate and not experiencing success, particularly if anger and frustration are building, a few sessions with a skilled couple therapist might be a good idea. Gaining communication and conflict resolution skills eventually grants a tremendous sense of security to the couple, as if there is no conflict too large or tough, such that the couple cannot create a healthy dialogue about it. Having these skills is most valuable marital insurance policy on Earth! Remember:

Where there is conflict, there can be dialogue, and
where there is dialogue, there can be healing.

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