Next Sunday is Valentine’s Day. What will happen depends on the strength of our commitment to the everyday work of love — more importantly, to understanding the how of love. If we were to focus less on the flowers and chocolates, we could consider how to sustain deep, enduring love. That requires knowing ourselves well, understanding the triggers from our past and developing the ability to defuse them for the greater good of the relationship. Self-righteous indignation and the need to be right and win arguments will not magically disappear on Valentine’s Day. The tough relational work is about navigating conflict, which will inevitably show up from time to time. Our childhood wounds and attachment style influence the deeper understanding of intimacy. In protecting our investment in a long-term partnership, we must be intentional about ongoing relational recovery: the moment-to-moment practice of compassionate, kind connection. This is what will sustain us long after the flowers have wilted and the chocolates are gone.

Relationships are complicated at the best of times. Although we should expect disagreements, our personal history influences how we engage in the dance of conflict: with “fight, flight or fix.” Running from a potential disagreement, remaining stuck in our anger, we may apply all our energy to suppressing it while the emotion builds. When we ignore the anger, it becomes more destructive and is eventually unleashed on our undeserving partner with uncontrolled rage, which is neither productive nor healthy. What makes us frame conflict as harmful or scary, something to avoid at all costs? Arming ourselves for “battle,” fearful of losing or being overwhelmed, we’re determined to win while rendering the other/our partner powerless. We want to prove our “rightness,” to maintain our position. Yet, we often withdraw from exploring other possibilities, such as addressing different perspectives and confronting unpleasant dynamics, worried about dealing with someone who won’t listen and/or refuses to compromise. Each of us longs for, and certainly deserves, the basic right to be seen, heard and understood. When we believe we won’t be, we react with hostility: “If he’s always going to interrupt or talk over me, I’ll do the same to him.” Ultimately, neither partner gets their needs met. One partner might have more control, which the other partner has unconsciously surrendered. The “controlling” partner might need to always be right, even demeaning at times, while the “submissive” partner skillfully avoids any disagreement or voicing a different perspective — peace at all costs. Without a strong voice to engage in this conflict, unheard emotions quietly simmer. What shows up are reactions from the family-of-origin “storage battery.” Our partner becomes an easy target upon which to discharge anger. If only one partner’s needs are being met, that comes at the expense of the relationship.

The potential for conflict typically unnerves even the most self-assured people. Our lens is clouded with feelings of weakness and alienation. Were we to replace that lens with one that shifts the view to empowerment, bringing a sense of strength and connection, we could approach this with less anxiety. The possibility of being heard, engaging in constructive dialogue, can reframe what lies ahead, changing the quality of our experience and providing a sense of competence, calm and strength. The focus isn’t on winning or losing; rather, it’s on creating a “win-win” process with an outcome that’s fair to both. Conflict brings the possibility of real transformation and personal as well as relational connection. Acknowledge that different positions are always present; avoiding that is impossible and unnecessary. Our behavior is forged by habit rather than choice, undermining any flexibility in supporting different perspectives.

During arguments, we tend to focus on what the other person is doing wrong rather than considering: “My partner sees this situation differently than I do. I don’t need to react with fight, flight or fix. If I listen carefully to what my partner’s perspective is, I will better understand him/her.” We rarely acknowledge what’s triggering our own reactions while shining the light of contempt on the other person. It’s much easier to blame, judge or point the finger at one’s partner, believing they must be causing the discomfort. The fight-or-flight mechanism compels us to leave, shut down or assume an aggressive stance. Neither will get us what we want, and neither will bring us closer to understanding what stirs us to do battle. We can more successfully sustain deep, enduring love by peeling back and unwrapping conflict (reframing it simply as different perspectives) — directly addressing it in a respectful, productive manner instead of carrying it close like a blanket wrapped tightly around us. Our personal legacy determines whether we acknowledge conflict and speak to it, directing it wherever it rightfully needs to go, or whether we hold on to it.

In understanding the how of love, we must transform conflict, addressing what might be a shared purpose with mutual goals rather than allowing communication to spiral into a contentious battle. Just think what it would be like to achieve constructive, mutually respectful interaction. Then, that becomes the focus rather than entirely resolving the conflict — the outcome is less important than the process. What a different celebration Valentine’s Day would be if we shifted our attention from Hallmark cards and gifts to the deeper commitment of sustained relational recovery.

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now — and to go on caring even through times that may bring us pain.” — Mr. Rogers