Intimacy: Staying Close During Conflict
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2018 (edited November 15, 2021)
Connections are essential for health and well-being. A significant indicator of a lasting intimate relationship is our ability to work through the inevitable disagreements.
Our connections suffer with a variety of ailments. The complexity of individual happiness becomes more complicated when combined with the dynamic force of a partner. Written on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was the directive for the ancient Greeks to “Know Thyself.” An exhausting task for even the deepest thinker. But in relationships, we not only must gain a grasp on ourselves, and but also must know our partner. The demand is a little more than this; we also must understand ourselves with our partner.
Instead of blindly stabbing in the dark, trying desperately to find something that connects when we have repeatedly failed in the past, we must try something fresh, giving wait to the wisdom of relationship research. Here we may find direction a little more concrete than the constant buzzing of self-proclaimed experts and internet junk.
Most scientist agree relationships are essential to our well-being. David Myers concludes his exhaustive research on well-being with, “there are few stronger predictions of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one’s best friend.” Daniel Amen follows these findings with his own conclusion that our relationships help or hurt our limbic system. The limbic system is the foundation of emotion. A chaotic unpredictable limbic system damages experience, interfering with our ability to enjoy the joys of living.
See Belongingness for more on this topic
Daniel Goleman espouses that brain connections extend beyond the communication of synapses firing in our own head but influence and respond to the firings in the heads of others. He writes, “During these neural link-ups, our brains emerge in an emotional tango, a dance of feelings… To a surprising extent, then, our relationships mold not just our experience but our biology.” (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence)
We mold healthy neural circuitry through healthy supportive connections. We disrupt healthy functioning when we experience chronic hurt, sadness and anger from unpredictable and dangerous relationships. The partners we choose, and the steps we take, can create a beautiful dance or an ugly collision.
A strong predictor to the success of a relationship is the ratio of positive to negative interactions, maintaining a positive ratio, even during conflict. An old tidbit of advice often given to newly weds was don’t go to sleep until the issue has been resolved, discuss it all night if needed. The problem with this advice is some issues meddle with our relationships throughout the entirety of our lives. Different religions, cultures, and tendencies create friction—emotional storms—that don’t necessarily get resolved with any finality.
"A strong predictor to the success of a relationship is the ratio of positive to negative interactions, maintaining a positive ratio, even during conflict."
The advice, however, isn’t completely void of wisdom. Healthy couples work through the differences. They discuss without demanding one or the other make permanent changes to their being. The resolution, then, is not win-lose. The immediate elements are discussed and agreed upon, while allowing the fundamental differences to remain and dealt with as they continue to collide.
How disagreements are managed has significant impact on the well-being of the relationship. If we master only this element, our relationships have a tremendous chance to succeed. Disagreements become the magical moments in time where safety is established, and trust is built. If a couple maintains a positive to negative ratio during the differences, both partners walk away from the disagreement with feelings respected and self-esteem unbruised.
Relationships, with all their benefits, task us with conflict. We must artfully work through the emotions, frustrations and realization that we live together with others and not alone on an island. If we wrongly suppose the avenue to a loving relationship is one partner conforming to the will of the other, conflict will be a battle for power, instead of a necessary irritant that can be effectively managed—over and over and over.
“Real intimacy comes from letting your guard down and allowing your partner to witness you in a less than stellar light."
Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes
It is a luxury to have little conflict in a relationship. But even, if we are not careful, the few conflicts can mushroom, accumulate then explode and destroy all the other goodness that the connection provides.
A key warning is when the intensity of disagreements increases. The balance is out of whack, something is accumulating. Escalating conflicts, both within a single argument and spanning across many arguments, demands attention. We must intervene in the fraying connections before separation or constant misery becomes the hallmark of the relationship.
Relationship specialist John Gottman states they found that escalating conflict is strongly related to a negative interaction style that he calls, “turning away.” The conflict spill over into day to day interactions. Bids for attention are ignored. The emotional support of an intimate relationship erodes. Important moments of attention, interest, humor and support give way to irritability, disconnection, and withdrawal.
It doesn’t take much to invert a positive-negative ratio from healthy to destine for divorce, and this inversion begins with the power given to disagreements. The more emotional the disagreements become the less top down direction available to work through the nastiness. Honest complainants give-way to nasty attacks, and character smudging. Nothing is resolved, self-worth is trampled, and the disagreement lingers in the mind.
"Having genuine emotional intimacy with a partner means that you have a relationship built on mutual understanding, support, love, and care."
Lori Jean Glass
Preventing Conflict from Damaging Relationships
In the heat of these unwinnable battles, we seek balance, often relying upon unhealthy adaptations. We become defensive, non-responsive, and engaged in self-righteous effort to fix the partner. These adaptations deepen the divide. To further the problem, the underlying problems expand. Our subjective experience changes from open to protective.
The danger of another emotional conflict looms precariously close to every interaction. Every comment, every action, every smirk is unconsciously evaluated for signs of deeper meaning. Was his smile genuine or forced? The relationship is threatening to well-being. Positive and neutral actions are given negative meanings. Our subjective interpretations are tainted. We have fundamental attribution errors in the evaluation of the problems inflicting the marriage. We are innocent and are spouse is a monster. This negative override to experience is the subtext to all interactions.
We can see mathematically how these shifts shatter our positive-negative ratio. The relationship is doomed without critical intervention.
We can interrupt this cycle early by:
Untrained and inexperienced, we need assistance to implement these remedies to our decaying connection, seeking help from professionals, and science, and determined practice and evaluation. Effective implementation reduces the anxiety, the relationship invites safety as interactions become more predictable, knowing our partner, although may disagree, love us and has concern for our well-being and the future of the relationship. We feel validated as a person, and comfortable working through the ordinary tasks of living--together.
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Amen, D. (2015) Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems.
Gottman, J. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples
Goleman, D. (2007) Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Hindy, C.; Scwartz, J.; Brodsky, A.(1990). If this is Love; Why do I Feel so Insecure
Siegel, D (2015) The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are