We fade in on a couple sitting quietly at Sunday morning breakfast. Suddenly, a seemingly innocuous comment swiftly shifts the peaceful mood into prodigious conflict.
She: Could you be more careful when you take out the trash? Yesterday you left a total mess.
He: (stung) Well, excuse me. I didn’t know I was getting the white-glove test.
She: (annoyed by his tone): I don’t see how you could have missed it. Are you blind?
He: I just can’t win. Whatever I do, it’s never good enough for you.
She: Well, if you would just open your eyes and pay attention to what you were doing, then I wouldn’t have to say anything.
He: There you go, blaming me again. You are such a control freak.
So it goes until they either start yelling or stop talking altogether. All couples experience conflict—but conflict can either break their connection or be the basis for deeper intimacy. Imagine the same conflict expressed in a different way:
She: I want to ask you something, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. Thank you for taking out the trash, but next time could you please check to see if you left any trash behind? I would really appreciate it.
He: I’m sorry. I was in a hurry and didn’t realize that I did that. I’ll double-check next time, and thank you for telling me in such a nice way.
Falling in love is a truly wonderful experience, but love doesn’t stay wonderful all by itself. Continuing to love that same person over time depends on our ability to resolve conflicts that naturally arise. Most relationships fail because couples are not able to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. Couples who blame, criticize, defend, and rage will have great difficulty maintaining intimacy.
We have all witnessed couples who are quarreling, and their level of criticism, contempt, and defensive behavior makes it clear why they’re having trouble. When couples take the gloves off and use words like weapons, they wipe out all the good feelings. They too easily fall into using the same dysfunctional skills they learned in their own families, and they create the same anger and resentment in their current relationship that they felt growing up. Each person’s sense of reality is based on his or her own unique perspective, which can result from their total experience in the world, not just their childhood.
We are all born with a certain temperament, physical appearance, intelligence, and innate talents. We believe, think, need, care about, are sensitive to, or are wounded by certain experiences, some similar to each other’s and some quite different. These diverse traits and experiences form our personality and worldview. When we find that special someone, we are encountering a different set of traits and experiences, forming our partner’s particular personality. Where our differences clash, conflicts arise, shaped by our particular patterns of personality and experience.
Conflict is the natural result of our different likes and dislikes, our particular sensitivities, our perceived slights, and our emotional wounds—in short, of our being two diverse people. All couples experience conflict, and accepting that conflict is a natural process is an important step toward creating intimacy. The problem is not that we fight, it’s how we fight. How we respond to conflicts has everything to do with how we resolve them. Productive and efficient conflict resolution is a vital dynamic in the creation of lasting love. Until we learn this crucial skill, we will find ourselves caught up in the same negative exchanges time and again.
I once worked with a couple in which the husband was angry and bitter toward his wife because she never initiated sex. Of course, his behavior was completely counterproductive: his anger and bitterness made his wife withdraw all the more. As we peeled back the layers, we discovered that he felt truly unlovable. Once he understood where his anger was coming from, he could risk expressing how much he loved and needed his wife. This work helped them forge a deeper bond that in turn led to an improved sexual connection. It just took some digging to ferret out the conflict’s source.
Conflict is layered. The first layer is what we observe on the surface. There are often several other layers of emotion, related to our past experiences and ultimately how we feel about ourselves. Conflict taps into our entire personality and stimulates all our defenses. On the positive side, conflict also presents a unique opportunity to both learn about ourselves and, if the conflict is resolved properly, create a deeper intimate connection.
Resolving conflicts is a true art form and takes patience, tolerance and caring to pull off. If we listen, acknowledge our partner and validate their truth whether we agree with it or not it creates love. If we think of love as a creation then every conflict contains the opportunity to bring love to the surface. We can either bring out the good in one another or force a standoff that can last a lifetime. It’s our choice. The human spirit responds to compassion, understanding, respect and empathy, and the result is the thing we call love.