Using Conflict To Enhance Connection In An Intimate Marriage

Alexandra Stockwell MD explains how to approach relationship disagreements, and even see their upside.

There are times you and your spouse are not on the same page.  Of course you love each other, and your marriage is strong, but no matter what you do there are moments when you can’t seem to get it right. Maybe it’s their fault. Maybe it just happens and it’s no one’s fault. Maybe it’s the situation–work stress, visits from grandparents, the house is getting too small, or anything else that seems like it can’t be easily resolved.


Whatever the situation, you might find yourself coming home from a long day of work only to find that pile of laundry still waiting to be folded – even though you asked your partner to take care of it three days ago. Or, maybe you keep telling them that you’re going to make that doctor’s appointment and you haven’t yet – and now the issue is compounded and what should have been a smaller matter has become a larger issue and resentment is building on both sides.


We’ve all been there, and either way, we all know the end result; you (and/or your partner) will feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, and sometimes flat out disrespected. It’s not a great place to be in, and it serves as an illustration of the truth that there is always room for improvement when it comes to communication.

This whole scenario plays out in many ways – not just went it comes to neglected chores. It can happen when your partner pulls their phone out too much, or they interrupt you when you speak. Or when you are feeling optimistic and dreaming of the future and the response is focused on logistics and practicality. Or you want something and they aren’t interested. You crave affection and they’re not in the mood. There are so many basic,everyday situations where you can feel out of alignment with other another and it can become very frustrating.


These kinds of situations happen to EVERYONE. It’s natural. It’s human nature. It’s part of life with another person. The key, however, to whether such instances bring you closer together or drive you further apart depends entirely on what happens next.


When this sort of thing happens, do you pick a fight? Do you shut down? Or, are you perhaps a person who ignores it but ends up taking out your frustration on your child instead, by yelling at them about something minor? Maybe you prefer to distract yourself and pour yourself a glass of wine in an effort to avoid the situation. 


These moments seem insignificant, and you might conclude they’re no big deal, however, they can be highly impactful. In fact, they can make your blood boil and send tingles right up your spine (not in a good way). Or they can serve as a portal to more closeness and connection.


That’s right–the good news is that these moments are also full of potential.  Yes, you read that right. They are full of POTENTIAL. Good, alchemical potential. 


Each of these moments can serve you well if you allow it. Each one is an opportunity which can lead to more connection, better intimacy, and more soulful love. 


Are you wondering how this is possible, how it works? How something painful and complicated can become a source of connection and feeling closer? Well, it all comes down to how you respond. That’s what makes the difference in whether a challenging moment sours things for you or it ultimately depens the soulful love between you and your partner.


Here’s how to make such moments work for you and serve to enhance your relationship.


Start by recognizing that your spouse’s behavior is impacting you. Acknowledge to yourself that you’re experiencing their interest in their phone, negligence in remembering to pay the bill, or whatever it is, and it means that you no longer feel calm or generous. 


Start by recognizing that your spouse’s behavior is impacting you. Acknowledge to yourself that you’re experiencing their interest in their phone, negligence in remembering to pay the bill, or whatever it is, and it means that you no… Click To Tweet


This is where people tend to be unconscious and unaware, feeling they are objective in their response when actually they are very subjective–more accurately they are reactive. We all have massive blindspots which result in believing that our initial (reactive) response is the “truth” when it’s actually very subjective. It’s essential to take a moment to pause, and notice what’s going on in the moment, not just in terms of your spouse’s behavior but in terms of how it’s impacting your own emotional landscape. 


The moment you realize you are activated–that your response is the result of who you are–you immediately and simultaneously have access to the power to shift, and reclaim your agency. You can pivot and decide how you want to respond, rather than involuntarily reacting. 


Of course, this only works if you notice and then decide to make the appropriate adjustment. If you don’t notice it, then your internal experience will be determined by whatever event occurred, rather than having your own values and choices create your response. If you don’t take the time to clarify what’s happening for you, you’re most likely to end up having feelings of frustration, helplessness, rage, malcontent, and a sense of being unseen. 


If, however, you recognize that you were triggered and interrupt the pattern, you  will access sovereignty, agency, freedom, and the affirming experience that you are actively choosing your own responses. 


With practice, you will perceive that you have many more choices in how to respond than were at first apparent.


So once you notice you’ve been triggered and you decide to respond with control and caring, what happens next?


Well, you could simply say that you are triggered and you need to take a beat to pause and regain your calm. 


Alternatively you might ask a question to understand the other person’s experience and motivation. 


You could calmly say it’s important to you and ask what your spouse needs to follow through the next time. 


There are lots of different options which can work well for you, but you first have to recognize that you are, indeed, activated. And from there you can discover the most collaborative and successful solutions to the problem at hand. Because as long as you’re reactive and triggered, you’re likely to be blaming or defensive and that undermines how much connection is possible in that moment. 


One of the best gifts of having a growth-oriented, intimate marriage is learning how to use these frustrating times with a partner you love as a playground for your own development. It’s a kind of in-the-moment zen practice that creates amazing results. 


When you remember you both want one another to thrive, and you can see your own patterns, a commitment to expanding your capacities in the hard times paves the way for compassion, connection, and tender intimacy. 


Being consciously aware of your triggers can be difficult because the very nature of being “triggered” means you may not realize it.  In the moment it happens, your “primitive brain,” overpowers your “conscious brain” and you end up feeling justified in your outrage and righteous responses. But in allowing your “primitive brain” to take over, you are creating disconnection in your relationship. 


Shifting into open hearted presence instead increases the emotional safety in your marriage and fosters emotional intimacy between you in the most delicious ways. 


Can you recognize when you are triggered? Yes. You can. It just takes practice, and patience, and trust that you’ll learn to catch it sooner the next time. As you do that, you’ll simultaneously see such moments in your relationship transition from sources of hurt to times of helpfulness, clarification, self-compassion, and ultimately connection. 


Try it for yourself! And if you’d like to learn more about having a growth oriented relationship read my book Uncompromising Intimacy and check out my coaching programs on my website.


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