10 Tips to Sustain Emotional Intimacy During a Conflict

Risk, Reach, Request, Respond

Have you ever been stuck in a painful conversation with your partner? You just can’t seem to understand each other? Instead of blaming or withdrawing, use this simple road map to move into a deep emotional connection.

Journal your answers before you talk to your partner. After you develop mastery with these skills, you will be able to talk with your partner without journaling.

First, identify your old pattern. Increase your self-awareness.

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?

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.    Think about these interpretations. Are they true? How could you see this a more productive way?

3)  What are your automatic emotions?
a.    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. 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. We call these secondary emotions.
b.    Identify your vulnerable tender emotions underneath the secondary emotions. I coach my clients to “go down the layers of the onion.”  Anger often covers up hurt, sadness, fear, or loneliness.

4)    How does your body react?  You might experience tense muscles, tight jaw, 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 do 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)    Does your action trigger your partner? Oftentimes it does. And 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, it is expected. Your teacher corrects your errors, and guides you towards adeptness.  That is a normal learning process. The same applies to this learning curve.

1)    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. Do not abandon yourself. Decide if you want to take the risk to tell your partner.

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

3)    Request: Do not just complain about hurtful behavior. Tell your partner about your core needs, and 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.

4)    Respond:  Throughout this process, your partner listens to you, really wanting to understand you. He or she expresses empathy and validates you.  For a few minutes, he or she 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, he or she leans toward you instead of away. He or she offers to meet your needs in specific ways, and then does it.

square03Take turns doing the four R’s with each other.
You may be saying, “That sounds great, but that’s hard to do.”  That’s normal. 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. This 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.

Contact Benita A. Esposito, MA, LPC for couples or individual counseling.
•    Counseling in the office, on the phone or videoconference.
•    Private Couples Retreats for one to three days.

Benita A. Esposito, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Phone/text: 770.998.6642
Email: Benita@EspositoInstitute.com
Offices in Atlanta and Blairsville, Georgia (EST time zone)

Resources. This article is based on research from the following authors:
“Emotionally Focused Couples 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.

Read these books:

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

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