10 Tips to Sustain Emotional Intimacy During a Conflict

Have you ever been stuck in a painful conversation with a family member or coworker? You just can’t seem to understand each other? I know how frustrating and hurtful that can be.

Instead of escalating your emotions and blaming or withdrawing, you can use the following simple road map to move into a deep emotional connection … even in the midst of conflict.

Here’s how you begin.

Reflect on a recent conflict. I recommend that you journal your answers to the following questions before you talk to your partner. After you’ve done this exercise several times and you’ve developed mastery with these skills, you will be able to talk with your partner without journaling.

First, identify your negative pattern to increase your self-awareness and awareness of your partner.

1)    What was your trigger? What about your partner’s behavior provoked your reactive emotions? Was it tone of voice, loudness, or facial expressions? What words were said, or not said, that you reacted to?  Be specific.

2)    What meaning arose for you? What were your interpretations?

a.    What interpretations did you make about your partner?  Examples: “He doesn’t understand me.  He just doesn’t care. His job is more important than I am. The kids come first. He’s selfish and rude.”
b.    What did you say about yourself?  Examples: “I’m too sensitive. I shouldn’t feel the way I do. I’m not good enough. I’m too strong. I’ll push him away if I tell him what I am really feeling. I can’t ever please him.”
c.    What did you say about your relationship?  Examples: “This conflict might cause us to get a divorce.”

Think about these interpretations. Are they true? If you make interpretations about your partner, hold them lightly. Ask your partner if your interpretations about him or her are true. How could you see this in a more productive way?

3)  What were your emotions?
a.    What were your immediate reactive emotions? Do you get angry first? Many of us do. Anger is a way of protesting your partner’s hurtful behavior and the loss of genuine connection. We call this a secondary emotion. Anger often covers up the vulnerable emotions underneath such as fear, loneliness or sadness.  You probably feel more powerful when you’re angry rather than feeling your insecurity. You may blame your partner or yourself. The problem with this approach is that your protections become your prison. You push your partner away when you really want closeness, understanding, and respect.  You end up feeling alone, lonely and frustrated.

b. Now, ask yourself, “What emotions are under my reactive emotions? For example, “What is under my anger?” We call the anger the secondary emotion, and we call the vulnerable emotions the primary emotions. I coach my clients to “go down the layers of the onion” to become more self-aware. Take responsibility for your own emotions instead of blaming your partner.

4)    How did your body react?  You might experience tense muscles, a tight jaw, a heavy feeling in your chest, headaches, or stomachaches. You may hold your breath. Every emotion has a physical correlate. Feeling your body helps you stay present in the moment, the first ingredient of emotional intimacy. To get grounded: Take a few deep breaths. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel your buttocks against the chair.

5)    What reactive action did you take? Do you lash out in contempt, criticism, or defensiveness? Do you blame? Do you get quiet and withdraw?  What exactly do you do when you get triggered?

6)    Did your reactive behavior trigger your partner? Oftentimes it does and then your partner triggers you. Then you go around and around, until one of you gives up and withdraws, leaving you without the connection you hoped for.

square04Now that you have answered the questions to become more self-aware, you are ready to reach out to your partner.

Four R’s: Risk, Reach, Request, Respond

Practice these four steps to develop emotional intimacy during a conflict.

It takes two to tango, and it takes two to create emotional intimacy. You can learn how to stay emotionally connected and responsive even during a conflict.

By practicing these steps repeatedly, you will be able to gracefully glide across the metaphorical dance floor.  When you take dance lessons, you feel awkward at first. That’s not only OK, but it is also expected. Your teacher corrects your errors and guides you towards adeptness.  That is a normal learning process. The same applies to this learning curve.

7)    Risk: Identify your tender emotions (your primary emotions) underneath your automatic reactive emotions (secondary emotions). Are you feeling fear, sadness, insecurity, loss, hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, or shame? Feel these emotions. Commit to staying emotionally intimate with yourself, telling the truth from the deepest level. Develop self-compassion. Do not abandon yourself. Decide if you want to take the risk to tell your partner.

8)    Reach: Communicate your tender vulnerable emotions to your partner. It helps to use a gentler voice, softer eyes, and a calmer tone. Breathe deeper. Feel your body. Stay present. Express yourself in a way that will draw your partner closer to you instead of pushing him or her away.

9)    Request: Do not just complain about hurtful behavior. Tell your partner about your core unmet needs. Then make clear specific requests to help meet your needs. Be as specific as you can so your partner gets a clear picture of how to meet your deepest needs.

10)    Respond:  Throughout this process, your partner listens to you, really wanting to understand you. He expresses empathy and validates you.  For a few minutes, he walks in your shoes, looking out through your eyes, feeling what it feels like to be in your body. Connecting on a deep emotional level, your partner leans toward you instead of away. He offers to meet your needs in specific ways and then does it. You do the same for your partner.

Take turns with Risk, Reach, Request, and Respond

You may be saying, “This sounds great, but that’s hard to do.”

That’s a normal concern. You are not alone. Most of us need a skilled professional counselor to help us achieve the level of emotional intimacy that makes us truly happy.

The good news is: Together, you can learn these skills. You can stop the suffering.  You can stay emotionally connected while discussing conflicts.

Emotional connection, when repeated over time, actually changes your physical brain. It helps you feel loved and loving. Instead of staying stuck in fear, anger, or shame, you will feel safe. Safe to let down your guard. Safe to soften. Safe to open. Safe to share. Safe to love again with an open heart.

Do you want help to improve your relationship?

Click here for a complimentary 10-minute Discovery Call to see if we are a good fit for counseling.

Author: Benita A. Esposito, MA, LPC, LCMHC

Couples and individual counseling
•    Counseling sessions in the office or Zoom videoconference
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Offices in Atlanta and Blairsville, Georgia (Eastern time zone)


This article is based on research from the following authors:
“Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy” by Dr. Sue Johnson
“Gottman Method Couples Therapy” by Drs. John and Julie Gottman

Look for Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. John Gottman on YouTube and Amazon.

Suggested Reading

“Love Sense” and “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson“

“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 2015 revision” by John Gottman