Most couple’s counselors are sought out to help couples with conflict. It’s understandable. Conflict can be scary. And it’s definitely not fun. And for couples stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict, it’s the obvious thing that needs to stop. But if your focus is totally on dealing with conflict. Then you have already lost.
Conflict is not the problem
It turns out that conflict and fighting is not what leads couples to divorce or break up. It’s not even an indicator of whether a relationship is healthy and happy in the long run.
John Gottman, the authority when it comes to relationship research, spent over 30 years observing and analysing 1000s of couples to determine what led some couples to separate and others to stay together. One of his most surprising findings is that “you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your relationship to thrive”, says Gottman. He found that fighting is a normal part of long term healthy relationships and that every couple has “perpetual problems” that they never resolve. Conflicts that are fought out again and again – maybe one of you wants more or less sex, or one of you likes to take holidays in warmer or colder climates, or is too strict or not strict enough with the kids – each couple has conflicts that are never resolved, that are built into their relationship and lead to the same discussions again and again.
But, according to Gottman, this isn’t a problem. What determines the health and longevity of a relationship is not the amount, the intensity or even how conflicts are managed, but rather the state of the emotional connection before the conflict takes place. Emotional connection, or the state of the friendship, as Gottman likes to call it, is the feeling of closeness and openness that you experience when you feel understood and cared for.
Couples that continue to invest in their friendship – that take time to really know each other and make an effort to cultivate rituals where fondness and appreciation are shown – are able to not only cope with the major conflicts and differences, but grow stronger through conflict. The overall positivity in their relationship means that a conflict is not a threat and can be fought out, resolved, remain unresolved or even ignored without it destabilising the relationship. Often there is a lightness to the way conflicts are handled, with one person able to intuitively know how to defuse the intensity when things get out of hand. It looks like their conflict management skills are good, but the secret is the strength of their emotional connection which enables conflict to be a healthy part of their relationship.
In relationships where the emotional connection and friendship is weak – a conflict quickly leads to a breakdown in trust and threatens the stability of the relationship. There is no foundation of warmth to balance the negativity. An endless cycle of conflict ensues, with both partners trying to prove they are right, and no one ever winning. The longer the struggle continues, the more frustrated and hurt both start to feel, and the problem is no longer related to a specific situation but is seen to be the defect personality of the other person. “He’s impossible, he can’t communicate, I just don’t know what is wrong with him”, or “I think she’s just an unhappy person, she’s always complaining, I’m so fed up with it.” Over time difficult conversations are avoided to reduce conflict, which leads to further emotional disconnection and reinforces the negative cycle . It looks like they have a conflict problem, but in reality their emotional connection is weak and conflict is therefore seen as dangerous and to be avoided with even the smallest conflicts threatening the stability of the relationship.
I like to think of the emotional connection as a thick rope made up of many little strands that have built up over the lifetime of your relationship. Each of those little strands is a moment of emotional connection, and each broken strand is a moment of disconnection. If the rope is strong and healthy, it can easily cope with intense strain and conflict. However, if those little strands have been neglected and are no longer connected, then the rope is fragile and cannot withstand even the smallest amount of tension or conflict.
Frazzled rope that is almost ready to break with view onto the ocean
If this rope was a relationship, what would it say about their emotional connection?
Building Strong Emotional Connection
Unfortunately, couples tend to increasingly neglect their emotional connection after the initial phase of being in love. Life gets in the way, work, children and hobbies demand attention and slowly but surely those small strands start to break, one by one. While this seems to go unnoticed, both partners do feel it and often express their frustration through blame – “if he could communicate, then I would feel understood”, “if she wasn’t always criticising me, then I would feel closer to her”. The loss of emotional connection becomes most apparent when conflict surfaces, and such moments are used to bring up all the times your partner did something wrong.
But trying to rebuild emotional connection when you are in a conflict is like trying to learn kung fu when you are already in a fight. It’s too late. Luckily there are many ways you can strengthen your emotional bond at times when you are NOT already in a conflict.
The first three of John Gottman’s Seven Principles for making Marriage Work are focused on this, namely strengthening your emotional connection and not resolving conflict. Here is a short summary of the first three principles and how they help create a strong foundation for when conflict does arise.
Princple 1: Enhance your love maps or how well do you know your partner
This might sound pretty basic. But how well do you still know your partner after all your years together? What does your spouse enjoy doing? What is on their mind? The larger meaning of life questions are just as important as the little everyday things such as; what is your partner’s favorite dinner, how does your partner like to relax, what do they like to read, what makes them happy, sad, angry and more.
Getting to really know your spouse is something that never stops, it is an ongoing process of listening and sharing your inner worlds with each other. And the process of doing it continually strengthens the emotional bond between you, adds more strands to your rope.
Principle 2: Nurture your fondness and admiration
Actively searching for things that you admire and appreciate about your partner might seem strange or even fake at first. Especially if you have been together for a long time. However, our “negative” view of our partner is also not realistic, it is skewed by our frustration and the lack of connection.
If you struggle to find things that you admire in your partner, then it helps to look back and remember the good times, or why you fell in love. What were you fond of, what did you admire in your partner back then. The key with this exercise is starting, even if you don’t feel it at the start. And the sharing. Expressing your appreciation and showing your admiration re-creates emotional connection and helps to rebuild your bond. Remember the rope is made up of many small strands. This is not about hitting a home run with one big show of appreciation. Focus rather on the small things, and build up.
Principle 3: Turn toward each other instead of away
Couples continually make small bids for each other’s attention; “Honey, can you help me with the shopping”, “I had such a tough day”, “You should have seen the football last night, you wouldn’t believe what happened…”. These small bids for attention are attempts to be seen and understood, to create emotional connection.
According to Gottman, couples in long term happy relationships respond to these bids 8-9 times out of 10, whereas those that divorce or separate in the near future respond only 3 times out of 10. Learning to take these bids seriously and to turn towards your partner, instead of ignoring them by turning away are key to building emotional connection. The challenge with these bids is that we often miss them because we are distracted, not interested, or they are wrapped up in negativity and strong emotions. A burst of anger and criticism, can be a frustrated attempt to ask for help. Recognising and responding to bids for connection is critical to strengthening emotional connection.
Yes, but I can’t ignore the conflict
Conflict shouldn’t be ignored, the strong emotions are a sign that things which you value are not as you want them to be. But focusing all your attention on conflict won’t make you better at dealing with it – it won’t rebuild the strength of your rope – it will rather put further strain on it. It is therefore important to first rebuild your emotional connection – start to repair and reconnect those strands – before getting more deeply into conflicts.
However, if you are at a place in your relationship where you no longer want to rebuild the emotional connection, where anger and frustration dominate, or the relationship feels cold and lifeless, then it’s critical to get the support of a relationship counselor. Your relationship is literally hanging on its last thread and the anger and pain that each of you feel will negate any repair attempts. The counselor will not attempt to resolve your conflicts, but help you start to refocus on the strands that connect you underneath the surface conflict. And as your emotional connection slowly but surely grows, so does your ability to deal with conflict.
So the next time you get stuck in a seemingly hopeless conflict, rather than trying to “resolve” it, take a break, or do something to re-focus on strengthening your emotional connection in other ways. Once you feel more connected, remember that some conflicts are never resolved, and instead use your time to be curious, invite each other to share what hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations lie underneath your conflict. So, even if your conflict is never resolved, at least you will have used the time to better understand each other and strengthen your emotional connection. And it’s this, your emotional connection, which will help you create a long-lasting and happy relationship.