Conflict Doesn’t Ruin a Relationship, a Lack of Connection Does

Conflict Doesn’t Ruin a Relationship, a Lack of Connection Does

When you argue with your partner, is your intention to tell them you’re hurt or do you want to hurt them back? Resolving a conflict may be important for your relationship, but building an unshakeable emotional connection with your partner is the key to a lasting relationship.

There is a misconception that conflict is the root of a relationship’s demise. Watching a couple of fight, it may seem that way.

Steph: “Our house is always a chaotic mess!”

Julian: “It’s not my fault, I don’t have time to do everything.”

Steph: “You mean the dirty clothes you leave on the floor outside the bathroom? Even our son puts away his clothes. I’m glad he didn’t turn out to be a slob like you.”

Julian: (Large sigh) “That’s because you scream at him if he doesn’t. No one can ever be clean enough for you.”

This couple is caught in a pattern of defensiveness, personal attacks, and contempt. But how did their relationship get to such a nasty place?

A research study that followed 168 couples for 13 years discovered that the number one predictor of why couples split was not how often the couple fought, but how little affection and emotional responsiveness they offered one another.1

Additional research validates that relationship distress was predicted by a partner who was unsupportive in their response – by minimizing a problem, not wanting feelings to be expressed, offering unhelpful advice, and insisting on their partner using that advice.2

In contrast, quality emotional support such as reassurance of feelings and seeking to solve the problem together was a predictor of relationship health.


Negativity is a Result of Negative Responsiveness

Attachment theory maintains that we have an internal system that monitors a connection in a relationship. I think of it as a radar system. We send out a signal and if we receive a positive signal back, we stay calm and have faith that our partner is there for us when we need them.

The signal we send out is what Dr. John Gottman calls a bid for emotional connection. This can be a complaint, a meaningless statement, or a smile.

When our partner makes this bid for connection, we have a choice to respond by turning towards and connecting, or turning away/against and disconnecting.

Dr. Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered that couples whose relationships the last turn towards each other 86% of the time, while those who divorce do so only 33% of the time.

Part of the reason conflict gets nasty is because partners turn against (defensiveness) or turn away (stonewall) from each other. Here’s how it works:

Turning Against:

Partner 1 brings up an issue.
Partner 2 doesn’t think it’s a problem and criticizes Partner 1 for bringing it up.
So, Partner 1 escalates the issue by saying hurtful things back.
Partner 2 retaliates with more hurtful things.
The conflict escalates out of control.

During the conflict, both partners feel misunderstood. In the end, both feel frustrated because they are disconnected and the issue remains unresolved.

Turning Away:

Partner 1 brings up an issue.
Partner 2 doesn’t think it’s a problem and doesn’t respond.
Partner 1 gets angry as a way to get Partner 2 to pay attention to the problem.
Partner 2 still acts like nothing is wrong.
To try to get Partner 2’s attention,
Partner 1 gets meaner and says hurtful things.
Partner 2 shuts down even more.
Round and round they go.

Now imagine what would happen if Partner 2 responded by turning towards.

Turning Towards:

Partner 1 brings up an issue.
Partner 2 listens and seeks to understand.
Partner 2 may not agree with everything
Partner 1 is saying,
but Partner 2 seeks to find some basis for agreement.

As a result,
Partner 1 feels heard and respected (despite not always being agreed with).
Since Partner 1 feels this way, they avoid being hurtful. Both partners fight respectfully and share their feelings openly, putting them in a better position to find a compromise that works for them.
Their relationship improves as a result of the conflict.

Share on

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Scroll to Top