Intimate relationships bring up intense feelings. Conflict with a partner can feel destabilizing, and make it difficult to be articulate and openly expressive. Many people try to avoid conflict through a variety of maneuvers—pretending to always agree, being aggressively stubborn so the other person is too afraid to speak up, or avoiding topics that could bring up disagreement.
There are always issues in romantic relationships that really get us going. These often relate to our childhood experiences with important others—experiences that were painful, and the emotions of which are stirred up when a similar situation occurs again.
Having someone recognize your deepest fears and offer reassurance can be extremely reparative. Using words to state what you believe the other person is saying can relieve their fear of being dismissed, left alone, or not taken seriously.
Being able to fight productively often brings a couple closer and strengthens their relationship; here are six ways to do this.
Repeat back to your partner what you think you’ve heard him or her say, and ask clarifying questions. This is important even when you think your partner is being irrational. You don’t have to agree with your partner’s point of view to take their feelings seriously. People often assume they know what someone has said, but they have actually misunderstood in a vital way. This can lead to a repeat fight the next week.
Clarify! Even if it seems redundant.
If you don’t understand what your partner is saying, don’t pretend you do; ask for more explanation. And if you can’t apologize honestly, don’t. Placating someone to end conflict can make the other person feel manipulated and dismissed. Try to let go of a need to be the “good one” in the relationship and stay with the goals of closeness and understanding. If you’re angry, it’s OK to show that. It’s a myth that the healthiest arguments are always calm and contained—that’s just not a realistic expectation in an intimate relationship.
If things get out of hand, it’s important that both partners know that they can set limits that will be respected. This safety is key to healthy fighting. It’s essential that couples learn to recognize when an argument is too heated and about to get out of hand so they can take a breather.
What’s important is to come back to the issue at a later point. It may help to clearly establish when this will be so that both parties know their concerns are not being swept under the rug. Keep in mind that some people become enraged by an attempt to pause an argument because of past experiences when this tool was used to dismiss them.
Does your fight feel familiar? Most couples endlessly repeat different versions of the same fight. There's nothing wrong with that; it happens to all of us. But if you notice you’re going down a road that led you nowhere the last time, and point that out tactfully (rather than “Here we go again!”) you may be able to have a productive dialogue about how to communicate more effectively and avoid that pitfall.
If both parties are curious about what’s going on between them—what each person contributes to the interaction—they can begin to work things out together.
Even if things can’t be resolved immediately, it’s important for your partner to know that you still care. Sometimes it’s hard to say “I love you” when you feel hurt and angry. A physical gesture can be reassuring at a moment when your partner is feeling anxious and distant. However, it’s important to respect the other person’s signals and not push too far for physical closeness when they may not feel receptive.
Continuing to openly give yourself to the relationship, even during a rocky period, allows both partners to recognize that conflict doesn’t have to mean the end. This emphasizes the goal of strengthening the relationship, rather than making the other person bend to your will.
It takes time to work through core conflicts in relationships. We all have baggage that stays with us. Remember that conflicts lessen in intensity over time, leading to greater mutual understanding.
Laura D. Miller, LCSW, is a third-year candidate at the William Alanson White Institute and a graduate of the Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy program at the White Institute. She has a special interest in working with the immigrant population and has published on the topics of immigration and parental infidelity. She is in private practice in Manhattan and teaches Direct Clinical Practice at Columbia University School of Social Work.