Couple's conflict: listening to each other whilst remaining connected

Couple's conflict: listening to each other whilst remaining connected

Conflict in a couple is both necessary and inevitable. If there is no conflict, one or both of you may not be voicing your feelings. Engaging in conflict can be a sign that there is still hope of finding a mutual understanding; that solutions can be found through talking and that the couple is worth fighting for.

Conflict, if filled with negativity, can become a nuisance that is best avoided. Discussions are left halfway. The resolution remains an unattainable horizon. One ends up worse off than before entering the conflict. Even if you don’t want to, both partners come out of it damaged and with diminished trust. Incomprehension prevails.

The reason for the conflict is either put aside or, conversely, it is systematically insisted on without reaching a different outcome. If there is no change in the communication strategy, this will lead to the erosion of the couple; it will increase defensive postures, criticism, disdain, and silent treatment (the so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse by Gottman; Lisitsa, 2013). 

If you have a conflict saturated with negativity, you may wonder how you can ever connect with your partner in such a moment. How can you even think of saying something positive to them or try to be emotionally available to your partner in a moment of a heated argument? Although it sounds impossible, there are strategies that can help you do just that.  Let’s look at some of them. Points 5 and 6 are taken from the Imago Dialogue (Hendrix, 2007). 

  1. Hit pause. Stop for a moment and analyze the situation: are you feeling defensive? do you feel very angry or irascible? are you available and willing to listen to your partner? are you calm or agitated? are you breathing quicker, do you feel your heart beating faster? are you available and willing to talk or do you feel a strong desire/impulse to withdraw from the situation? Depending on the intensity of the conflict and the particular coping strategy that is used, some people may enter into what is called a state of emotional flooding (being overwhelmed by emotions and physiological responses) which leads to becoming upset, while others respond to this flooding (or before reaching this point) with deactivation (Manes, 2013). Deactivation usually involves withdrawal (either physical, emotional, or a combination of both). The former would correspond to those who pursue (i.e. actively seek resolution), the latter to those who withdraw to protect themselves (Thurman, 2019). 
  2. What is your starting point? According to compassion-focused therapy (Gilbert, 2014) we have three motivational systems, each with its associated adaptive function, brain regions, and hormones. 
  1. The threat system is activated when something alerts us to possible danger (present or future/anticipated). This system seeks to protect us and to find safety; it involves different coping styles (fight, flight, freeze, among others). When this system is activated, we experience emotions such as anger, anxiety, disgust, or shame. It can lead to aggressive attitudes or behaviors (not necessarily physical, although they can be), avoidance (wanting to avoid the discomfort generated, an escape), or submission (giving in to pressure). Within a conflict, you can identify if you are upset, angry, attacked, or fearful. When this motivational system is activated, your ability to make thoughtful and reasoned decisions is reduced because the part of the brain in charge of these functions (the prefrontal cortex) is not as active. The part of the brain that is most active is the amygdala and the HPA axis. The hormones involved are those associated with the attack/defense response mechanism and which help to mobilize the organism: adrenaline (and in stress, cortisol). 
  2. The drive system. Its function is to propel us towards achievement, to motivate us to seek/find resources and gain rewards for doing so. It is behind the desire, the search, the aspiration, and the striving. This system makes you get up in the morning to achieve your short-, medium- and long-term goals. It is the one that makes you pursue what matters to you, the one that is behind your training and knowledge. Within a couple’s conflict, this system is the solution seeker and the strategy implementer. It often responds to the threatening system to reduce the discomfort it generates. It does not necessarily involve the prefrontal cortex. The reward circuitry (in which the Nucleus Accumbens is prominent) is dominant in this system. Dopamine – the neurotransmitter that transmits reward – is involved. If we switch from the threat system to the drive system it can lead to hasty, unpremeditated, and – above all – reactive responses. Quick-fix, default, familiar, and known solutions that do not always lead to the desired resolution. 
  3. The third system is the calming system. Its function is care and self-care. It promotes kindness to others and to oneself. This system can be activated when the organism has managed to lower excess activation – often as a result of the threat system – and makes it possible to listen to itself and to others. You will notice it being active when you see yourself giving – and being open to – receiving affection, when you bond with others and yourself, and caring nature (to others and to yourself) is evident. In this system, the prefrontal cortex is more involved. As the organism is calmer, the decisions made are more proactive than reactive. It leads to feelings such as tranquillity, contentment, and well-being. Oxytocin is involved, the so-called love hormone (Watson, 2021). This third system is not always the most developed, but it is just as necessary as the other systems. 

Now that you are familiar with the three motivational systems… which one do you find yourself in? what do you need to switch to the calming system? Maybe you need to ask your partner if you require a moment to cool down, maybe you need a display of affection, to know that your partner is there. Maybe you need some time to process what you are discussing. If you ask for time, make sure you set a time frame of no more than 24 hours to resume the conversation.

  • What kind of language are you using? Analyze whether your tone is accusatory or conciliatory, whether you start with «I» messages (talking about how the situation is affecting you) or »you» messages (talking about your partner’s actions or behaviors), and whether your language is based on generalizations (always, never) or on concrete examples, whether you are talking about current/recent moments or bringing up incidents that have supposedly already been addressed (even if they still hurt), whether you are putting words in your partner’s mouth or whether you are speaking from your own experience. 
  • Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes: what parts of what he/she is saying make sense? Even if you don’t agree, do you understand why your partner is acting the way he/she is? Do you understand why what you discuss is important to him/her? Being able to agree to disagree is a very healthy thing to do in a relationship. Showing your partner that you understand his/her point of view (by acknowledging that something makes sense in what he/she is saying) can help lower defenses. 
  • Try to see the underlying emotion – how do you think your partner is feeling, how is the issue you are discussing impacting him/her, and how do you think your attitude, words, and/or actions are affecting him/her? Again, even if it doesn’t involve a change of view on who is right or wrong, this allows you to connect with your partner. If your partner feels heard and understood, he/she may be more receptive. 
  • Make repair attempts (Brittle, 2014). These can be understood as micro-bridges that reduce the negativity experienced during a conflict. Although some of the repair attempts have been mentioned in the previous bullet-points, they include – additionally – apologizing (taking responsibility for a disproportionate reaction, for a misunderstanding), making positive comments about your partner (highlighting positive qualities, commenting on things you appreciate about your partner or for which you are grateful).

When you enter into conflict you may strike a chord – vulnerability – of your partner. A rigid position does not necessarily have to mean self-centeredness or stubbornness just for the sake of it. Sometimes it may have more to do with feeling exposed, ignorant, insufficient, incapable… It is therefore understandable that one might choose a defensive attitude.

One defends that which is painful to bring to the surface. The vulnerability may have negative connotations for you: you may see it as unnecessary, something that shows weakness, something uncontrollable because you can’t predict the emotional impact it will have on you, something that could backfire against you, something that will jeopardize how your partner sees you and their desire to remain together…

There are specific vulnerabilities in the couple’s environment that are not found in other types of relationships. These specific vulnerabilities sometimes fall under the umbrella of the need to be in tune with your partner and the need for autonomy. These needs are what are understood as attachment needs. Attachment needs are first oriented to our parents/caregivers and then extrapolated to our partner. Depending on how your attachment needs and requests (connection and autonomy) were met in your family of origin you will feel more or less comfortable expressing the need for connection and/or autonomy with your partner.

Therefore, the type of conflict you have might find a great reduction in negativity if your attachment needs are addressed in the process. Even if you do not agree, and there will be many things you will not agree on, if you agree not to sacrifice attachment needs you will be a closer and more resilient couple to changes, challenges, and even crises.

This article was written by Daniel Van de Poll, a psychologist at Sinews if you are seeking couples therapy. or online therapy you can make your appointment here.


Brittle, Z. (2014). R is for repair. The Gottman Institute Blog. 

Gilbert, P. (2014). Terapia centrada en la compasión: características distintivas. Editorial Desclée de Brouwer. 

Hendrix, H. (2007). Getting the love you want. Henry Holt & Co. 

Lisitsa, E. (2013). The four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute Blog. 

Manes, S. (2013). Making sure emotional flooding does not capsize your relationship. The Gottman Institute Blog. 

Thurman, D. (2019). Breaking relational conflict. The EFT Clinic blog 

Watson, S. (2021). Oxytocin: the love hormone. Harvard Health Publishing. 

SOS cuando recurrir a terapia de parejas

S.O.S. When to consider couples therapy

«We’ve tried everything”. «If only my partner changed». «I don’t trust my partner”. «We are overwhelmed». «We have no emotional intimacy». «I am sexually dissatisfied.» Do any of these statements resonate with your situation or with how you feel? 

You may be wondering if couples therapy can make a difference in these sensitive and complex issues. While there may be things in your couple’s situation that are difficult to change, the way of coping with different difficulties is something that can be worked on.  If you just remember one statement from this article, may it be the following: going to couples therapy can reduce the percentage of negativity you experience in your living together.

If you consider that there are more negative than positive interactions in your relationship then it may be a time to pause and consider a different approach. John Gottman’s magic ratio – based on years of research – states that a happy marriage (see also a happy couple) uses 5 positive interactions for every negative one; a ratio of 5:1 (Benson, 2017). This ratio is especially relevant considering the changes we have experienced as a society. Today’s so-called digital couple considers emotions and feelings experienced in the relationship of paramount importance and a priority (Requena and Ayuso, 2022). 

According to Bonior (2017) the following situations would be signs that indicate the need for couples therapy: that trust has been broken, arguments becoming more frequent, a poor communication, something being perceived as not being right (even if you do not know what it is), you wanting to communicate something to your partner but not knowing how to do it, one or both of you not managing conflicts well, that you have gone through something devastating that has changed the way you connect, being stuck in negative patterns, experiencing a lack or disappearance of emotional intimacy, and problems in sexual intimacy. 

Who comes to couples therapy? According to Ceberio and Maresma (2022) there are couples who come to address repeated crises, others who come with increasingly frequent problematic arguments/interactions and finally couples who come with a desire to prevent future problems (who only have a few current misalignments).

I would like to take the different components that make a computer function as a metaphor to describe relational conflict. I believe that in our «hardware» we have the necessary ingredients to know how to relate with each other and how to manage conflict. There are life experiences that can affect the hardware to a greater or lesser extent, but recognizing areas of vulnerability can restore its function. What does not always work is the software that is used. Although compatible with the hardware, it may be more of a barrier than a facilitator. Your own attempts at resolution may not lead to the expected result. In these cases, the attempts to solve the problem become a problem in themselves. Unlearning strategies that have not worked for you and consolidating more effective ones is something we work on in couples therapy. 

Although each partner has his or her own version of the problem and may have a greater or lesser idea of what he or she would like to see different in his or her partner’s behavior or attitude, it still starts with an assumption. In family and couples therapy, interactions are not seen in a linear way, that is, with a determined cause and effect. Rather, they are seen through a circular lens: a dance with a series of game rules that maintain a problematic interaction. Assumptions about blame and where the problem lies can become a problematic pattern in itself. If you find yourselves stuck in incompatible postures that seem irreconcilable, again, it may be a good time to make an appointment with a couples therapist. 

If you are a mixed couple, a reconstituted family, a couple in a long-distance relationship, or if you are going through times of transition and a lot of change (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic): the very context in which you find yourselves means that you have to deal with additional difficulties and challenges. Sometimes a couple comes to therapy when strategies that have been working for a while are not as effective with the particular changes and/ or demands that the couple has to face. 

Falling out of love is another issue that -although it may be more subtle- also deserves attention. Perhaps it may be possible to reignite the flame (even if sometimes it can no longer be restarted), find ways to reconcile differences (coming to celebrate some differences rather than seeing them as hindrances) and change the rules of the game in order to increase the relationship satisfaction. Couples therapy can also be a space to create a new relationship contract (Ceberio and Maresma, 2022) for couples who have been together for a long time. 

If on the other hand you do not know how to continue and you find yourselves stuck, couples therapy can help you to make sense of your needs, desires and dreams and see if you can be that person who comes alongside the other or, alternatively, that your lives take different and separate directions. 

Couples therapy is a matter of two. Although you can have some success through an individual form of therapy and your changes may have some impact on your partner, the couple is more than the sum of its parts. If the couple dynamic is like a dance, both partners have to learn not only the necessary moves, but they will have to coordinate and match each other’s pace. Maybe one of the partners is the one who wants to come, with the resistance of the other. How to get your partner to join you?

  1. Choose a good time and a safe environment (Ratowski, 2022). Suggesting couples therapy in the middle of a heated argument may not be the best idea. Postpone the conversation to a time that your partner is more open. Part of choosing a good time is also setting the stage by connecting emotionally: be sure to show your partner that he or she is loved and appreciated (Benson, 2020). 
  2. Be open to hearing your partner’s perspective from a non-defensive stance. Your willingness to listen may indicate to him or her that couples therapy is not about assigning blame but about addressing the issues that affect you. Although being non-defensive can be difficult, especially if your partner responds with accusations and blaming, perhaps that attitude on your partner’s behalf is a sign of his or her emotional pain (Benson, 2020) that can be alleviated by a gentle and empathetic response on your part. 
  3. When talking about your reasons for considering couples therapy, use phrases that begin with «I» and not «you». Talk about how the problem affects you rather than what you see that needs to change in your partner. If you are going to talk about problems, try to focus on specific issues and avoid generalizations. This might help to prevent your partner from becoming defensive and finding yourselves with an unresolved conflict.
  4. Highlight the attractive and positive points of going to couples therapy (Benson, 2020). Like selling a product, it will have to meet a need and be anticipated as beneficial (Gordon, 2022). 
  5. Invite your partner to come from a non-demanding stance (Benson, 2020). Respecting your partner’s response leaves room to talk about his/her position without pressure. Regardless of his/her response, use the moment to talk about it. His/her response can give you valuable information about your relationship. If your partner feels trapped with your way of proposing, he or she will be forced to submit or rebel to your approach.

Even if you have tried everything in your own efforts: give couples therapy a chance to try it differently. Seeing a couple’s therapist is a first symptom of change (Ceberio and Maresma, 2022): you would be trying to solve the problem in a different way.

If you want to book an online appointment with the author of the blog click here.

One Couple, two countries:
Common communication challenges affecting mixed couples

One Couple, two countries: Common communication challenges affecting mixed couples

Falling in love and sharing a life with a person from another country is no longer unusual or uncommon. Advances in technology and the possibilities of transport have paved the way and shortened distances.  Although mixed couples are now a common phenomenon, this does not mean that they are directly equal to two people from the same country or culture – surely more than one couple would like it to be so! 

Mixed couples can come in different formats: they can be between a native and a foreign person from a given country, between two foreign people – and of different nationalities – from a given country, or between two people who were born in the same country (and have the corresponding nationality) but come from a different ethnic background/nationality of the family of origin (2nd generation immigrants), to name but a few possible combinations.  Other combinations include interracial and interfaith couples. Arriving at a single definition of what constitutes a mixed couple is difficult (Collet, 2012). 

Mixed couples, to a greater or lesser extent, involve a hybrid of cultures. If you look at a hybrid vehicle, you will see that its autonomy depends on both the fuel and the battery. As such, it requires additional maintenance compared to a fuel-only vehicle for optimal operation. Mixed couples, therefore, will be affected by the challenges and issues that are common to couples from the same country/culture and, additionally, the particularities of multicultural coexistence. When couples consider a shared commitment, they face a greater challenge and need to negotiate important aspects of life together more intentionally. 

What are these challenges? According to Linares, Moratalla, and Pérez (2021), intercultural couples, in the process of becoming a couple and a family, will have to address, among others, the following issues (although some are common to non-mixed couples, they will be embedded in cultural differences):

  • Location: Where you choose to live can have more implications for one partner than for the other. Does the location benefit one partner more than the other? Is it closer to one partner’s family than the other? 
  • Power dynamics in the couple: It is possible that one partner, because of his/her situation (e.g., emigration), may be dependent on the other in matters such as the language of the country of residence, finances, and/or social circle. Other questions that may need to be addressed include: do certain traditions/ customs prevail over others? Are certain cultural components valued over others?
  • The process of adaptation: Again, this issue may be different for both of you, depending on your individual circumstances. Do you both live in a different culture from your home culture, or is one of you a foreigner to the culture/country where you live together? Does anyone have more advantages/benefits than being native? Does either partner have more difficulty adapting to a new culture? One thing that helps in the process of adaptation is the creation of your own «microculture” with its own rituals and traditions.
  • Customs and negotiation: the unfamiliar and the appeal of what is different may not generate friction during the initial phase of the partnership, but at some point, it will become evident. Mixed couples have more compromises to make, more agreements to reach and more concessions to make. 
  • Languages that you choose to speak with your children: We can talk about a spectrum ranging from you only speaking one language to both being fluent in multiple languages. Is there a consensus on languages or is one language more predominant than another? Is there one language that is considered more useful? 
  • The raising of children and the transmission of values: From the birth of children onwards, what could previously be put aside in terms of differing views and values inevitably requires negotiation. This may concern traditions, habits, principles/values, and religious beliefs, among others. 
  • Family of origin: Cultures differ in the extent to which one is connected to one’s family of origin. Being able to adjust one’s schedule to balance time spent with one’s partner, friends, and family in these cases becomes more complicated. Negotiation involves responding to the different demands that the family of origin may place on your nuclear family. Differentiation (knowing how to decrease reactivity towards – and the influence of – the family of origin while maintaining connection) becomes especially relevant for the sustainability of the couple. 

Discussing these issues as a couple is, on the one hand, very enriching and enlightening. However, it is also a challenge, sometimes quite complicated. Communication and the meaning of words is an issue that cannot be overlooked. You may be speaking in a second language that is not your mother tongue either of you. Perhaps one of you has the advantage of speaking in your mother tongue. Whatever the case, the cultural interpretation of words can cloud your conversations. It is especially important to show a willingness to understand the other partner and to remain curious about the other’s motivations. A long-lasting relationship requires continuous adaptation.

As difficult as the following may sound, part of having a more satisfying relationship is daring to enjoy the differences that can be maintained, accepting and adapting to those that cannot be changed (which may involve compromises on the part of both partners), and finally, understanding and negotiating with each other about those that need to be changed. 

Perhaps you have tried to address some of the points mentioned above, but you find yourselves stuck and it seems that the position of each partner is incompatible with that of the other, generating mutual incomprehension and estrangement. If this is your case and you feel that your own attempts at resolution are not having the expected result, it may be time to consider seeing a couple’s therapist. In couple’s therapy, you will have a space to be heard and to try out different strategies that will allow you to feel more secure and less attacked. 

Couple dynamics awaken specific needs and make us connect with parts of ourselves that we might not know about yet. It is an adventure of getting to know your partner’s world as you discover your own. I end with a thought-provoking question: what does the difference in your partner say about you?

Collet, B (2012). Mixed couples in France. Statistical facts, definitions, and social reality. Papers: revista de sociologia, Vol. 97(1) pp. 61-77.

Linares, J. L. Meratalla, T. y Pérez, A. (2021). Las parejas interculturales. Ediciones Morata, S. L.