All couples experience conflict, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
The goal of a successful relationship is not to eliminate conflict, but to repair effectively after conflicts occur. This takes relationship skills—which can be learned!
Let’s discuss some of what argumentative couples have in common.
Why is relationship conflict so common?
Conflict happens when two people have different ideas, and that’s often. But there are some factors that might make relationship conflict worse than it has to be.
- Relationship structures based on conflict. Sometimes you and your partner are so used to conflict in your relationship that it’s become a habit that is built right into your relationship.
- Inadequate relationship skills. You or your partner might need to work on relationship skills like communication or empathy.
- Feelings of powerlessness when it comes to conflict. You may believe that conflict is inevitable and there’s nothing you can do to halt it. You might think that you have a bad temper and can’t control your reactions, for example. The good news is this is not the case.
- You’re arguing over differences in values and goals. You might think you’re arguing about something small, when the real conflict is over something larger, like how you want the relationship to look.
What you’re really arguing about
Sometimes, you may not be honest with yourself or others about why a conflict is occurring. Here are some reasons that you may be arguing that aren’t readily apparent on the surface:
- You’re embarrassed or ashamed about something you did, so you’re arguing to try to cover it up.
- You agreed to something even though you didn’t want to.
- Your partner is implying you’re “crazy” (also known as “gaslighting.”)
- You’re afraid of what might happen if you admit your partner is right. This may include ridicule or gloating.
- You don’t believe power can be shared.
- You don’t agree about values or goals.
- You’re scared of your partner’s desire for you.
- You haven’t forgiven your partner for something unrelated, either recent or ancient.
- Closeness and intimacy feel dangerous to you, so you’re avoiding it.
- You’re afraid your partner doesn’t love or desire you anymore.
The cons of conflict
Most people would agree that conflict is not good for you, but the truth is conflict only becomes a problem when it’s not resolved in a timely fashion.
Here are some of the cons of conflict:
- Blaming, criticising, and defensiveness are all destructive behaviours. The problem is these behaviours erode the sense of safety and security in your relationship. Blaming phrases like, “you always”, “you never”, or “you only” make your partner feel bad and make it harder to make up.
- Conflict not worked through can lead to harbouring feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment towards your partner. Unresolved conflict is effective contraception. No one wants to have sex with their partner if they feel any of those emotions.
- Long-term conflict can lead you and your partner to drift apart and start to live separate lives. When you don’t resolve your fights you gradually withdraw from the relationship and put your energy and attention elsewhere. This can lead to infidelity and/or divorce.
- Conflict is bad for your health. Unresolved conflict can cause psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and eventually lead to physical sickness and early death.
The pros of conflict
Believe it or not, there are advantages to relationship conflict. It may not feel great in the moment, but you can come out on top with the right strategies.
Here are some of the pros of conflict:
- Conflict is an opportunity for healing and growth. Conflict happens when something needs to be worked through. When you learn to manage your differences, you create a more harmonious and happy relationship.
- Conflict helps you learn more about your partner. When you work through conflict, you get to understand your partner’s values, life goals, wants, and needs.
- Conflict brings you closer together and makes you a stronger couple. When you work through and resolve conflict is makes you more resilient. You can be in conflict and still be loving—you can say, for example, “I’m frustrated and angry with you, but I still love you and I’m never going to leave you.”
- Making up makes you feel good. Sincerely apologising helps you feel more connected and can even lead to great make-up sex.
Watch the video below of my interview on the Channel 7 show, House of Wellness about the art of a healthy argument.
How to show more empathy
When arguments happen, it’s important to show empathy to your partner and make sure they know you understand where they are coming from. Empathy is rocket fuel for successful intimate relationships.
Here are some templates for sentences showing empathy and validating your partner:
- “If you thought [I said that], of course, you’re [angry].”
- “I’m sorry you feel C.”
- “I didn’t realise that was so important to you.”
- “Of course I want you to feel like your opinion matters.”
How to make agreements that support your relationship
When you’re making agreements and working on solutions, here are some guidelines for resolving conflict in ways that will prevent further conflict in the future:
- Make clear and measurable agreements. Make sure everyone knows exactly what is expected of them.
- Don’t agree merely to “try.” Do or do not—there is no “try!” “Trying” is not measurable.
- Take responsibility if you break an agreement. If you don’t follow through on what you promised, take 100% ownership of this.
- Follow both the letter and the spirit of the agreement. Make sure you “walk the talk.”
- Don’t make an agreement if you don’t think you can keep it or if you don’t want to make it. Compliance may keep your partner happy in the short term, but it leads to resentment in the long run.
- Renegotiate that agreement when necessary. It’s OK to return to the original agreement and revise the terms so they work for both of you.
- Remember that the couple is responsible for the agreements, not the individual. You’re a team and you’re in it together, so you need to collaborate on all mutual decisions.
Tips for fighting fair
Sometimes you may have a subconscious goal of proving that your partner can’t control you, so you argue to prove your autonomy. This may make it almost impossible for you to cooperate or collaborate on a solution.
When you fight, instead focus on accomplishing goals like:
- Defining terms so each person understands the other. Make sure you’re on the same page about definitions and meanings.
- Clarifying an assumption and making sure everyone has similar expectations. As the old saying goes, “assumptions are the termites of relationships.” Don’t let an assumption eat away your relationship.
- Sharing a personal experience for understanding and validation. Sharing from your own experience helps clarify what you’re talking about.
- Challenging a misperception. Don’t let each other get away with misperceptions because small errors in understanding lead to big fights later on.
Here are some tips for fighting fair:
- Don’t use provocative language like swearing or hurtful words.
- Don’t blame your partner.
- Don’t yell or use physical force, including breaking things or punching the wall.
- Don’t talk about separating or threaten to leave.
- Don’t bring up the past. Focus on the current problem.
- Don’t describe or label your partner.
- Don’t pretend that you can read minds.
- Don’t engage in conflict when you’re tired, you’ve been drinking, in public, or in front of the kids.
- Stick to the topic at hand and work on one issue at a time.
- Reframe and restate your partner’s statements so that everyone is clear on what is being communicated.
- Ask for specific things that will help you feel better.
- Respond to requests with goodwill.
- Take turns speaking.
- Use a Time Out strategy to pause the conflict when necessary and return to the issue later.
- Maintain respectful confidentiality.
- Take responsibility for how you express yourself.
If you’re struggling with relationship conflict, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a therapist. A professional can help you identify and solve problems in your relationship, leading to more harmony and happiness.
Do you need help with resolving conflict in your relationship?
If you need help with your relationship, contact Clinton Power + Associates on (02) 8968 9323 to discuss your situation and find out how we can help.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.