Having conflict in your relationship doesn’t mean your marriage is in trouble.
Many people think they need to avoid disagreements to have a good marriage, but conflict is inevitable. No one agrees on everything all the time.
It’s not how often you disagree but how you handle your disagreements at the moment that matters most.
In a healthy relationship, both people can express their views and have their say without fear. That’s why it’s essential for couples to learn to manage their differences of opinion and practise good conflict resolution together.
- Disagreements are not a sign your relationship is in trouble.
- Conflict is part of a healthy relationship if you learn to manage it well.
- Not all differences can be solved in a marriage, even with good conflict-resolution skills, and that’s okay, too.
1. Identifying the source of the conflict
You’ve been arguing about the dishes for weeks, but is that really what you’re upset about? We can find ourselves in conflict about shallow things: dishes piling up, clothes left on the floor, and lights being left on, but the conflict in a relationship is often about something more profound.
Identifying the source of your conflict is the only way to move past it and resolve it in a way that works for your relationship.
Here are some common sources of conflict in a relationship:
We come into a relationship with our communication styles and strengths. Sometimes, those communication styles clash.
You might like to express your feelings and resolve conflict the moment it comes up, but your partner prefers to resolve it without much discussion.
Frustration over your differences can lead to poor communication habits, too.
If one person doesn’t feel heard, they might get louder or more critical. If they feel overwhelmed or attacked, they might get defensive or give the other partner the silent treatment.
Differences in values or goals
Even if you are very similar to your partner, conflict will always be related to your values and goals.
It’s very common for one partner to care more about tidiness and organisation than the other partner, for example. You might be in a conflict over the mess in the kitchen, but the real issue is how much you value cleanliness compared to your partner.
Unresolved past issues
Past issues can come up again and again if we don’t deal with them, and they can cause major conflict in a relationship.
Fear of intimacy or trust issues from old relationships, hurt feelings or insecurities from childhood. These past injuries affect how we interact with each other and how we interpret our partner’s words and actions.
Overreacting with strong feelings to something small is one sign that conflict has triggered an issue from your past.
From financial problems and job stress to issues with in-laws or other family stressors, the external circumstances surrounding us significantly impact our relationships. When we’re under pressure, it affects our general well-being, and we often take it out on those closest to us.
Stress is an all too common root cause of relationship conflict.
Recognising when your conflict is triggered by stress from extended family members, mental health issues, or other life issues affecting your well-being is essential. Then, you can find ways to support each other to reduce the stress rather than add to it.
Feeling like you’re on the same team and don’t have to face problems alone can help you pull through stressful times.
2. Communication tips for resolving conflict
Discuss only one issue at a time
Raising multiple issues never works and generally escalates the conflict. If you get off track, focus back on the central issue of the conflict by saying something like, “We can cover that later if you like. Right now, we should focus on X and see if we can resolve it.”
If you want to stop bickering in your relationship and resolve arguments, you must focus on a single disagreement.
Start soft and slow
Conflict resolution skills begin right at the start of any conflict. Starting softly sets the tone for your conversation and makes it much more likely your partner will listen to what you have to say.
If you’re using a soft start-up, you might say, “I was wondering if we could talk about the housework because it’s been bothering me lately,” rather than, “You never help with the housework! I’m doing everything.”
If your partner has started the conversation, how you respond is important for resolving conflict, too. Try listening before you respond or defend yourself.
Make sure you understand their side entirely with questions like, “Can you tell me more about what’s upsetting you? Do I understand it right?”
Stay curious and aim to resolve conflict rather than win
Make the aim of any conflict with your partner understanding them rather than winning. In most disagreements, no one is entirely right or wrong.
To increase understanding, I get couples to practice active listening during disagreements. Partners reflect back the emotions they hear their partner saying: “It really upsets you when I do that” or “That sounds fair, and I can understand why that’s annoying.”
Ask questions that help you understand their perspective, such as “What do you need?” or “When does that bother you most?” (Try to avoid “Why” questions as it can make your partner feel attacked).
Being curious about your partner and really trying to understand and validate what’s happening for them helps to de-escalate arguments. Is your partner feeling heard?
Take responsibility for your own feelings and your part of an issue
Even if you’re taking responsibility for a small part of the conflict, it can help to de-escalate an argument, for example: “Yes, I did do that on this occasion, so it makes sense to me it upset you.”
Taking responsibility isn’t always easy, but perspective-taking helps. How does it look from your partner’s side of the conflict? Were you expecting them to mind-read or not express your feelings well? Unclear communication is a common way we contribute to any conflict.
Try saying: “Yes, I can see I didn’t communicate what I needed clearly.”
Use friendly facial and body language and little “repair attempts”
Healthy relationships frequently use repair attempts. They’re anything that brings you and your partner close again after experiencing conflict or even during an argument.
It could be a small joke that makes your partner smile, sitting close to them, softening your eyes as you listen or holding hands. A brief moment of lightness within the argument can help you resolve conflict faster.
Physically show them you care about resolving the conflict together. Even if you feel like your partner is wrong doesn’t mean you have to be on opposing teams.
Call a time-out if needed
A raised heart rate is usually a sign you need a break. It’s not the end of the discussion; it’s a pause.
It takes around 20 minutes for us to calm down physiologically (as long as we make an effort to calm down and don’t work ourselves up more in our heads!)
This is the time to self-soothe and get your body and brain calm and ready to continue a discussion.
It’s impossible to resolve conflicts when your brain is flooded with emotions. When you’ve ‘flipped your lid‘, arguments risk heading into personal attacks, making the conflict worse.
It’s best to talk about time-outs before a conflict and agree to respect each other’s call for a time-out. When one of you calls a time-out, agree there will be no more talking, no final words. A good rule to establish is for both of you to walk away and take a break for a minimum of 20 minutes.
Make sure you begin the discussion again within 24 hours so things are not left unresolved.
3. Problem-solving strategies
Identify the underlying needs of both parties
What’s really going on? Are you feeling unappreciated or taken for granted, and that’s why the dishes are bothering you?
Are you angry about your partner being online until late because you really wanted to be spending time with them?
Find out what each of you needs from the other person to move past the conflict.
Generate potential solutions if there are any
Research by Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute, showed that 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. Sometimes, we have to learn to manage rather than solve our relationship conflicts.
Getting a better understanding of your partner and their feelings can be enough to deal with some of the small stuff causing conflict.
But with the other 31% of relationship conflicts, we can look for workable solutions.
Evaluate and select the best solution or agree to disagree
Rather than compromise or find a middle ground, try to barter for a win-win: “I’ll give you this. Can you give me that?”
Try asking, “What can we give each other so it feels like a win for both of us?” This helps you feel both of you get something, rather than both conceding or giving up something you want.
Follow through on the agreed-upon solution
Check-in with each other a few days later and make sure there are no leftover issues. Was it really a win-win, or does it still feel unresolved?
Repair any hurt feelings, if needed. In healthy relationships, couples learn how to soothe each other and rebuild closeness after conflicts.
Practice moving in and out of tension quickly
Strong couples can do this well and learn to pause any rising tension, conflicts, or unproductive conversations. If you notice pressure rising, you can switch gears, focus on something fun, light, or relaxing, and return to the issue later.
4. Seeking outside help
When to consider couples therapy
Intimate relationships aren’t easy, and we don’t get taught how to manage conflict well. But we can’t avoid the fact that people disagree, even in solid relationships. Every couple needs to find the best ways to reduce tension to have a successful relationship.
If you find yourself avoiding certain topics or arguing over the same things repeatedly, consider couples therapy.
Therapy is a valuable tool for making your relationship stronger. A marriage counsellor can help you learn to communicate effectively, address negative patterns, and find better ways to handle conflict.
How to find a qualified therapist
Many therapists now work online, which means you’re not limited to therapists in your local area. You can choose the experienced marriage counsellor you both feel most comfortable with.
Relationship counselling is very effective online, and often couples feel far more relaxed having therapy in their home environment rather than coming into a counsellor’s office.
All relationships face conflict. It’s not the conflict that makes a difference in your relationships, but the way you resolve it and the conflict resolution skills you develop.
If you learn to resolve conflict healthily, with soft start-ups, win-win bartering, and good communication, you can improve your marriage and become closer than you were before.
When you’re able to talk openly, both of you will feel safe when you have a disagreement and you can deal with the everyday stress life throws at you in healthy ways without any unresolved conflict.
Healthy couples don’t avoid conflict; they see it as a way to understand each other better and problem-solve together.
Do you need relationship help?
If you and your partner are considering trying marriage counselling, contact Clinton at (02) 8968 9323 during business hours to discuss your situation and find out how Clinton’s counselling services can help, or book an appointment online now.
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.