Becoming a couple is one of the most complex relationships in adulthood. It is also well known that being a couple can contribute to personal growth and self awareness (Long & Young, 2007). Romantic couples are a unique type of relationship that is different from friendships and family bonds because it is based on romantic love.

The triangular love theory aims to define romantic love on the basis of three key characteristics being present. These three characteristics are: intimacy, passion and decision/commitment (Hendrick, 2004).

The intimacy component of the romantic relationship refers to feelings of closeness and connectedness. The passionate component refers to the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and other such related phenomena in loving relationships. The decision—commitment component refers to, in the short term, the decision that one loves someone else, and in the long term, the commitment to maintain that love (Hendrick, 2004).

Like most interpersonal relationships, most romantic couples experience some challenge at some point in their relationship. Some of these common challenges may include infidelity, loss of intimacy, communication difficulties, coping with stress challenges, financial pressures, boundary violations, difficulty balancing individual and couple expectations, divorce, separation and breaking up. Whatever the challenge, it is important to note that all dyadic relationships will experience some kind of distress at some point. In this post we examine two of these challenges: intimacy and conflict.

Intimacy

The word intimacy has taken on sexual connotations. But it is much more than that. It includes all the different dimensions of our lives. It involves the physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects as well as sexual components that can enhance the feelings of togetherness between the romantic couple (Larson, Hammond & Harper, 1998).

According to Sternberg’s theory of love, intimacy includes emotional bonding and feelings of connectedness. Sternberg suggests that intimacy develops during the course of the relationship and will usually include decisions of loyalty to the relationship (Long & Young, 2007). Intimacy has also been conceptualised as a sense of self disclosure, sharing of one’s self and feeling closer to one’s partner.

Intimacy is maintained by engagement in intimate conversation (Brunell, Pilkington & Webster, 2007; Kirby, Baucom & Peterman, 2005) and is considered a major part of romantic relationships. It is also an important factor for psychological wellbeing and is linked to positive and satisfying relationships (Brunell, Pilkington & Webster, 2007; Long & Young, 2007).

It is fair to assume that the quality of the romantic relationship will often be judged by the frequency of intimate interactions as perceived by each individual. It is these unmet intimacy expectations that can often affect the relationship negatively and pose challenges for the couple (Kirby, Baucom & Peterman, 2005). Therapists dealing with loss of intimacy in romantic relationships should help clients develop trust and communication skills that can help to overcome barriers to intimacy.

Conflict

Conflict is part of any interpersonal relationship and occurs as a result of differences in opinions. People differ in values, dreams, desires and perceptions. Therefore, we are all bound to encounter conflict at some point in our lives (Long & Young, 2007). Conflict can range from less serious mild disagreements to more intensely heated arguments.

Previous research has found that marital conflict often stems from unmet needs, wants, and desires. From this perspective, marital conflict is defined as a process of interaction in which one or both partners feel discomfort about some aspect of their relationship and try to resolve it in some manner (Hamamci, 2005). When one person needs or wants something badly enough, and the other person is unwilling or unable to meet that need, resentment will often grow. Then, if one were to add the power of an unruly tongue, the situation will usually become ripe for very destructive forms of conflict.

To look at it pragmatically, romantic relationship conflict will often happen when one member of the couple perceives inequity or experiences an imbalance in rewards or benefits from being in the relationship whereby it is perceived by one member of the couple that the other only cares about his/ her individual needs (Long & Young, 2007).

The negative consequences of conflict are probably familiar to all of us. Conflict can cause psychological pain that manifests in withdrawal and distance, depression, anxiety and/or aggression. Not only between the couple but also with those who are living around them (Choi, 2008). However, there are also constructive outcomes to conflict in romantic relationships.

For instance, people who continue to relate to one another despite their conflict may build greater trust and confidence in each another and become more apt in their ability to resolve their problems (Johnson, 2007). However, reoccurring conflict is usually a symptom of a problem in the romantic relationship and therefore should be addressed intentionally by the couple.

The role of the counsellor, when dealing with couples who are experiencing conflict, is to help them identify the source of such conflict and its style to assist them in implementing skills to resolve the disagreements (Relationships Australia, 2009).