What Couples Therapy Can Teach Us About Conflict in the Workplace

Esther Perel

Everyone comes to work with a relationship legacy, a resume if you will. They bring the hidden histories of their other work relationships, as well as the ones that they grew up with at home. Do they reach out when they have a problem or do they go it alone? How does that impact their approach to delegating, asking for help, collaborating, and competing with others? When people say you should bring your whole self to work, my response is always this: They already do. But it’s in conscious and unconscious ways. When we begin to recognize these unseen dynamics, we can learn the tools that will help us understand and manage them. 

I’m not alone in this view. Stanford Business School now offers a Group Therapy course, required reading for which includes The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Why? According to Noam Wasserman, a professor at Harvard Business School, 65% of businesses fail due to relationship breakdowns between partners, a dynamic I explored in my recent First Round Review article. This is why, in addition to my therapy practice, I also operate as a kind of Chief Relationship Officer for a number of startups. It isn’t unusual for them to call me to facilitate difficult conversations, just as a couple in a marital crisis might. Because the reality is, being in a business partnership is a lot like being in a marriage. 

In fact, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, if you work, you usually have a “work family.” And there’s never been so much pressure on these collegial relationships. As I shared at SXSW this year, we used to go to work to make money; now we go to work to make meaning. We want to evolve, find self-fulfillment, and figure out, as HR pro Netta Nahum says, not what we’re going to do next, but who we’re going to be next. And we don’t get there alone. 

Whether I’m consulting for a company or conducting sessions between colleagues for my new podcast “How’s Work?,” I want to meet the people before I meet their problems. When they talk about their fights, I look for the hidden story causing the contracted state, in which everything is viewed through the lens of the problem. What is the unspoken issue that hides behind the manifest complaint? Not surprisingly, when a situation affects us deeply, it’s because it resonates with something else we have experienced before. If Mitch is micromanaging, it could be because his brother always managed to get away with doing less. If Jane feels consistently invisible despite ample recognition, perhaps it’s because it’s not the first time she has felt unseen. If Oscar is acting like a “control freak,” maybe he was screwed over before. In all of these situations, there’s more than the two people in the room. 

Once we know what causes the problem, we have to look at what maintains it. It’s an ecological perspective. I’ve seen relationships break down to the point where colleagues are barely communicating, patching over small cracks instead of making structural repairs to build a stronger foundation. As couples therapy researcher Howard Markman has explained, there are hidden dimensions at play underneath the majority of interpersonal issues, whether at home or at work. I tend to focus on these three:

  • Power and Control
  • Care and Closeness
  • Respect and Recognition

These are not neat categories that can be cleanly separated. There’s overlap and issues often bleed into each other. But thinking of these three broader dimensions as a framework will help you get to the bottom of your own work conflicts. So, what do they mean?

1. Power and control: it’s about money, status, and who has the final word.

Who’s priorities matter more? 
Who gets to make the decisions? 
Who stays late and grinds harder? 
Who takes the high-level meetings?

Conflict in the workplace rooted in power and control looks like:

  • A co-founder complaining about how decisions are made unilaterally or how their counterpart hoards information.
  • An employee harbors ambivalence about the company’s success, threatens to leave, or takes on secret side gigs that show they’re not “all in.” 
  • Colleagues argue over who is more essential. Whether it’s the engineer building the product or the sales and marketing whiz running the business, these discussions often boil down to who needs who more. “I can do this without you, but you can't do this without me" attitudes often pervade fights that fit into this category.

Go Deeper:  

On Episode 5 of “How’s Work?,” we meet two co-founders, college friends who built a successful communications company together. A decade later, they’re barely speaking to each other. The company is on the rise; the relationship is sinking. In our session, we got to the heart of their impasse when one of them says: “When I was running the show and you were kind of secondary, I included you in everything. And now that it's your turn at the helm, instead of valuing our friendship, you're trying to inch me out.” An example of this was when one of them was left out of a company picture. Ouch. When you are deleted, you’re powerless.

If you’re dealing with this, try: 

Starting with your own reaction. Blame and defense comprise the language of power and control. In some instances, one person puts the other down in order to elevate themselves, maintaining their power and cementing their control. Notice and remove the belligerent language that escalates the conflict. Don’t start with “you’re wrong” or “you did this.” Find a middle ground and go from there.

2. Care and Closeness - it always comes back to broken trust.

Do you have my back? 
Are we in this together? 
I thought I could count on you.

When trust is broken, it shatters all of our assumptions about the relationship and our value in it. I often ask co-founders this telling question: “What hurts you more? The fact that he did it in the first place—or that he did it without you?” The former is an issue of power, the latter is an issue of care and closeness. 

Conflict in the workplace rooted in care and closeness look like:

  • A colleague takes meetings on her own, even though her colleague wanted to be there.
  • A collaborator feels like her input isn’t valued in the decision-making process.
  • One partner levels accusations that the other is selfish.
  • An employee fears that he will be edged out, that his manager will hire someone else to replace him.
  • One team member values the relationship more, while the other values the business more.

Go Deeper: 

On Episode 3 of “How’s Work?,” we meet a mother-son duo who, together, run a real estate company. The mother started from scratch; enabling her son to go to business school and build upon what she created. When he joins the company, he thinks he knows better. Eventually, after he matures and recognizes his arrogance, they get to the real issues: that she will not be around forever. Listen to this counseling session to see how issues of care and closeness play out in real life.

If you’re dealing with this, try: 

Practicing reflective listening. Acknowledge, validate, and empathize. Acknowledging that what the other person said makes sense. Reflect back, don’t rebut. Take responsibility for your actions; it softens the adversarial stance of “either/or” in favor of “both/and.” Instead of waving their flag and insisting that they’re right, they recognize the validity of the other person’s point of view. A simple “I can see where you’re coming from” can be deeply validating. Once you take responsibility for your part, others can do the same. You can stop pointing at each other and look at yourselves.

3. Respect and Recognition: it’s about integrity and self-worth.

Are my contributions being valued? 
Are you taking all the credit? 
Do I matter?

Conflict in the workplace rooted in respect and recognition look like:

  • One of the team leads never gives praise, only hands out criticism.
  • Employees feel like they need the company more than the company needs them.
  • The founder is rallying the employees based around a mission they themselves do not demonstrate. 
  • Language of empowerment seems to be covering up exploitation. 
  • Employees are given goals they can only meet by cutting corners.

Go Deeper: 

On Episode 4 of “How’s Work?,” we meet two creatives who are reeling from the trauma of company-wide lay-offs, and are struggling to move past how insignificant it has made them feel. They feel alienated and resentful, and keep oversharing these frustrations publicly. And their trauma is preventing them from starting anew. 

If you’re dealing with this, try: 

Initiating a reset. If you are personally causing others to feel undervalued, take every opportunity you can to dispel the myth of the lone genius. Anticipate what your actions might symbolize to someone else and recognize the validity of others reactions. And if you’re the one feeling small, take stock of where you are. Sometimes it’s good to know when it’s time to leave. Regardless of if you have a choice in the matter, it’s time to start engaging in meaningful conversations with key people. Whether it’s your current manager or an external ally with influence, try to have these conversations in person, rather than on Slack or email. There’s a world of possibilities out there. Don’t limit yourself. 


Take it from me: people spend so much time in therapy sessions talking about work. It’s time to acknowledge the roots of our work-related frustrations and become active in healing them. When you get down to it, conflict in the workplace affects our business’s culture, productivity, and profitability. Do you recognize any of these hidden dimensions in your own work experiences? Maybe it’s time to go deeper.

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