By Margaret Stoll, Ph.D.

One inevitable aspect of all relationships is conflict. In fact a relationship in which there is no conflict might indicate a fear of disagreement or an excessive need to please. Being together, being the same or being in constant harmony is sometimes so desirable or necessary to a couple that the members feel emotionally disrupted if they experience themselves wanting or believing different things.

On the other hand frequent, irrational or unresolved conflict can place major strain on both the relationship and on the individuals involved. Excessive opposition or disharmony can erode the desire to spend time together or to feel loving or pleasurable feelings toward each other. Mean or disrespectful comments can cause permanent emotional damage as well as lasting mistrust.

The key to a healthy management of conflict is for the couple to experience, express and ultimately overcome it together. People tend to feel emotionally disrupted when they are at odds with their partner. Emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, insecurity and guilt become triggered. While they are uncomfortable, being able to tolerate feeling these emotions can motivate one to express his unhappiness to the partner and ones idea of how the partner caused or contributed to it. Naturally it is important for the partner to be able to hear and show concern for these feelings.

When this process is mutually shared it opens the way for the couple to repair their conflict and the painful emotions associated with it. The ensuing feelings of harmony and calm can then be associated with the partner and relationship once more. In fact, it is this sense of emotional disruption followed by the experience of repair that is an important source of trust and security for a couple and the individuals in it. Knowing that your relationship is resilient and that it can weather misunderstandings and imperfections enhances one’s valuing of the relationship and confidence in it. This processing of conflict can be quite challenging but it is such a central component of a successful relationship that attempting to do this is very worthwhile.

Another seemingly obvious component of successful relationships is for couples to enjoy time together. In other words the absence of destructive or suppressed conflict is a necessary but not sufficient source of happiness in a relationship.
In our ever-demanding often stressful lives it is easy to date or even live with someone while remaining relatively superficial. Especially with technology ever encroaching on our lives through big screen televisions, the internet, cell phones, etc., successful couples benefit from spending time together where they are free from distraction.

We know that bonding and attachment and the positive qualities associated with them are built through the personal, moment-to-moment, attuned interactions of two people. The research reported by Allan Schore, Ph.D. shows that when two people are emotionally engaged with each other in this way the right hemispheres of their brains show increased activity. Some of the functions performed by the right hemisphere are recognition and expression of facial emotion. Other right hemisphere functions are the recognition and regulation of one’s and another’s non-verbal communication of emotion through such things as posture, tone of voice, tempo of movement and gestures.

The focused interacting or ‘communicating’ through these right brain functions has very positive effects on the two people. It can regulate or calm their emotions. It can stimulate meaningful or creative ways of thinking as well as result in a sense of intimate connection. Stated simply, gazing into your partner’s eyes, listening to the sound of their voice, noticing your quickened heart beat or the ‘flutter’ in your stomach communicate to you the feelings of love when you are together.

Naturally, time together, time away from the distractions of technology, work, etc., creates the opportunity for this type of ‘right brain communicating’ that not only feels so good but is good for the relationship as it fosters and deepens bonding and attachment. So couples who make time to appreciate the humor in a subtle joke, view a sunset together, gaze into each others eyes, reveal a secret dream or fear or engage in any other shared emotional visceral experience are likely to enhance the quality of their relationships.

Dr. Stoll is a Clinical Psychology with offices in Redondo Beach and Glendale.  She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  Dr. Stoll can be reached at (310) 375-3607 or at