Conflict: A Bridge to Intimacy

How do you turn conflict into an opportunity for growth, development and intimacy?

In my experience, most couples enter couples therapy with the complaint, “we don’t communicate!” Underneath communication difficulties is usually conflict.

Couples that fight aggressively will often say that: we yell, blame, criticize, make threats, swear, assault each other’s character and sometimes say horrible things to each other during angry verbal exchanges. I am not talking about physical assaults or abuse. I am talking about “open warfare” fighting that leave partners feeling emotionally wounded, scared, lonely and very distant from each other. These aggressive fights can range from occasionally mild to frequent and severe. Some couples become stuck in this pattern and become very discouraged.

Couples who fight passively will often say proudly, “We never fight!” As we begin to explore their “not fighting” pattern, we discover that “ice walls” have developed between partners that fight passively. This means that much of the anger, rage, control and power that aggressive couples express openly is buried inside each partner in the more passive battles. Usually this means partners will avoid, shut down, withdraw, and refuse to talk and get even about issues that might cause open conflict. The anger and resentment from not being heard or able to talk through issues and problems is stored inside each partner, which results in physical ailments such as headaches, digestive upsets, sleep problems, anxiety and worry, depression… and the list goes on and on.

In couples where there is one aggressive fighter and the other is passive, the passive partner will often feel bullied by the aggressive partner and learns ways to get even. This could be by withdrawing verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually, or acting out in passive-aggressive ways. A primary objective for the passive partner is to avoid conflict and anger. It may even appear that the passive partner is complying and agreeing with the angry aggressive person…but this is often not the case.

I would like to emphasize that there are many variations of these patterns and range from mild to severe depending on the level of stored or open anger.
(See the Relationship Conflict Scale, p. 11, Taking Space: How to Use Separation to Explore the Future of Your Relationship)

What do all these patterns have in common? Anger and defensiveness that prevents open honest communication between partners. Although a degree of anger and resentment may be the first response that surfaces after a long period of feelings and wants not being heard or met, underneath is often sadness, hurt and disappointment. Partners attempt to make their feelings, thoughts, wishes and hopes heard and understood, only to get trapped once again in a familiar pattern of frustration. Connection occurs when two people hear, acknowledge, validate and make attempts to understand each other. Disconnect occurs when two partners use power and control, threats, blame, putdowns, sarcasm, silence, withdrawal, etc. to try to get their way.

What to do:

1. First partners and couples must decide they have had enough conflict. Doing something to change and manage your conflict is deciding to grow and develop.
2. Couples must learn ways to interrupt their conflict pattern. This will help to prevent and shorten conflict times.
3. Aggressive partners must work on individual strategies to control and manage their anger and get in touch with underlying feelings in which anger is triggered. If one partner starts to work with this, something will change.
4. Passive partners must build a safe space and start to talk or write to each other.
(See Rules for Taking a Time Out, p. 16, Taking Space)

Communication must be restarted and practiced.
Partners must learn to listen to each to each other even though this may be very difficult at times. You must speak for yourself – your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, wants etc… not “you, you, you,” which often results in a defensive partner. When I see real open and honest communication start to happen right before my eyes, I start to see magic between partners. Partners begin to listen and understand each other instead of jump to conclusions and assumptions. Even though there may be major differences between partners, the fact that each partner can begin to see how they are different and how they are similar allows for a more developed relationship to happen.
Couples could benefit from working with a third objective person that can facilitate communication.
(See Ground Rules for Talking, p. 17, Taking Space)

Progress can be positive if partners have a higher level of investment and commitment to making their relationship better. If you are at a point of telling your partner your relationship is over, don’t expect him/her to be eager to validate you for this information.
(See Relationship Investment-Commitment Scale, p. 76, Taking Space)

Self-development happens in the context of this type of connection. You learn more about yourself as you share that self with a partner willing to listen, learn and care about you as well. Most people crave this intimate connection with another person. Learning to manage your conflict can begin to build a bridge to that making that connection work.

Taking Space: How to Use Separation to Explore the Future of Your Relationship

Audio Course: How to Structure and Manage a Separation, Steps 1 & 2

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Read Bob's comments on: How To Tell if You Should Get Back Together with an Ex in Women's Health online magazine 5/20/14

Book review from

5.0 out of 5 stars best book I have read in a long time, very thorough.

- Hannah Latta

This review is from: Taking Space: How To Use Separation To Explore The Future Of Your Relationship (Kindle Edition)

"This book is by far the best book I have read on the subject of separation. The author is extremely thorough in describing various scenarios of different couples, their conflict, type of separation, process of resolution or dissolution. It touches on how to talk to the children, goals during separation, how long to separate, and what kind of separation to use for different cases. I appreciate the depth and length the author went in sharing his experience in this book to help others."

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