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Dreams Within Conflict

Introduced by the Gottman Institute, this exercise relies upon the idea, any topic(s) worth having a conflict about probably has competing value underneath through discussion.

Dreams Within Conflict

A core part of accepting and embracing each other is uncovering and understanding the meaning of each person’s position in conflict, finding out what things mean to each person. Anything worth fighting about has a meaning or value underneath. Sometimes, conflicts are calls to be understood, accepted, or loved.

The goal of this exercise is to break up gridlocked positions by first uncovering dreams that we have found in each person’s position. This means that in each of the positions are metaphors, stories, hopes, and dreams. Each of the positions involves images and associations that are hidden and first need to be uncovered and expressed in a safe relationship climate.

Even partners who are not in a state of crisis, there may be a state of intense pain because there are deadlocked issues in the relationship that are undergoing entrenchment of positions, vilification, control struggles, and / or emotional disengagement.

Even seemingly trivial and small gridlocked issues have symbolic values. We will work to reframe gridlocked conflicts as life dreams in opposition. Imagine an image of two clenched fists (each person’s position) pushing against each other. Now relax the hands open, and from each hand a dove flies out. The dove is the dream.

The relationship has to feel safe enough for the dream to emerge. The dream is very close to the core sense of self, and it is fragile. People will easily become defensive if the climate is not accepting. You don’t want the kind of relationship where you “win” and crush your partner’s dream. You want the kind of relationship where each of you is supporting the other’s dream. If the dreams connect, so much the better.


1. First, identify the single gridlocked issue to explore. Conflicts can often cover several topics at a time, each of which will need attention on it’s own.

2. Decide who will start as the speaker and who will start as the listener.

3. Speaker, your task is to honestly talk about your feelings and beliefs about your position on the issue. Explore what the position means to you, what the dream might be behind your position, tell the story of the source of this dream or this belief, where it comes from and what it symbolizes. Be clear and honest. What do you really want on this issue? Why is it important? Work to help the partner understand.

Don’t argue for or try to persuade your partner of your point of view, just explain how you see things.  Focus on thoughts and feelings.

4. Listener, your job here is to help your partner feel safe enough to tell you what’s behind their position on the issues, their belief, dream, or story. You only listen, the way a friend would listen. Ask questions that draw out your partner and their point of view. You can help by suspending judgment and not act like a judge, rather someone who is curious.

Don’t try to solve the problem! It is much too soon for that. You first need to end the opposition of dreams and become one another’s friend instead of foe. Try to understand the meaning of your partner’s dream. Be interested.

5. The listener will summarize the speaker’s message. If the summary has something that is not accurate, or something missing, the speaker will re-explain and the listener will keep attempting to correct the summary. When the summary is accurate, the speaker and listener will trade roles.

Sample questions for the listener:

  • Do you have any core beliefs, ethics, or values that are part of your position on this issue?
  • Is there a story behind this for you, or does this relate to your background or childhood history in some way?
  • Tell me why this is so important for you.
  • What feelings do you have about this issue?
  • What would be the ideal of your dream here?
  • Is there a deeper purpose or goal in this for you?
  • What do you wish for?
  • What do you need?
  • Is there a fear or disaster scenario in not having this dream honored?


Here’s an exercise to create compromises.


Sample dreams for the speaker:

A sense of freedom
The experience of peace
Unity with nature
Exploring who I am
A spiritual journey
Unity with my past
Knowing my family
Becoming all I can be
Having a sense of power
Dealing with my aging
Exploring my creative side
Becoming more powerful
Getting over past hurts
Becoming more competent
Asking for forgiveness
Having a sense of order
Being productive
A space to just “be”
Being able to truly relax
Reflecting on my life
Exploring a part of myself I lost
Getting over a personal hang up
Getting my priorities in order
Finishing something important
Exploring the physical side of myself
Being able to compete and win
Building something important
Saying goodbye to something
Ending a chapter in my life

Have any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or comments on this article? Broken link? Wondering how to this can be applied, modified, or adapted to your polyamorous, swinging, kink/ BDSM, or otherwise interesting relationship? Feel free to reach out to us here.