Communicating about Conflict in Intimate Relationships


A famous family therapist, the late Carl Whitaker, once 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 learns strategies for defusing emotional intensity and working their way through conflict, they will increasingly trust their ability to find resolutions, and hence conflict will gradually become less intimidating. Third, since both people are putting their thoughts, emotions, and ideas onto the table, even though some of them are contradictory, the couple has the benefit of more ideas to consider (i.e., 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. Whitaker didn’t say that conflict was the ONLY pathway to intimacy. However, for all of the reasons above, it is perhaps the most important pathway for the couple to practice and master. Think of it this way: Once the couple becomes more skilled at handling conflict, every other facet of intimacy in the relationship tends to be easier, less taxing, and/or more enjoyable.

Unspoken issues can lead to problems or conflict “under the surface,” which need to be confronted and brought to the surface, so that they can be discussed. However, such confrontations should be done in a sensitive and supportive manner, and with constructive feedback. This feedback helps the recipient to look at himself or herself more objectively, and identify things he or she needs to work on, in order to become more effective as a spouse/partner. It is important to note that the giver of 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. Thus, although it can be uncomfortable to receive, the recipient should consider the feedback seriously, “taking it to heart.” Even if the recipient initially disagrees with the feedback, he or she should thank the giver for the concern they showed in sharing it. Think of the analogy of a couple, by giving mutual feedback, gradually creating a “road map” for one another regarding how to be a better spouse or partner. Every confrontation adds helpful pathways, landmarks, potential obstacles, perhaps detours to use in stressful times, and other details to the other one’s road map.

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.)

Another important communication tool has to do with couples “signaling” one another when something wrong has happened and needs to be discussed (either at that time or later), or if the potential for conflict is rising. Often these signals can be given quickly with a single word. In my experience working with couples, one of the most valuable signal words is “Ouch.” For example, if one person inadvertently says something that hurts the other (or perhaps says nothing when the other is sincerely asking for a response), the other person can simply say “Ouch.” At that point, their partner should stop, think, and try to discern what just happened. If they don’t know (which is often the case) they should ask “How did I hurt you?” or “What just happened?” After the signal is explained, it would probably be appropriate for the one who hurt the other to apologize. If the couple desires, they can discuss it further, or it may be enough for the one who apologized to make a mental note to avoid that word. phrase, error, or type of comment in the future. So, the “ouch” yields valuable information about how the other can be a better spouse or partner—as above, it adds detail to their “road map.” Another single word signal is “Pause.” This might be used if one person is beginning to feel anxious or upset with what the other is saying/doing, and needs them to stop, chill, take a breath, and/or take a step back. When one person says “Pause,” it is their responsibility to let the other one know when the discussion can be resumed (since the other was interrupted and left hanging, albeit for an important reason). This is similar to when either person calls for a time-out, as explained in the next section.

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 and carefully LISTEN (which is more difficult for most people 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. If a few hours is not enough, it would be courteous for the one who called for the time-out to give the other a progress report, i.e., “Hey, I know it’s been a few hours, but I still need some more time. I appreciate your patience.”
  3. After returning from the time-out, the party who called for it should thank their mate for their patience and understanding. If, by chance, the second party is not yet ready to resume the discussion, it is now 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.)

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 as the intensity is rising), 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 listening and reflecting on what the other is saying—and are only reacting (i.e., to “hot” words, phrases, 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 would not waste our energy on nearly as many miniscule issues. Family therapy research has indicated that over 90% of couples’ arguments can be eliminated or drastically shortened, with the solitary addition of active listening. However, human nature, once we feel threatened, is for us to switch into an adrenal mode of “fight, flight, or freeze.” In this mode, our ears tend to close and our mind switches to protective mode, where our energy is moved away from hearing our partner and overly focused on our comeback/attacking/blaming, and/or defending ourselves from our partner’s criticisms.

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…the difficult thing for everyone to tolerate is not being heard or understood. (In fact, it hurts so much that, instinctively, as above, we respond to it by rushing into adrenal defensiveness and fight for our lives, 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, the partner writes a response, 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 phones or computers and send text or e-mail “entries” back and forth, which is fine. The text or e-mail thread enables each partner to 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. When the thread becomes too long, perhaps save the old entries onto a Word document, that can be added to over time.

One final variation on the Marital Journal involves the couple, during a time-out, both (simultaneously) writing/summarizing their feelings and thoughts (instead of one after the other, as above). When both have finished and are ready, the pages can be exchanged. Each partner should spend 10 minutes or more reading and meditating on what the other is saying: Try to step out of your own frame and into the other’s frame. Let their words resonate in your mind, emotions, and body: Seriously considering your partner’s words paves the way toward resuming the dialogue, when both are ready. Once you do so, proceed with caution, to ensure that both parties are listening, and the dialogue remains constructive. If needed, use the Speaker-Listener Technique. If things get intense or conflictual again, don’t hesitate to call for another time-out, if needed.

Again, marriages universally must face conflict, and are greatly helped and strengthened by it, provided that it is handled properly. As conflict is being discussed, it can help to have some potential resolutions in mind, as well as positive/negative ways to handle disagreements (i.e., when after discussion, there continues to be a lack of resolution). Here are 6 common approaches to conflict: 4 are resolutions, and 2 are not, although one of the latter 2 is still acceptable.

  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, in the midst of discussing the conflict, one of the two parties realizes he or she is wrong (and their partner is right), or that their partner has a better idea. He or she then 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.” It is wise to enter conflictual discussions actually looking for opportunities to acquiesce. Keeping this mindset will help the couple to listen better, as well. Quickly realizing when we are wrong—or when our spouse has a better idea—saves a lot of time and energy, and breeds goodwill.
  2. Compromise:Compromise involves meeting somewhere 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 ½. Compromise can be anywhere in the middle, not necessarily exactly in the middle. For example, it may be closer to what one person wanted then the other. As long as both parties agree, it’s a valid compromise.
  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 could have reached on their own. Like with compromise, a mathematical analogy is illustrative 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.

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, seeking help from a skilled couple therapist would 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! The bottom line:

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