Many singles believe they suffer because they don’t have someone, but many partnered individuals will guffaw and say they suffer precisely because they have someone.
Falling in love is nowhere near as hard as keeping the love that you find. At some point, relationships invariably become messy. Couples find themselves in conflicts too torrential to maintain the blissful sandcastles they built at the start of their relationship.
Conflict in a romantic relationship can feel intolerable, creating doubt and uncertainty. Couples where the individuals once saw each other as the catalyst of joy can eventually view each other as the locus of their personal agony. The person who is your soulmate is often too your cellmate.
Many couples believe that conflict is toxic to a relationship, but many psychologists believe otherwise. Psychological authorities on romantic relationships, such as John Gottman and Harville Hendrix, repeatedly suggest in their respective corpus’ one big idea: It doesn’t necessarily matter how much you fight, but how you fight.
With patience, practical tools, and practice, couples can actually learn how to enhance their relationship through conflict. Couples can learn to use conflict instead of conflict using them. In other words, conflict is an opportunity for growth.
In this article, I review five practical skills that you and your partner can use together over time to deepen intimacy and the overall quality of your relationship experience.
But first, if you haven’t read my earlier article that explains how our relationship behaviors are often fueled by a repetition of unconscious emotions and beliefs from our past, you’re going to want to read that article first before reading this one.
1. SEE THE CONFLICT AS THE PROBLEM, NOT YOUR PARTNER.
Like a reflex, many individuals naturally become defensive in relational conflict. Many of us grew up in homes where the way that conflict was modeled for us was to observe our parents and family members treating each other as problematic. As adults, we recreate old relationship patterns and now see our partners as the problem. When we learn to view misunderstandings as the problem, not our partners, then we establish the grounds for working through conflict.
There are always three entities to a relationship: You, your partner, and the relationship. Too often, couples see each other as the problem, not something in the relationship. For more information on this concept, read a previous article I wrote, humorously titled: How to Make Your Relationship Last By Breaking Up.
It is harder to stay mad at your partner when you are each touching each other. Touch naturally releases oxytocin into the body. Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes feelings of closeness and fondness. When working through conflict, holding your partner’s hand or placing your hand over their knee could be a reminder that the two of you are bonded. In your next relationship conflict, touch could be the difference that makes the difference.
3. MASTER TOLERATING PROJECTION
A projection is a psychological term for when an individual unconsciously denies an experience in themselves and identifies a similar experience as belonging to the other person. Here is an example…
Partner A: “You don’t pay attention to me at all.”
Partner B: “You’re accusing me of mistreating you? Maybe you’re too needy sometimes.”
In this example, Partner A could be projecting. Instead of phrasing the conflict as something in the self (e.g. “I would like to feel that I am more desirable to you”), Partner A phrases the conflict as being about the other person.
It could be true that Partner B is not paying enough attention to Partner A, but by starting the conversation off in the way it is phrased above, this couple is already off to a hard start.
We see that Partner B couldn’t tolerate Partner A’s projection. In fact, Partner B had such difficulty tolerating the projection that they added in their own projection – the accusation that Partner A was mistreating them (perhaps because Partner B feels mistreated by Partner A). Partner A will probably respond more aggressively to this statement, thus confirming Partner B’s projection that they are being accused of being mistreated.
Tolerating projections is incredibly difficult. Projections operate outside of conscious awareness and pick at our childhood wounds. Ergo, tolerating projections involves ongoing self-awareness, practice, and a willingness to reflect on feelings as opposed to reflex on feelings.
Tolerating projections is so difficult that even the most evolved couples will come to psychotherapy to work through them. Although communication skills can be helpful band-aids, working through projections requires a more intensive treatment, like couple therapy or individual therapy.
4. USING REFLECTIVE, EMPATHIC, AND VALIDATING STATEMENT
A reflective statement is when you paraphrase what your partner has said back to them to make sure you are hearing what they are trying to communicate to you. Here’s an example…
Partner A: “You don’t pay attention to me at all.”
Partner B: “It sounds like I haven’t been noticing you as much as you would like me to [reflective statement].”
Partner A: “That’s exactly it. You have been too focused on your work projects lately.”
This is already a better start than before, since Partner B isn’t absorbing Partner B’s projection, but instead is encouraging a conversational atmosphere of respect, curiosity, and connection.
An empathic statement is when you demonstrate that you understand on a deeper level what your partner is feeling. The feeling may not be immediately obvious, and so one way to make an empathic statement is to infer what the partner is feeling based on what they already said. An empathic statement can be based off a reflective statement.
Now, let’s introduce a validating statement. A validating statement is going to look for the kernel of truth in the other partner’s projection and validate it. Let’s pick back up where we left off with the above example…
Partner A: “That’s exactly it. You have been too focused on your work projects lately. Like I said, you don’t pay as much attention to me as you used to, but you seem to have plenty of time for your friends. You must be feeling differently toward me lately.”
Partner B: “If I am feeling differently toward you lately, I am going to have to think more about why that is exactly. I have been really focused on my work projects lately [validating statement]. I know that I have made time to see my friends and have a life outside of work, and obviously my not making enough time for you has had a negative effect [validating/reflection statement]. You’re feeling neglected, and I know that if I felt neglected I would be hurt too [empathic statement].
Notice how Partner B didn’t validate or invalidate Partner A’s projection when they said “If I am feeling differently toward you lately, I am going to have to reflect on why that is exactly.” Partner B is not obligated to change their behavior, of course, but Partner A could ask Partner B if they were willing to accommodate their needs. Alternatively, Partner B could offer to accommodate Partner A’s needs. If we put it all together, Partner B’s last statement could read as follows:
Partner B: “If I am feeling differently toward you lately, I am going to have to reflect on why that is exactly. I have been really focused on my work projects lately [validating statement]. I know that I have made time to see my friends and have a life outside of work, and obviously my not making enough time for you has had a negative effect [validating/reflection statement]. You’re feeling neglected, and I know that if I felt neglected I would be hurt too [empathic statement]. I want you to feel cared for, and I am going to have to look more closely at what I’m doing and see if I can be more attentive to you in a way that conveys how I really feel about you, and the way you need me to [acknowledges both partner’s feelings/reaffirms commitment]. Could I check in with you periodically about this to see how we’re doing [offering ongoing resolution/attentiveness]?”
The essence of using reflective, empathic, and validating statements is to foster an intimate and connected dialogue. It is not about being formulaic and carefully plotting what to say, but rather, it is about learning to speak from the heart instead of a place of fear. It is not so much about fostering an end to the discussion, as much as having the discussion itself. It’s not about the outcome; it’s about the process.
Similar to the process of psychotherapy between therapist and patient, the reason talking helps so much is because talking leads to more talking.
5. NAMING FEELINGS AND NEEDS
Until you practice becoming aware of what your feelings and needs are, you won’t really know what you’re trying to communicate to your partner, only that you’re trying to communicate something. It’s like driving a car and knowing where you need to go, but not knowing how to get to where you want to go.
Practice naming your feelings and needs. Look up a list of feelings and a list of needs if you have to, and get in the habit of identifying which ones recur for you. Author Marshall Rosenberg suggests that our feelings arise in relation to a need we have. For example, if I feel anxiety, I need safety. If I feel confused, I need clarity.
Initially, practicing speaking feelings and needs can feel like learning to speak a different language, and in a way, it is. The language of speaking from fear and hurt is more natural to most of us. Don’t be hard on yourself. Very few cultures or communities promote honest, vulnerable, compassionate, intimate communication.
Naming your feelings and needs is effective because it is owning your own experience without using projection. Naming your feelings and needs is powerful because it is vulnerable, and when we are vulnerable, we invite others to do the same.