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Is Conflict Healthy in an Intimate Relationship?

Conflict is a normal part of an intimate relationship; however there is Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict.

What is Conflict?

A simple definition of conflict is  “opportunity for growth trying to happen.” When there are touchy subjects to discuss or differences to work through conflict may arise! The attitude of each partner and the way the difference are worked through determines healthy vs unhealthy conflict

What does Unhealthy Conflict look like?

1.When a partner approaches differences with an attitude of ”I’m right, you’re wrong” and the mindset is to try and convince/persuade your partner that your way is better. You have already set up an antagonistic situation and are not able to acknowledge or deeply understand your partner’s perspective.

2. Your reactions when triggered such as yelling, putting down your partner, going on and on, criticizing, stonewalling, shutting down and walking away are a few examples of unhealthy conflict. These behaviors trigger your partner which makes it very difficult for them not to react.

3. When you are in a triggered state; trying to resolve issues will not work because the area in your brain that is activated called the amygdala, only knows 3 responses.. fight, freeze or flee. In this reactive state it is impossible to experience healthy conflict. The behaviors that accompany these 3 triggered responses are learned responses from childhood wounding that we bring unconsciously into intimate relationship when feeling frustrated and hurt.

4. Trying to fix the problem as first step in resolving differences. One of the main reasons this method fails is that the recipient of your ideas will not be open to your suggestions until their feelings are acknowledged and validated. They will react to not being heard.

What does Healthy Conflict look like

1. Have an open and curious attitude about your partner’s perspective.

2. Discuss difficult topics when in a calm state…this way the reactive part of your brain has calmed down and the more rational/logical part of the brain is able to operate when discussing difficult topics. Allow a minimum of 30 minutes after you are triggered before approaching your partner.

3. Deliver what is upsetting you without blaming, shaming or criticizing  your partner. It is your responsibility to send a message in a way that your partner will want  to remain open to hearing you. When you raise your voice and demonstrate disrespectful behaviors you will most likely trigger your partner who will not be able to stay open and curious about what you are sharing.

4. It also requires sharing your vulnerable self and taking responsibility for your emotions and reactions.. Typically we want to blame our partner for our emotions and reactions.. Imago relationship therapy says,”10% of our reactions are a result of our partners behaviors; the other 90% comes from our unconscious blueprint that we developed growing up (mostly from family of origin circumstances)”

5. As the listener, it is important you stay open and curious about what your partner is saying even if you disagree. Listening openly and being deeply attentive means not interrupting or asking questions. It means paraphrasing what your partners says, checking out if you heard them correctly and validating what you have heard. One way to validate is to say, “It make sense that you are feeling______________________, because ________________________________________________________.

This requires believing that your partner’s truth is equally as valid as yours; however, it does not mean you agree with their perspective but accept their truth.

6. Give empathy to your partner’s emotions.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know how to remain calm when approaching your partner about a topic that is concerning you, or how to show empathy or reveal your vulnerable self. If you need assistance in these areas, I’m happy to help. Learning to participate in healthy conflict isn’t easy for many of us, but the benefits can sustain your marriage, and can extend throughout all of your relationships including other family members and friends.


Cathy McCurdy is a Registered Social Worker with over 20 years experience and specializes in the areas of couples counselling, affair recovery, life transitions as well as many others. For more information on Cathy, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.