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Family and Consumer Sciences

College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Intimacy Means Conflict

To love may not mean to fight, but it does mean to become close, to care a lot, and eventually to discover differences and disagreements. Those who love much have a better chance of conflict. Here's why:

  • People who care much about each other (and their relationship) want consensus and caring to continue. When differences or complaints seem to block these events, their practical and emotional investments are threatened. Ironically, upset emotions may lead to expressions which hurt the very person they want to stay close.
  • People tend to be attracted by similar tastes, interests, personalities, and values. Similarities and pleasant experiences are (over) emphasized at first, and differences are often hidden or denied. The better partners get to know each other, the more they discover differences-- and the more anxious or disappointed they are likely to be.

Coping with Conflict

The opposite of love is really apathy (ever tried to get someone upset who really doesn't care?), not hate or conflict. Unfortunately, expressions of disdain or disapproval--especially non-verbal ones--are often too quick, too vague, and too threatening to be taken as statements of "caring about the relationship." The key to growth for couples is being able to

  • Avoid destructive conflict--stopping the cycle of complaint, contempt, and attack which tears at self-esteem and commitment even more than it blocks solution of practical issues with which the couple struggles.
  • Engage constructive conflict--recognizing differences as assets for the relationship and disagreements as areas of growth and discovery, then using the energy of conflict to affirm commitment and work toward solving or living with the difficulty.


List the last 5-6 times you have been in conflict with your partner. Would the same fight have occurred or hurt so much with a casual acquaintance? How can you refocus perspective and energy to work things out together?

Understanding Conflict

Conflict can occur in a variety of ways in relationships. Frequency, intensity, and underlying circumstances all shape the role and outcomes of conflict between two people who say they care but may not always act that way.

Typical Causes of Conflict

If any of the following sound familiar, it's just normal.

  • Money
  • Relations with Relatives
  • Communication
  • Jealousy
  • Children
  • Division of Housework
  • Moving/Settling
  • Choice of Friends
  • Recreation
  • Sexual Adjustment
  • Time Together
  • Power/Decisions

Types of Conflict

Based on sources:

  • Rational--realistic differences of opinion justified on reasonable grounds
  • Irrational--personality eccentricities, emotionally-laden issues (often founded in childhood or relationship history)

Based on pattern of dialogue:

  • Overt--open disagreement, usually brought up as an issue to be resolved (assertive communication, direct and open statement of views)
  • Covert--concealed, withheld, or spoken about only indirectly (typically via passive aggression, anger expression by indirect opposition, subversion)

Based on intensity and frequency:

  • Over--open disagreement, usually brought up as an issue to be resolved (assertive communication, direct and open statement of views)
  • Covert--concealed, withheld, or spoken about only indirectly (typically via passive aggression, anger expression by indirect opposition, subversion)

Based on impact on the relationship:

  • Basic--serious enough to threaten the marriage (core values, major breach of trust, exhausting and unresolved drain on energy)
  • Non-basic--troublesome, but not threatening relationship stability or seriously impacting satisfaction

Problem Solving Steps

Once partners come to a common description of the problem(s) to be solved, they can turn loose energy and imagination on exploring options through:

  1. Focus on needs, not solutions. Better understanding the challenge(s) which require new attitudes and habits is the key to finding solutions which fit. To use a practical example, recognizing the need to remove water from spaghetti (or spaghetti from water) after boiling may define the problem. Considering other needs (not burning self, keeping noodles hot and clean, avoiding spills) helps describe the dilemma, making possible a wider range of solutions. Helpful ideas in describing needs include:
    • Describe rather than judge. Focus on identifying sensations, feelings, and wants to be addressed rather than whose fault it is or what to do about it.
    • Action rather than attitude. Focus on specifically what needs to be done rather than just how each partner feels about it.
    • Ownership. Note whether the need is felt by one or both partners, if it is in the relationship or external to the relationship, and how it has been noticed or dealt with in the past. Sometimes, the problem is personal (attitude) or must involve other persons (co-workers, parents).
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions--Use imagination to invent many possible solutions, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. Avoiding quick or "pat" solutions and allowing for novel or seemingly absurd alternatives often leads to better adjustment. Some useful tools in brainstorming include:
    • Convergent thinking--Identify the most basic step/action and list every possibility (ex: separating hot water from spaghetti--let it evaporate, dip out water, pick out noodles, blast out noodles, soak up water, etc.) and later think about feasibility or specific tools needed to implement the solution;
    • Divergent thinking--Using your favorite theme (travel, music, sports, movies) consider every possible idea that it might suggest (ex: travel--look over a brochure, read a book or try a virtual tour, make reservations, go by foot-skateboard-bike-motorcycle-car-truck-tank) and later look for applications that work (for instance, cooking noodles in a sieve in a tank, so that they can be pulled out by the handle from the hot water)
  3. Choose the best option--Compare notes, discuss the options, and match solutions to needs to select the best alternative. Setting criteria (ex: cost, efficiency, simplicity, appearance) for selecting an option may build consensus and guide decision-making. Keep an open mind during discussion to add new information, options, or strategies to the discussion. Even after deciding, agree to experiment and reflect to fine-tune the solution.
  4. Make a plan--Discuss or outline (depending on how complex the problem) who will do what, where, and when. Draw a timetable and responsibility chart and hang it on the refrigerator. Talk with others who have worked on similar problems to gain insight on how to manage step-by-step. When the problem involves conflict, identify "pressure points" and slow the pace, structure discussion, or use humor to recognize and work through them agreeably.
  5. Implement the plan--Experiment or try to change one step or aspect of a problem at a time (often the easiest, rather than top-priority or high-stress step is best). Some ideas that promote effective implementation include:
    • Rehearsal--Practicing a change in behavior before a need or crisis arises improves confidence and performance when a challenge occurs. If practice is not possible, small-scale implementation may allow phase in (ex: cooking together as a step toward each taking primary meal preparation times)
    • Flexibility--Allowing for adjustments in time, pace, skill, setting, and strategy provides for practical changes needed for effective solutions.
  6. Seek feedback and evaluate both the process and the outcome--Plan to review results of the change process on a regular basis. Focus on describing what is happening (rather than blaming), exploring how new strategies are working, and what each partner is learning. Celebrate solutions; accept and learn from difficulties or failures (ex: OK, so the colander's holes were too big and half the noodles got out--it was funny!) Build on successes to take on other challenges, listen to and care for each other, and overcome past fears and hurts.

It's not a problem to be solved, it's an adventure waiting to be experienced

When challenges are faced optimistically and together, the energy and imagination of two people combines to accomplish the work of three or four individuals. Affirmation, acceptance, and openness--built through routine and relaxed times together--are critical to both healthy growth and crisis management. While not all challenges are as logical as the steps outlined above, a positive outlook and persistence in using those tools can help things turn out well in the end.

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist

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