“Conflict breeds intimacy.”
That’s what my husband, Derek, and I heard over and over years ago as we began our dating relationship. We were working at a group home for teenagers and were surrounded by conflict. About curfews, and clothes, and cussing, and sex. Things rebellious teenagers would normally fight about with their parents. Funny that we were acting as surrogate parents to teenagers with extensive life trauma. Not funny in a ha ha kind of way, but in a we were in our early twenties and how did we possibly have enough life insight? kind of way.
In the midst of all of this teenage angst, our superiors reminded Derek and me that “conflict breeds intimacy.” We clung to the idea that there might be a greater purpose to all of the quarreling.
The premise behind it is this: if you can push through the conflict and resolve it well, your bond will be stronger than before the argument. Resolving the conflict well is the key, and involves loving and genuine responses. Pushing through to the other side shows both parties that the relationship can survive a disagreement; that the other person can be trusted to stick around, even when it gets hard. This is the nitty-gritty stuff of real life. It says better than words that I care about you. I care so much, in fact, that I’m willing to do the hard work of sitting in the uncomfortable until it gets better.
Having this premise as the foundation of conflict resolution while we were dating has influenced our marital disagreements. That sounded so nice didn’t it? Marital disagreements. Otherwise known as arguments. Fights. Hurts. And tears. All of those things happen, and they are rarely neat and tidy. They are filled with emotion and defensiveness and blame. Not really paths towards intimacy.
This idea of conflict as a path to intimacy has also influenced our parenting. We use disagreements with our children to strengthen our bonds with them. The key is persevering through the hard moments — the tantrums, the door slamming, the name calling — to show grace. To demonstrate what full relationships do: they love past the difficult.
So how do you push through the feelings in order to get to the reconciliation? It takes practice and humility. A posture of I want what is best for our relationship more than I want to win this fight.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about controlling or abusive relationships here but two mutually loving, yet flawed, people who want to strengthen the relationship and are willing to recognize their own wrongdoings. It’s not a smooth process nor an easy one. But it is always worth it.4 tips for creating intimacy in the midst of conflict @Alex_Kuykendall #theopendoorsisterhood Click To Tweet
Here is what I’ve found helps when defenses are rising and anger is swelling.
- Listen for the hurt. Usually the subject of the argument isn’t really the subject at all. There are core issues playing out. It may be that a battle about who is doing the dishes is really a conflict about valuing each other’s time. Peeling back the layers even more, you may find it’s really about valuing the other person in general. Listen for the feelings behind the topic to know what is truly bothering the other person.
- Own your stuff. This can be so hard because we often want to own our stuff only if and when the other person owns theirs. This is where humility comes in: to admit wrongdoing without expecting the same in return simply because it’s the right thing to do and the other person needs to hear it. Truth is, in almost every conflict I’ve ever had (with adults, that is), when I’ve gone first in this phase, the other person has quickly followed.
- Apologize. When we’ve hurt someone else it’s not enough to acknowledge that we have; we must also ask for forgiveness. This shows remorse on our part. That we are sorry for any pain we caused. And this step is crucial in moving toward intimacy. It is the part of the process that says you are more important to me than my own stubbornness.
- Ask how you can do better. Our most destructive relational behaviors are often patterns that we fall back on because that’s how our instincts help us cope. If we apologize and then quickly repeat our hurtful behavior, we are not demonstrating a commitment to doing better. Ask for the other person’s input. I’m often surprised at how rephrasing a question or a comment would have made a big difference in how my words were received.
Whether in marriage, parenting, or extended relationships, letting the other person know you are willing to withstand the conflict because the relationship matters makes all of the difference. When emotions run high, begin by stopping and listening. Do some honest self-evaluation and make it right. This is the part of loving people that is plain hard — and plain worth it.
This article first appeared on the MOPS International blog.
Alexandra Kuykendall lives in Denver with her husband Derek and their four daughters. She is the author of The Artist’s Daughter and Loving My Actual Life and co-hostess of The Open Door Sistherhood Podcast. Her newest book Loving My Actual Christmas releases in September. You can connect with her at AlexandraKuykendall.com.