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'How to turn conflict into intimacy'

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW

How can it be that moments of conflict in a relationship, particularly those conflicts that feel “stuck”, offer the greatest opportunity for intimacy and personal growth? How can we turn moments where we are behaving at our worst into moments where we see and appreciate each other in new and important ways? 

Not surprisingly, understanding how to turn conflict into intimacy is easier than actually doing it, especially when we are in the heat of battle. While the steps outlined below explain how to do it, 90% of the challenge is in our willingness to take on the correct attitude; knowing the steps is the easy part.

Starting With the Right Attitude

The bottom line is this — you must be willing to temporarily leave your position (even when it feels unfair, which it usually does), so that you can spend some time exploring your partner’s position with them. Of course, this is a lot to ask of us. Our agendas can have the power of massive locomotives speeding down the track at 100 miles and hour; they are not easy to stop and set aside.

Yet our willingness to strengthen our “self-restraint” muscle in this way is one of the most profound opportunities we have to generate more love in our relationship, and to open up our own hearts as well. Love, after all, is not just something that comes to us or that we receive. More importantly, love is something that we create, that we do.

It can be both inspiring and reassuring to discover that taking a moment to restrain our agendas and really listen to our partner can powerfully shift our own mood, apart from anything our partner says or does. With that said, here are the steps.

Step One: Stop the Attack-Defend Syndrome

Many conflicts follow a recognizable pattern of attack-defend. The first partner brings up a charged issue for discussion in a way that feels like an attack, and the other responds by defending themselves or attacking back. Once begun, it can be hard to defuse tensions — particularly when the behavior of the second person directly triggers the vulnerability of the first person, leading to escalating conflict.

The first step here is for both people to make the commitment, at least some of the time, to stop the attack-defend syndrome

Step Two:  Stop Trying to Solve the Problem

In order to do this, it is helpful to let go of trying to solve the stated problem that is being argued about and make the effort, instead, to have a constructive dialogue where you really listen to each other. Psychologist Dan Wile describes this as “solving the moment rather than solving the problem”.

Why should we have to let go of trying to solve the problem? There are four good reasons: 

  • First, this may be an ongoing issue in your relationship that doesn’t have a ready solution (as is the case for the majority of our conflicts). 
  • Second, if there is a possibility for compromise, we are much more inclined to find it after we both feel heard and understood.
  • Third, when we change the behavior that keeps us stuck, new and unexpected  possibilities can emerge. 
  • And fourth, in many cases, the issue at the heart of the conflict is not really the stated problem at all, but rather something deeper that the couple is struggling with.

After all, what is a successful relationship? Is it one where there are no conflicts or where all conflicts have been resolved? A better definition of a successful relationship is one where on-going conflicts are acknowledged and discussed but ultimately contained. That doesn’t mean that successful couples don’t fight — most of them do. But the fighting doesn’t poison the love and connection between the two partners. 

Step Three: Shift from Blaming to Describing How You Feel

The best way to get out of the attack-defend syndrome is straightforward: both must quit (or at least reduce) the attacking and defending. One way to do this is to learn to bring up issues or complaints in a softer/gentler way where the focus shifts from blaming the other person to describing how you feel.

When you are about to attack, for example, you could instead say: "When you do _____ , it makes me feel _____". The trick is to spend very little time on the complaint (e.g., less than 10 seconds), and most of the time on the part that describes how you feel. 

Step Four: A Non-Defensive Response

Once one partner begins a discussion in a softer, non-attacking way, it is easier for the other partner to practice another simple but counter-intuitive skill — a non-defensive response. This will probably require some discipline. Instead of focusing on why you don’t deserve the complaint, try focusing instead on what your partner is telling you about how they are feeling.

If you remember that you can have your turn later to discuss your side of the argument, this may free you up to really listen and even repeat back what your partner said. The goal is to make sure that your partner feels fully understood; then you can tell your side of the story. And you’ve increased the likelihood that you will be listened to and understood.

Step Five: Find Your Deeper Voice

The final step is to take full advantage of the “charge” that can be present in a conflict situation to actually express ourselves more fully or more deeply than we normally would. 

Once a safe “dialogue” has been  established, we have the opportunity to reveal more, possibly to show the vulnerability or fear that may lie directly beneath our anger — or to speak with more courage or truth about our real needs. If we attempt to speak from the heart, we may not even know in advance what we are going to say, but we can sense it palpably when the words are right. 

Finding our voice in conflict situations — the words that we most need to express — is not something that tends to come naturally. It may take some practice. If it were easy, we would be less likely to get “stuck” in this particular conflict in the first place. And our partner would probably be more likely to listen, understand, and appreciate our position — and vice versa. 

The “Dreams Within Conflict” Intervention

This is where couples therapy can make the difference — to help create the safety first, and then to help each person find what they most need to say in order to feel fully understood.

John Gottman has developed a wonderful exercise to help couples accomplish this which is called “the dreams within conflict” intervention. Rather than thinking of each person in a conflict as stubbornly holding onto their story or needing to be right, Gottman has introduced a refreshing way of reframing: maybe each person is so entrenched because each is fighting to defend a “dream” that feels very precious. 

If each person can stop fighting and instead find the words to describe their “dream”, the communication can be transformed


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Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW | Relationship Realizations™
180 East 79th Street, Suite 1A, New York, NY 10075

To ask questions or set up an appointment, call 212-439-5102 or contact me by email at eli@relationshiprealizations.com

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"Passionate attraction is indeed an important instance of love. But it is far too specific a type of loving to serve as a model for love in general. When we ask for characteristics of love applicable to each and all of its forms, we find at least two: a sense of belonging and wholehearted acceptance of that belonging with all its implications. These two characteristics are typical for every kind of love, from love of one's country to love of one's pets, while passionate attraction is typical only of falling in love. Love is a wholehearted 'yes' to belonging."


From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness by Brother David Steindl-Rast.