Rock the Boat
How to use Conflict to Heal and Deepen Your Relationship
By Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW
If you’re like almost everyone else with a partner, you have a mental and emotional image of who they are—and that image is not 100 percent accurate. When your partner acts in a way that doesn’t match your mental image, this can drive you crazy.
As you learn to deal with your partner as they actually are, your relationship will naturally turn up the heat, over and over. This can drive you crazy, too, until you learn to accept and tolerate the heat.
Over time, as you and your partner learn to support and lovingly challenge each other, both of you will change. The heat will get turned up in new ways, creating new difficulties—and new opportunities to tolerate that heat, grow up, and grow closer.
When you go crazy in any of these ways, nothing is going wrong. The craziness you feel is exactly what you need to feel. It’s your body and brain and gut telling you, This can’t go on. Something has to change. You’re going to have to make a choice.
This choice isn’t one you want to make, or you’d have already made it. It’s probably a choice you’ve been avoiding for a long time. It’s a classic double bind. As Dr. James Maddock often phrased it: you’re caught between something you don’t want to do and something you really don’t want to do. All of your options may hurt. But you still have to choose.
This is exactly what relationships are designed to do—create forced choices where you have to either grow up or stay emotionally young.
Couples show up in my office thinking they’re screwed up because they have relationship problems. I tell them, “You’re not screwed up at all.
But a lot depends on the two of you. If you’re both here to find a way to not have relationship problems, then you’re screwed, because problems, and peril, and possibilities are baked into every long-term relationship.
“Actually, you guys are really fortunate to have gotten to this place. Your problems are important. The things you can’t avoid—the things that keep coming up over and over—are the building blocks of your relationship. You’ve both gotten shaken and squeezed and pulverized to a point where there is no other choice—you have to either grow up or leave. You have to face both the possibilities and the peril.”
This process is vital in every sense. Yet most people do everything they can to avoid it—even in therapy sessions.
We look to our partner for harmony and safety and familiarity. A loving relationship provides these some of the time. But it also provides friction. Friction—not harmony or safety—is an engine of growth.
Most couples try to minimize friction and maximize harmony, especially early in their relationships. This works temporarily, but over time the friction keeps returning. And soon the effort to minimize the friction creates more friction.
This is when couples typically start dancing around conflicts. They try to reduce friction by avoiding difficult discussions and painful choices. This creates even more friction.
I tell couples, “You need that friction, because it may be tied to your integrity. It’s all about who you are as a person and how you’re going to be in relationship with the most important person in your life.” The question is always, Can I be the person I strive to be and still stay connected to the person who means the most to me?
What couples actually need to do is not reduce the friction, but reduce the cruelty in the partnership.
In committed relationships, cruelty is far more common than most of us realize or admit. This cruelty comes in many forms—physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Nearly all couples practice it, at least occasionally.
In all types of this commonplace cruelty, we knowingly and deliberately hurt our partner—or eat their heart—to make ourselves feel better. We enact this cruelty to either force temporary compliance from them, or punish them for something they did (or didn’t do). We also do it to avoidlooking at what we need to do inside ourselves to genuinely feel better.
When there has been physical cruelty in a relationship, temporarily lowering the friction and providing boundaries and safety are very important, to prevent further violence. But sooner or later the friction will come back, because that friction is not centered in the violence, or even in the individual partners, but in the very dynamics of relating.
Both lovers need to learn to tolerate that friction without slipping back into cruelty. If they focus only on keeping the friction down, then the violence may stop, but the couple will stay stuck.
Having a committed partner always creates friction and problems. Most of us want to keep the partnership and get rid of the friction and problems. That’s a fantasy we need to grow out of.
Your relationship is about transformation. The friction you feel and the problems you face are the fuel for that transformation.
Each of us starts out as a lump of coal. A committed partnership is a vital and alchemical process in which a combination of heat, pressure, and time can transform us into a diamond—if we let it.
- Your partner drives you crazy in three different ways. You drive them crazy, too, in those same three ways:
- You have a mental image of who your partner is, and that image is not 100 percent accurate.
- As you learn to deal with your partner as they are, your relationship with them will naturally turn up the heat, over and over.
- Over time, as you and your partner learn to support and lovingly challenge each other, both of you will change.
- When your partner makes you crazy, nothing is going wrong. You’re feeling exactly what you need to. You’re experiencing an internal call for change.
- Relationships are designed to create forced choices where people have to grow up.
- When couples reach emotional stalemates, the answer is never a plan or a strategy. It’s a process of living through uncertainty.
- The friction couples face is precious fuel for their transformation.
Conflict is a natural part of any intimate relationship. Yet most couples either avoid it or try to smooth over their differences. This results in at least one partner compromising their integrity—and stunting their own growth. Gritty, often irreverent, and always practical, Rock the Boat challenges couples not to flee from conflicts, because the emotional stalemate that conflicts produce creates an opportunity for profound transformation. This transformation affirms each partner’s individuality while forging a more mature intimacy, a greater trust, and a deeper bond.
Rock the Boat challenges the idea that conflict between partners is unhealthy or something to avoid. Instead, it encourages both people to stand by what they need and who they are—but to do so with compassion rather than competitiveness or vengefulness. This is the purpose of an intimate relationship: to create an atmosphere where both people learn to grow up and mature in their relationship by appreciating each other’s individual needs in a caring and mature way.
Author Resmaa Menakem, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy, addresses key factors in making this happen, including accepting discomfort and uncertainty; honesty and openness about sex, money, kids, and in-laws; recognizing when conflict might escalate into violence or abuse; and, when appropriate, finding and working with a good therapist.
Rock the Boat is not about ideals, or what we hope or imagine relationships to be. It's an honest, unflinching look at what actually works.
Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. He has served as the director of counseling services for Tubman Family Alliance, a domestic violence treatment center, and as the behavioral health director for African American Family Services in Minneapolis. He is a former radio talk-show host who has appeared on Oprah and Dr. Phil as an expert on domestic violence and couples in conflict. From 2011 to 2013, Resmaa was a family counselor for civilian contractors in Afghanistan, managing the wellness and counseling services on fifty-three U.S. military bases.