Conflict Resolution In An Intimate Relationship

December 15, 2020

Are you tired of staying angry for days after a conflict with your spouse? Do you wish you could have a difficult conversation with your partner that ended with a feeling of resolution rather than frustration? Do you wonder why your spouse can’t seem to get over it when you hurt their feelings or make them mad?

If you struggle with these things, you aren’t alone. The good news is there is a way to end these kinds of stalemates. 

As I’ve said many times before, relationships follow a pattern of closeness, rupture, distance and repair.

It’s a repeating cycle. You feel connected to someone. Someone gets their feelings hurt. One or both of you pull back. Repair is made and you feel close again.

Or not. Unfortunately, what happens for many couples is they get stuck in distance and a solid, appropriate repair is never achieved. Knowing how to repair a rupture is a critical skill for any successful long-term relationship, and it’s a skill not many couples possess.

John & Mary – A Typical “Repair” Attempt

Instead of repairing, here is how those couples attempt to move from distance to closeness.

John comes home after a bad day at the office and says something hurtful to Mary. Mary reacts to the comment with something equally unkind and unhelpful. Both resort to the silent treatment for hours, or maybe even days. While they are stewing, both dwell on all the previous times their partner behaved poorly. Their hostility grows as they become focused on the perceived flaws of the other. Eventually, at least one of them gets tired of the stress and tension and offers an olive branch in the form of humor, perhaps a brief “I’m sorry”, or simply stops the silent treatment. The other accepts this and the couple moves forward like nothing happened. It’s the proverbial “sweep it under the rug” method. The relief they feel from the lessening hostility certainly feels as if they are moving past repair to closeness, but the reality is there is a simmering problem lying just beneath the surface.

Think of it this way. Your relationship is like a bank account. Some call it a “Love Bank.” All of your positive interactions are deposits into the account. The negative interactions are withdrawals. Every positive interaction adds a few cents to the account balance, which over time, can really add up. Negative interactions, however, tend to be costly, resulting in big withdrawals from the account. Yes, a single negative interaction can outweigh tens and tens of positive ones. That’s why a solid repair is golden. It adds BIG money back to your Love Bank that otherwise would be depleted by the negative interaction.

Let’s circle back to John and Mary. Even though the couple may feel some temporary relief, the reality is that without repair, they are taking more out of their Love Bank than they are putting in. An overdrawn Love Bank spells long-term trouble for their relationship. So what would a good repair for this couple look like?

John & Mary: A Healthy Repair

John comes home after a bad day and says something hurtful to Mary. Mary reacts to the comment with something equally unkind and unhelpful. One of them calls a “time out”. They spend some time apart cooling off and trying to figure out what just happened. Instead of focusing on how angry they feel or how unfairly they were treated, they each focus on understanding why they responded the way they did. They attempt to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. John realizes he was out of line. He sees how his bad day at the office made him irritable and he came home and took it out on Mary. Mary realizes that while John’s comment was inappropriate, she certainly raised the bar by retaliating in kind. She has noticed he is more irritable lately but she doesn’t why. Now that she is calmer, Mary tells John she wants to talk when he feels ready. Their interaction goes something like this.

Mary: When you came home and snapped at me today, it hurt my feelings. I got really angry and said some things I regret. I’m truly sorry. I want to understand what happened for you? Was this about me or something else?

John: Honestly, it was more about my bad day at the office than anything else. At least my delivery was. I was rude and unkind and I’m sorry.

Mary: Thank you. I really do want to hear about your day. But it seems like your response to me wasn’t just about your day. Was there more to it than just work? Is it something I did?

John: Well, when I come home from work, I would like to have a few minutes to reorient before I am hit with a list of things I need to do around here. It would be nice to maybe get a hug and a moment of calm before the storm. (Mary can feel herself getting a little emotionally triggered. It isn’t like she jumps him with a list the moment he appears. And what about all she does while he is gone all day? She wants to justify and defend but she holds steady. She reminds herself to breathe and to not react.)

Mary: It sounds like you feel a lot of stress at work and then you come home and feel a lot of pressure here too. Is that right?

John: Yes, sometimes. I don’t expect to avoid the pressures and stress at home though. I’d just like to ease into them after a long day. Would that be okay? Does that upset you?

Mary: I think it is reasonable, but admittedly, this is hard to hear. I really do handle most things on my own without asking for help. So when you say that, it makes me wonder if you think I am not doing a good job of reigning in the chaos at home.

John: That’s not at all what I’m saying. I know you have a stressful job here with the kids all day. I do want to help you when I’m home. Otherwise you are the on-point person 24/7. Mary, you are a wonderful mom and partner. Maybe we can set up a routine where we take 15 minutes when I first come home, to sit down together, take a breather, and just talk about our day instead of immediately launching into the to-do list? Could we try that?

Mary: I can’t promise we will be able to do that every day, but I do like the idea of starting the evening with some connection time if the kids and their schedules will allow it. I can see this is important to you and I love that you want to spend time with me. I will really try to make this a priority. If I forget, a gentle reminder will go a long way rather than what happened today.

John: I’m really sorry about today. I reacted poorly and it sounds like I added to your stress. I’d like to understand what you are feeling.

Mary: Well, I sometimes feel you don’t understand how hard it is to be here all day with the kids. No adult interaction and someone always wanting something from me. Some days I’m literally counting down the hours till you come home just so I can go to the bathroom by myself. If it seems I am jumping on you the minute I see you, it’s probably because I am tired and frustrated.It feels like a reprieve when I hear that garage door open at the end of the day.

John: Yeah, I can see that. I feel that way sometimes when you are out on a Saturday and I’m home with the kids for just a couple of hours. Mary, what can I do to help you feel more supported or less stressed here?

Mary: Well..since you asked…you could give me one night off a week. One night where you do the dishes, give the kids their baths and put them to bed. I’d love some time just to soak in a tub or just vege with a book without the interruptions.

John: [smiling] I can do that. Thank you for initiating this conversation and checking in with me. I’m sorry I snapped at you and I want you to know how much I love and appreciate you.

Mary: I’m sorry too. I love you, John. Thank you.

[They embrace]

Now folks, THIS is a solid repair. Yes, this is scripted and no, your ‘real life’ conversation may not flow so perfectly each and every time, but I don’t want you to miss the key components I’ve attempted to illustrate here:

John and Mary each:

  • Stayed emotionally calm after the initial rupture
  • Stayed curious on what the other experienced
  • Expressed empathy when appropriate (This is the magic sauce.)
  • Stayed away from blaming their partner
  • Apologized in a meaningful way
  • Was willing to work toward a solution

Different ruptures may require different types of repair, but in this case, John and Mary truly used the opportunity to bring them closer. Both felt heard and understood. Both felt valued and respected.

Though John and Mary are made-up characters, the situation portrayed is real. Similar situations happen regularly in each of our relationships. Real relationships, even real healthy relationships will have ruptures. Every relationship will have some level of discord. The difference in a healthy relationship and one that isn’t as healthy, is not the absence of discord. It’s about the presence of a true repair process and the ability for each partner to be comfortable with a spouse who has different needs, wants, opinions – you name it – than they do. Oneness in marriage is not sameness. Which reminds me, let’s talk more about “differentiation” soon. 

Until next time,


P.S. If you and your significant other need to practice making repair, I know some folks who can help.😉

How healthy is your marriage?

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