Why Everything You Think About Conflict with Your Partner Is Wrong

The rupture/repair cycle and why to embrace it

Tanya felt exhausted. She laid her head back on her pillow and exclaimed, “We are not getting anywhere, let’s just go to bed.” Wade was frustrated as well. He had been trying to explain his position to Tanya all night and he didn’t feel heard. He was pacing the floor at the foot of their bed, anxious and angry.

“Tanya, we have to save more money if we want to retire someday. We can’t keep spending like we are.”

Tanya replied, “I want to save for retirement as well, but I also want to live now, in the moment, Wade! We have plenty of money, we pay all our bills on time, so what’s the harm in using it while we're alive. I earn part of the money, too!”

“A much smaller part,” smirked Wade. The room fell silent. Wade knew he had crossed a line. Tanya had been asking for years to pick up more hours at her job, but Wade continually told her it was more important she spend time with the kids. Hurt and angry, Tanya rolled over and turned out the light, leaving Wade standing in the dark in the middle of the room.

All couples argue from time to time – in what is called the rupture/repair process. It is a normal, healthy, and even necessary part of all relationships. Most couples, however, struggle with the repair part of the process. Ruptures can happen for many reasons, but what they all have in common is a disruption in the emotional bond between partners. And while ruptures are uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful to go through, they are an important building block to healthy couple development. Ruptures invite us into the developmental work of repair, and when repaired they build trust and strengthen the resilience of the couple.

Attachment research indicates that there is misattunement (ruptures) in secure mother-infant relationships two-thirds of the time. Researchers have found the same in adult relationships. This means that approximately 70% of the time there is the potential for ruptures when interacting with our partner.

In one of the longest research studies to date, the Harvard Study of Adult Development looked at what impacts our health and happiness as we age. They began following 268 Harvard men in 1938 during the Great Depression. Early participants included President John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Through the decades they added the subjects’ children and wives to the study. They amassed an incredible amount of data, including physical and mental health, triumphs and failures in careers and marriage, gene studies, blood pressure, height, weight, and eating habits.

Of all the findings, the one piece of data that stood out more than any other was the quality of the participants' relationships. The men and women who felt connected to others were the healthiest at age 80, just as they were at age 50. “Close relationships…are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes,” said Robert Waldinger, Director of the study and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University.

If such a high potential for ruptures that interrupt the quality of our relationships don’t galvanize us to learn how to repair those unavoidable conflicts, then as author Mary Beth Keane states, “we [are bound] to repeat what we don’t repair.”

Conflict can take on many forms in a relationship. It doesn’t always have to be raised voices laced with anger. Sometimes conflict can come in the form of quiet apprehension, where there is not a word spoken between partners. Conflict can also be one partner hurt and crying while the other partner sits arms folded in a defensive posture. Regardless of how conflict shows up in the relationship, it can be a healthy “wake-up” call for each partner.

Conflict is not about winning; conflict is about being heard. Conflict is not about convincing your partner that your “reality” is the right reality. Rather, it is a sharing of mutual perspectives that invites the other into a deeper understanding of feelings, fears, hopes, and desires. Conflict can be constructive, galvanizing, and healthy, creating a momentum where both partners feel like they are moving the relationship forward.

What makes conflict difficult is how we cope with it. Our old coping strategies protect us from getting hurt, which is a good thing. But they can also move us further away from what we want. Our coping strategies can shut us down to where we deny our own needs, using anger to express our hurt rather than vulnerability to express our desire. It can make us emotionally isolate ourselves, where we feel the sting of loneliness. It is our old coping strategies that keep us stuck, not the conflict itself.

Ultimately, conflict within couples is the way the relationship and each partner grow. We take our experiences as human beings and pour them out on each other in the hopes we will find someone who will understand. We want a partner who will have our back and show up for us when times are hard. We want a partner who will provide us strength when we are weak, embolden our best quality, and make us feel like we belong. As Dr. Roy Barsness, Professor at the Seattle School of Psychology and Theology says, “We are conceived in relationships, formed in relationships, harmed in relationships, and transformed in relationships.”

Conflict is the way we course correct when something is missing. It’s the way we alert our partner to our ongoing experience of ourselves and our relationship. Conflict is not to be feared but embraced. Conflict is the headwinds of a changing tide that points towards repair and keeps a couple growing together.

- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO

Stonebridge Couples Therapy

(918) 398-7678


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• Live webinar with a professionally licensed couples therapist

• Live question & answer session

• Workbook that includes all the resources and activities taught in the webinar

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• Additional resources to help on your journey toward growing together as a couple

• Replay link to watch a recording of the webinar (in case you miss it or want a refresh)

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