How to Turn Conflict into Connection

By Lauren Hall
June 27, 2024

Conflict is necessary and unavoidable in relationships. In fact, many couples argue over not only topics and scenarios but the different ways in which they handle conflict.

There are four major ways in which we respond to threats. These responses often present themselves during conflict: fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. The fight response is the most aggressive– it’s when an individual fights back against a perceived threat. The flight response causes an individual to flee the threat. For some, this looks like leaving the room or hanging up the phone. The fawn response is when a person becomes indebted to the threat, allowing weakness and desperation to wash over them. They often agree to do anything and everything to avoid the threat. The freeze response looks like a complete shutdown in order to avoid the threat. Picture a possum in danger; they “play dead.” 

What is “the threat” in each of these scenarios? During conflict in a romantic relationship, the ultimate threat is disconnection. The threat of disconnection often creates a fear of abandonment, being unaccepted or undesired, unheard or misunderstood. 

Psychotherapist Esther Perel says the conflict in our adult relationships often looks like the same type of fighting we witnessed or were involved with in our families as children. She invites couples to look at conflict from the outside in. 

“Take a look at fighting as if you’re standing on a balcony looking down on conflict between you and your partner,” says Perel. “ It’s less obvious to see the underlying dimensions of conflict, but it’s often not about the actual fight, it’s about the emotion behind the conflict. It’s about what we’re longing to receive.”

So, what happens when you and your spouse are arguing about something and one of you is heated, ready to fight right then and there (also known as fight response) while the other one is in complete shutdown (also known as freeze)?

First of all, it’s important to note that both of you are feeling the threat of disconnection. You’re responding in ways that you learned and developed through your childhood. Neither one of you is wrong or right in how you respond, it’s just the way you’re wired. Secondly, Esther Perel suggests there are a few perspectives you can put into place for these arguments to look different in the future. Perel says these shifts will guide your responses towards connection during conflict in the future.

View conflict as an opportunity for growth.

Arguing can be a gateway to deeper understanding and intimacy. It can also reveal underlying issues and unmet needs, providing a chance for couples to grow together. Couples who see conflict as an opportunity for growth and learning tend to have more resilient relationships. Viewing conflict in this way encourages a proactive approach to resolving issues.

Balance autonomy and togetherness in your relationship.

Conflicts often arise from the tension between these two needs. Addressing this tension can lead to a healthier, more dynamic relationship. Successful couples manage to balance their individual identities with their partnership. This balance prevents codependency and promotes a more fulfilling relationship.

Focus on using your emotional intelligence and empathy in managing conflict.

Understanding and validating each other’s emotions can transform conflicts into opportunities for connection. Emotional intelligence, which includes skills like empathy, self-awareness, and emotional regulation, is strongly linked to relationship satisfaction. Empathy, in particular, helps partners feel understood and valued.

Next time you and your significant other find yourselves in a heated disagreement, remember to think about the motivation behind both of your responses–you’re protecting yourselves from the threat of disconnection. Take a look at your argument from a “balcony” perspective. Be curious about your underlying emotions and what you’re longing to receive. Understanding and utilizing this will turn your conflict into connection and deepen your relationship over time.

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