Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, and romantic relationships are no exception. You and your partner come from different contexts and both have triggers and defenses that neither of you may be aware of. Whether you’re just starting a relationship, or whether you have been living together for years, conflicts will continue to arise. Managing conflict effectively is, therefore, key for maintaining a healthy relationship.
What is Conflict?
Conflict refers to any tension between you and your partner arising from differences or disagreements, whether small or large. Conflict may be present even if there is not an outright fight or even a discussion. Some people respond to conflict with passive aggression, or they attempt to suppress it entirely. Acknowledging the problem is essential for managing conflict in a healthy way.
What Causes Conflict in a Relationship?
Conflict arises in a relationship for a number of reasons. At times, it may be the result of a difference in values or principles. Other times, it arises when you do not know what your partner needs or when you or your partner fail to effectively express your needs. This may lead to feelings of neglect or feelings of not being understood.
Conflict can also result from external tensions. When one person has had a hard day at work, they may take their frustrations out on their partner without being aware of it.
While conflict can lead to rifts and break-ups, in healthy relationships it can lead to increased understanding. You will learn most about your partner when engaged in conflict if you listen carefully to each other.
The Negative Effects of Conflict
Conflict can have negative effects both on the relationship and on the individuals involved. People who have a hard time managing conflicts are likely to either blow the conflict out of proportion or let it fester until it seems insurmountable. When it is left unresolved, conflict tends to lead to even more conflict.
Many people also suffer from stress when they are in conflict with their partners. They may struggle to focus on other priorities and this leads to poor performance at work and problems in relationships with colleagues, friends or family.
Conflict can even affect your health and cause you physical pain. Effectively managing conflict is therefore crucial for your own good and the good of the relationship.
There are certain prerequisites for effective conflict management. Take the following 3 fundamental points into account.
Quick Stress Relief
Anyone involved in a conflict inevitably feels a certain amount of stress. This stress is what leads people to either blow up or withdraw, as they are unable to stay present and view the situation objectively.
Quick stress relief is therefore crucial to constructive communication. Taking deep breaths is one of the simplest ways to relieve some of the stress, but it is just one tool. Other methods include checking in with your bodily sensations and anchoring yourself with objective facts. Learning to relieve stress is much easier done before it becomes urgent. Building your stress relief skills will make a huge difference in your life in general, as well as in the context of conflict.
If you are able to relieve some of your stress, you will find it much easier to become aware of the emotions you are experiencing. During conflict, emotions generally present as anger. However, anger is not a primary emotion; but rather a reaction to hurt, shame, and other emotions. Allow yourself to feel the anger, but do not neglect the emotion behind the anger. When you express yourself to your partner, focus on the primary emotion, because that’s what is at the source of the conflict.
During a conflict, much of the communication occurs non-verbally. Your facial expressions and body language will often express what you are really feeling, even if you are saying the opposite. Be aware of what your body is saying and try to soften the expression if anger is all that is coming through. Try to be consciously aware of your partner’s body language, rather than letting your subconscious automatically interpret it.
Conflict Resolution Styles
Everyone has their own conflict resolution style. For some people, this is dependent mostly on what they’ve learnt throughout their lives from their parents and other people in their lives. Those who have actively sought to improve their conflict resolution style will have far greater success at managing conflict effectively.
Couples who engage in constructive engagement discuss the issues without getting overly-emotional or saying hurtful things. They focus on resolving their issues in a way that improves the relationship.
Couples who engage in destructive engagement lose focus of what is really important and instead blame and hurt each other. They know how to push each other’s buttons and bring up conflicts that were left unresolved in the past.
When couples try to avoid conflict, or when one partner refuses to actively engage, conflicts remain unresolved and continue to cause tension and create further problems.
9 Ways To Manage Conflict In a Healthy Relationship
Effective conflict resolution techniques are crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship. Remember that you should not be fighting against your partner, but rather confronting the problem together with them. These 9 tools will help you turn conflict into constructive engagement.
Speak Your Mind and Be Direct
When you tiptoe around the issue, you can end up arguing about secondary matters or irrelevant facts. Rather speak your mind and be direct. This does not mean you should say the first thing you think of, but you should express what is on your mind in a constructive way.
To ensure that you are expressing yourself constructively, avoid blaming your partner. Remember, it is more important to grow as a couple than to be “right.” Conflict is not anyone’s fault and blaming almost always leads to hurt feelings and further conflict.
Don’t Use Words Like Never or Always
When you use words like never or always, you imply that you have a problem with your partner, rather than with something they may have done. If you have a problem with something they do (or don’t do) regularly, expressing what you feel now is more important than making them aware they are repeatedly “in the wrong.”
Pick Your Battles
Many issues may come up during a conflict. A conflict about finances, for example, can often bring up further disagreements about how you feel about each other’s families (who inevitably shaped the way each of you approach money). Try to remain focused on the main source of the conflict rather than getting caught in the nitty-gritty of everything that comes up.
Try Not To Get Over-Emotional
It is important to express your emotions, but it is also necessary to keep those emotions in check. Allow yourself to feel them, but if they begin to overwhelm you, your responses will undoubtedly be based on emotion rather than what is helpful. Use stress relief techniques, as mentioned above, to stay present and avoid letting the emotions take over.
Steer Clear of Negativity
When engaged in conflict, one tends to see everything negative about the relationship. Your mind may begin to draw up a list of all that is wrong and you might even start to doubt the relationship entirely. After all, you might think that if so much is faulty, maybe you didn’t belong together in the first place.
Steer clear of this type of negativity. When taken out of context, the negative seems far greater than it actually is. Issues that are relatively minor in the context of your healthy relationship can seem insurmountable. Put these thoughts aside for when you are more emotionally grounded and focus, instead, on resolving the current issue.
Listen and Try Understanding
It is difficult to listen and to remain understanding during a conflict, but it is essential for managing conflict in an effective way. When your mind goes off finding proofs that you are right and your partner is wrong, bring it back and try to hear what they are saying. Try to interpret it in a kind, forgiving way; hearing what is really bothering them rather than focusing on how what they are saying bothers you.
Be Open to Forgiveness
Even if they have wronged you, be open to forgiveness. Without forgiveness, conflict cannot be fully resolved. Yes, they may have hurt you, but if it is in the context of a loving relationship in which they recognize your needs; forgiveness will allow you both to grow and move on.
Make “Resolving Conflict” the Priority
Always keep in mind that resolving the conflict is the priority. You don’t need to prove that you are right and that they are wrong. It is not you against them, but you and them against the problem.
Knowing When To Let Things Go
Conflict avoidance is generally not recommended. However, sometimes letting things go is key to managing conflict in a relationship. When your partner is stressed about work or family, they may project their frustration onto you. Try to acknowledge when the real issue has nothing to do with you, rather than trying to get to the heart of it through discussion or argument.
If they keep snapping and it is really bothering you, acknowledge aloud that you understand they are under stress and that you are there for them, instead of berating them for being unkind.
Managing conflict effectively is the key to maintaining a healthy relationship. Without conflict, you will not learn about what really makes your partner tick; and by working through it constructively, you can grow as a couple.