Knowing how to handle arguments in a relationship is essential to a healthy, happy relationship. When we don’t have this knowledge of conflict resolution in relationships, arguments can become hurtful and trust in a relationship can begin to break down. Even when there is a clear, open line of communication, some conflict is inevitable. That is actually a sign of a healthy relationship (I will explain why below). Conflict resolution in relationships is an essential skill necessary to ensure that you have a long and healthy relationship.
What is Conflict?
This may seem like an obvious question, but some people were raised to believe that any confrontation is “bad”. Some people view conflict as a threat to the core of a relationship and will avoid it at any cost. Unfortunately, this well-meaning strategy, meant to preserve a relationship, can actually ultimately lead to its downfall. It is important to know how to handle arguments in a relationship, but also to trust that conflicts and strategies for dealing with conflict are essential parts of all relationships. When there is never conflict, you are probably not communicating.
Conflict is simply when two people see something differently and/or disagree on how to handle a given situation. It can be trivial such as how to put the cans in the cupboard or it can be much more serious such as how to raise the kids.
Why is Conflict Inevitable?
Since we are each individuals, it would be unnatural if we agreed on everything and so it is quite normal that if we are actually trusting our partner with the truth about what we think and feel, it is inevitable that conflict will arise. We need only figure out what is the best way to resolve conflicts. When two people are communicating honestly, conflict is inevitable because no two people agree 100% of the time on anything. Even very close friends do not always see eye to eye.
Why bring it up?
A lot of people like to avoid conflict rather than risk upsetting their partner, particularly over something trivial. While this seems thoughtful, it actually is a problematic strategy. On the one hand, it is true that it would be a waste of time to bother to disagree over every little thing. However, if it is enough to irritate you, it is not a “little thing”.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous buddhist monk, has discussed in his books the concept of mental formations. The latter link is to a site that explains them in very great Buddhist detail, but his books seem to explain them more simply. To my understanding, whenever we have a conflict with another person, it creates a “mental formation” and if that mental formation is not resolved, it grows inside of us. We might have another conflict and another mental formation is created and is added to the first one and so forth.
I realize this is a Buddhist concept, but modern psychology has much to learn from Eastern religion, which is something we have discovered in the past few decades. I think most people who bottle up their feelings will agree that it feels like there is an almost tangible “formation” inside of them.
If we allow these formations to get too big, it is very difficult to deal with the issues in a relationship because so much anger and resentment has built up over time. You might need to seek counselling and you might even need to end the relationship over things that could have been sorted out when they were little, tiny problems.
The Rules of a Fair Fight in Relationships
So conflict is important, but many of us were raised to either passively avoid conflict, to deal with conflict passive-aggressively, or to behave aggressively. What I refer to as the rules of a fair fight are actually the ways to assertively deal with conflict as it arises.
Before it arises, certain things are important: your attitude towards your partner should be one of compassion and curiosity rather than assuming they are doing something simply to annoy you or because they are foolish. This may seem obvious, but in the moment, sometimes we get angry and those feelings can take over.
If you feel extremely angry, it might be time to do some breathing exercises, go for a walk, or take care of that anger in any way you see fit. The time to discuss a conflict with your partner is when you are at least somewhat calm.
Rules for a fair fight:
- Figure out precisely what is bothering you. Be very specific.
- Stick to this topic. Do not discuss things your partner has done in the past.
- Try not to clam up. Be open and honest about your thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner.
- Stay away from language such as “you always” and “you never”. You always make a mess. You never do your share of the dishes. These types of phrases incite anger and do not lead to conflict resolution. Also, they are usually not true. For example, your partner might make a mess MOST of the time, but not always. Still, it is also not very productive to even use the phrase “most of the time”. Instead, as I mentioned, stick to this particular issue, this particular time.
- Work on resolving the issue. This means attacking the issue, not the person. For example, “When you chew with your mouth open, it bothers me,” instead of, “You are so disgusting. How can you chew with your mouth open? What are you, a cow?”
- Be respectful. Treat the other person with care, respect, and dignity. This means that you do not yell, scream, put the other person down, or use degrading language. Need I say that violence is out of the question?
- Allow the person some time to change if change is necessary. For example, if your partner leaves his or her socks all around the house and this bothers you, let them know it bothers you. Then, maybe together, you can think of a solution such as having a decorative little sock hamper in each room (sometimes, to get along, one has to think outside the box a little). If you find your partner is still not putting his or her socks in the lovely hamper provided, just gently remind them and remember to be respectful and stay away from phrases like “stinky old socks” even if they are true.
- Take personal responsibility. This is hard because it is sometimes tempting to villainize the other person and think of ourselves as being above reproach. However, it is important to acknowledge any part we play in the problem.
- Don’t play the blame game. This is really an expansion on some of the other points, but some couples really get into blaming each other and remember to stick to the issue rather than villainizing your partner.
- If you have to make an ultimatum, make it a fair one. For example, instead of, “I am breaking up with you if I see one more sock on the floor,” you might say, “I would really like to see you using the sock hampers by the end of the month. What can you do to remind yourself to do that?”
- If things get heated, and I know my sock example is a little silly, but things might get heated over something more serious, then you might want to call a time out. It is okay to take some time to cool down and agree to discuss the issue when you are both calmer. Just remember to return to the table to discuss the issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet.
The key to longevity, peace, and contentment in a relationship is the ability to effectively deal with conflict. To make this work effectively, both partners have to agree to use these rules when dealing with conflict. That is very important.
It can take practice to learn how to do this, particularly if you were not raised in a very healthy environment. Be patient with yourself and with your partner. If you find yourself (or your partner) breaking one of these rules, please try not to get angry. Instead, gently point it out. If your partner points out that you have broken a rule, please try to take personal responsibility and acknowledge the error so that you can progress fruitfully in the discussion.
What some people don’t realize is that conflict has a purpose and a direction. It is not about one person winning and the other person losing. Rather, it is about two people coming together to better understand each other’s perspective and negotiating a solution that will work well for both parties.
In my sock conflict example, one person simply felt too lazy to put his or her socks away. The solution was a sock hamper in each room so that the person could just toss the socks in the hamper, regardless of which room he or she was in. This made both people happy because one person did not have to see dirty socks everywhere and the other did not have to actually put his or her socks away after returning home from work exhausted. This is what we would call a win-win solution and that is the ultimate goal of conflict resolution.
There are many great books on resolving conflict. Some focus on conflict resolution in general. Others specifically discuss conflict resolution within the context of a romantic relationship. The latter link was to a book by Gary Chapman, who wrote a very excellent and popular book called, “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts“. If you have not read it, I recommend it.