10 Ways to Overcome Conflict in Relationships
Let’s start off by saying: there isn’t a couple in this world that hasn’t had some sort of conflict with each other. Conflict itself isn’t unhealthy—it’s a totally normal and natural part of relationships! What we need to be aware of in healthy relationships is: 1) recognizing sources of conflict, and 2) resolving those sources constructively.
Sources of conflict in relationships
Sources of conflict can vary by couple, and can even change over time in the same relationship—for example, the same couple may experience different triggers early on while dating and getting to know each other than they do many years into marriage.
The major types of conflict in relationships are:
Feelings of disappointment
Disagreement about an important issue
Common sources of these conflicts are:
Money: spending, saving, managing and sharing it
Kids: if/when to have them, how to raise and discipline them
Intimacy: frequency, extramarital romantic affairs
Exes: jealousy and intimidation of past relationships
In-laws: difference of opinion, lifestyle, boundaries
Household chores & tasks: sharing responsibilities, caring for the shared home
Time spent together: too little time together due to work or social engagements, or too much time together
Communication styles: misunderstanding from different communication styles, or hurt from harsh communication
Unrealistic expectations: distorted expectations of the other person
How conflict is expressed
Different people express their hurt and frustration in different ways—and the same person can vary their expression based on the person they’re in conflict with. Some people respond in a confrontational, even aggressive manner. Others can avoid, deny, suppress or postpone facing conflict. And even others can become overly accommodating and try to please the person they’re in conflict with while ignoring their own best-interest.
It’s important to be able to recognize your partner’s response and understand where it’s coming from—that they’re upset about a conflict in your relationship.
How to resolve conflict with your partner
First and foremost is knowing when to pick your battles. But when you determine that there is an issue at hand, here’s how to go about resolving it in a healthy and constructive manner:
1) Be willing to talk about it
Conflict isn’t unhealthy, it’s a natural part of relationships. “Arguing” is not a bad thing—if you can argue in a healthy, constructive way. The first step in conflict resolution is willingness to accept that there’s an issue, and willingness to discuss finding a solution to it.
2) Take a moment if you need to
One of the most effective ways to stop conflict from escalating is to know when to “tap out” for a few moments (or minutes, or hours) to collect yourself before returning for a less emotional, more constructive conversation.
3) Find (& focus on) the real issue
Conflict arises when needs are not being met. Focus on finding (and then staying on topic with) the root cause of conflict, rather than getting distracted with superficial issues.
For example, the dirty dishes in the sink might not be the root problem, but rather a feeling that your partner isn’t supportive and helpful in taking care of the home together. Aim to be direct and talk about what’s really bothering you, rather than solely focusing on superficial examples.
4) Listen first
First and foremost, conflict resolution requires good listening. This means listening not just with your ears, but also with your body language. Practice active listening: acknowledge to your partner what you’re hearing them express, and ask clarifying questions as needed. Much conflict can be resolved simply by helping the other person feel heard.
5) Use good body language & physical gestures
More than half of our communication is nonverbal, and the body language you show during an “argument” accounts for about 55% of the message your partner is receiving. Choose this message wisely! Communicating with a tone of compassion and collaboration is much more helpful than using a tone of competition and aggression.
6) Look inward
It’s not worth playing the blame game, focusing on all that your partner has done to wrong you—that causes many people to miss their own actions, which are the only part of the equation you’re actually in control of. If there’s a problem at hand, look inward at your role and what you can do about it. Take accountability for your own actions and feelings.
Also, be sincere and honest in your interactions. Don’t apologize for something you don’t understand, just to make the issue “go away.” And, when you agree to make a change, make it!
7) Talk about behavior, not character
There’s a big difference between “I’m upset because you forgot to [do chore] you said you would do.” and “You forgot to [do chore], you’re so lazy and never help around the house! I have to do everything!” Finger-pointing and criticism are just going to get you a dose returned for yourself.
8) Use humor when appropriate
A little lighthearted humor (at the right moment, of course!) can go a long way toward diffusing tension and opening both of you up to a less emotional and more productive conversation.
9) Compromise is a win, not defeat
In relationships, there’s no winning or losing side—you’re on the same team. You both win when you reach a compromise, and you both lose when you don’t.
10) Agree to disagree
You and your partner aren’t going to agree on everything, all the time. Sometimes, it’s best to just “agree to disagree” and drop it. (Though, caveat: on some important issues, inability to reach an agreement might be a sign you’re not compatible in a way you’d like to be. The trick is to know which issues are earth-shatteringly important to you, and which are not.)
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Next time you find yourself in conflict with your partner, use the tips above to guide a loving and constructive conversation and solution.
One of our favorite books on relationships is Dr. Gottman’s 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. It’s based on decades of research and is applicable to relationships at various stages—pre-marriage too.
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