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Relationship Science

What are Some Healthy Ways to Handle Conflict in a Relationship?

Last updated on July 5, 2023

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it”

Mahatma Gandhi


     Conflict is natural. Whether in our way of life, nature, and the animal kingdom or internally (our mental state) conflict has always, and will always be ever present. The conflicts we are a part of often range in severity. Sometimes we have the internal conflict of whether to get a latte or an americano, whether we speak to our boss about the amount of work that is being given to us, or, more often than not, facing a conflict with the one person we wish we didn’t argue with — our loved one. No two people are precisely the same, you will never find a partner that is exactly like you because, naturally, we are all different. Sometimes the difference is small, sometimes it can be vast but we are all different. In the natural world conflict is resolved through physical confrontation, generally ending with only one party walking away. Human relationships do not work this way, and many people find the idea of conflict intimidating, daunting, and a terrifying prospect. How you handle any conflict in your relationship will determine whether your relationship stands the test of time or comes to an abrupt end. Some relationships come to an end over conflict when this could be avoided. It is not the conflict itself that ends or damages the relationship but how one or both parties handle the conflict. You and your partner must find a way of handling conflict in a calm, healthy manner so that your relationship can continue, grow and strengthen. To fully appreciate how to handle conflict healthily we must first understand the ways that can cause damage. It is also important to note ways that may appear a good, healthy way but are damaging the relationship further. First, we will investigate how conflicts are handled in an unhealthy or incorrect manner and then we will focus on how you can handle conflict in a way that is healthy and effective. 

How To Not Handle Conflict

    Many people choose ways of handling conflict that end up having a detrimental effect on their relationship, sometimes to the point that the relationship ends. Below are ways you should avoid when dealing with conflict. Some of them may come as a surprise but consider them next time there is conflict in your relationship.

Avoiding conflict altogether — this one may come as a surprise but trying to avoid conflict altogether is not a good way of handling conflict. If you do not discuss your frustrations or problems you allow them to fester and build up. This causes avoidable tension and frustration. Eventually, this tactic will lead to the person containing their frustrations exploding and voicing them in a way that is not meant, aggressive or hurtful. It may appear that avoiding conflict is less stressful but all that happens is a bigger, angrier argument that damages trust and the relationship as a whole. Well-known psychologist, Harriet B. Braiker explains that:

“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is *not* the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and poor communication”

What she is saying is that avoiding conflict completely does not mean your relationship is successful. It means that there are other, more serious, issues and problems as you are unwilling to communicate your feelings to your partner. In simple terms, avoid conflict avoidance!

  • Defensive behavior. This is something we are all guilty of at some point in any relationship, whether loving or work-related. However, this is not a healthy way of handling any sort of conflict. If you are acting in a defensive way you will always deny ever doing anything wrong and will work hard to avoid the possibility that you are contributing to the problem. Your partner will feel that they are not listened to and the conflict will, more likely, go unresolved. It is human nature to protect ourselves, especially when we feel under attack but this natural reflex to avoid being hurt can cause long-term damage to your mental state, your partner's emotional state, and your relationship as a whole. 
  • Overgeneralizing. When an issue arises that some people do not like they often begin blowing things out of proportion. You will hear sentences start with “You’re always…” or “You never….”. If the person saying this, whether you or not, took a moment to consider whether these are true they would probably realize that they are exaggerating a great deal. This over or sweeping generalization does not solve anything. It will make things a lot worse as the other person will feel hurt as this is not normally the way they behave. In line with this is bringing up past conflicts as a way of throwing the discussion off-topic. All this does is cause more negativity, more anxiety, and more conflict. Both of these stand in the way of you resolving the conflict in question. They will only increase the amount of conflict, lessen your trust in each other and create so much negativity that the relationship will be at risk. 
  • Being right. It is human nature to believe that what we think is true or right is right or true. If one person always thinks that there is a wrong and right way to look at things and that their way is 100% true it will cause more conflict. If you want to handle conflict healthily you should not insist that your thought process is right and the only way to think. This will only lead to more conflict, especially if neither of you is capable of seeing things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Psychoanalyzing, mind reading, making assumptions. If you are in the middle of a conflict with your partner it is not wise to make assumptions and approach the conflict as if you know what your partner is thinking or feeling based on your interpretations of their actions. In a conflict, your assumption will always be that their feelings, actions, or emotions are negative. Don’t just assume that your partner is late because they do not care enough to be on time. Assuming that you know what your partner is thinking or feeling during a conflict will make things as worse as you will, more often than not, be wrong. Making such assumptions will make the conflict worse as your partner will become frustrated and hurt by you not allowing them to express how they feel. 
  • The blame game. Some people choose to handle conflict by blaming, attacking, and criticizing the other person. They feel that if they show any weakness it will damage their credibility and so avoid doing so as much as possible. Instead, they will point fault at the other person, shaming them into backing down. This is not a healthy way of handling conflict as the other person will lose trust, believe that their feelings are not important (to their partner), and will, whether intentionally or not, respond in the same way. Blaming someone will not always make the other person back down, it can cause more conflict to arise and make things worse. The other possible outcome is that the other person responds in the same way, causing the conflict to exacerbate and create an even bigger rift.
  • Stonewalling. Many people believe that if their partner wants to discuss any troubling issues they should stonewall, or refuse to listen and talk about the situation. This will solve nothing as it is very disrespectful and can even create contempt. Not only does stonewalling cause issues it will also provide the perfect environment for the underlying conflict to fester and grow.
  • Refusing to compromise. Compromise is a key part of all our lives. We have to make compromises with colleagues, ourselves, and our loved ones. When making compromises in this way we are, more often than not, happy to oblige. However, when conflict arises many people have the thought process that they are completely right, their partner is wrong, and that they will not compromise. Refusing to compromise will cause the conflict to become worse. A lack of compromise is also unhealthy as it shows your partner that you do not see their opinions as valuable and that you do not respect them enough to consider that they are right or that you could both find a way to resolve the conflict peacefully.

So, conflict can, and often is, handled in a very unhealthy way that not only causes any contentious issues to go unresolved but creates new issues. When relationships come to an end because of conflict it is not always the issue itself that causes the relationship to break down. It is often how the conflict is handled that causes a relationship to fall apart. It is important to remember, during any conflict, to take a moment and think carefully about how you are going to work through the issues at hand. We will now look at ways in which conflict can be approached, handled, and resolved in a healthy way that will not put your relationship at risk!

Healthy Ways to Handle Conflict

Handling conflict in a healthy way is crucial for maintaining a strong and harmonious relationship. Here are some healthy ways to handle conflict:

  • Cultivate and create a healthy response. When faced with stressful situations we all, by nature, revert back to our ‘reptile brain’ which, in basic terms, means we act on automatic impulse i.e. fight or flight. What you need to do when a conflict arises is to take stock of your stress level, try and enter into your prefrontal cortex (this allows you to think rationally). It would help if you relieved yourself of the stress you are feeling. This can be done physically by taking deep breaths. While doing this, you should consider which emotion you are feeling. Are you angry? Scared? You need to make sure you do not let your emotions take control of you. If you feel you need time to take stock of yourself and prepare yourself then take this time. A big part of resolving conflict in a healthy way is the ability to understand how you are feeling, regulate yourself, and ensure you are capable of communicating your needs and feelings. One thing to remember is that if you need time, you communicate this with your partner. Make sure they know that you want to resolve the conflict and that you do not want to make things worse. Ensure you make it clear to them that you will resolve this conflict together and in a healthy way but need time to collect yourself. 
  • Think before you act. "Before you react, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you criticize, wait. Before you quit, try." (Ernest Hemingway) During any conflict, you should be honest with yourself. Make sure you honestly assess the situation and take a bit of time to think. Think carefully about the conflict and your part to play in it. Ensure you honestly consider the cause of the conflict and how you may have contributed to its creation. While there are times the conflict is one person's fault, it is much more common for the conflict to arise because of both parties involved. Both people involved in the conflict need to consider how they have contributed to the conflict and be honest with themselves and each other. For the conflict to be resolved in a healthy way you both need to start sentences with “I know that I did….” or “I am sorry that I….”. If you are honest with each other about your part of the conflict you will resolve it much quicker and in a healthy, fair, and honest way.
  • Decide what you want to say and figure out how to say it. Blaming the other person will get you nowhere. It is important that you are honest with your partner, tell them what is working for you and what the issue is. You also need to take responsibility for your part in the conflict and make it known that you understand this. Remember that it can sometimes be a good idea to compose yourself and decide what you want to say. Taking yourself away from the situation and allowing yourself to think for time will help you approach the conflict in a more calm, composed, and honest manner. If something that has been said has made you angry you need to take time to consider what you want to say and how you want to say it. Be honest with your partner and explain to them that you would like some thinking time, some time to consider what you want to say, and that you do not want to ‘blindly react’ to the issue. Reassure them that you will definitely discuss the conflict but that you want to do so in a calm, healthy way. Not only will they want to do the same but they will respect the fact you want to take the time to resolve the conflict healthily by thinking carefully about what you both want to say and how you both approach it. 
  • Really make sure you listen. "It is not the hearing that improves life, but the listening". Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Hungarian-American Psychologist). It is very true that many people hear but do not listen. This may sound ridiculous as many people believe that hearing and listening are the same thing. However, we hear thousands of things every day. We hear the noises of cars driving past, the chatting between friends at a nearby table, or the singer in a nearby pub. However, we do not listen to these noises, they are merely background noises that we are aware of. In a conflict, many people hear what the other person is saying but do not actually listen. If you do not understand something the other person is saying then ask clarifying questions, politely! It is important to remember that you do not have to agree with what your partner is saying but you can be empathetic and make a sincere effort to understand their point of view. If your partner is angry with you about something it is important that you listen carefully and see it through their eyes. Do not get defensive, listen. If you disagree then say so in a calm, polite way. Listening is key to solving the conflict in a healthy way as you will both understand why the conflict has arisen and, potentially, how to resolve it. 

  • Work towards an understanding. During any type of conflict, the temptation to fight to prove that your perspective, your opinion, or your argument is correct can be overwhelming. However, in order for a conflict to be resolved in an effective, healthy manner you must remember that the resolution is not about winning or losing. Instead, you must both focus on finding a way to a mutual understanding or, at the very least, mutual respect. If you feel that the conversation is going round and round in circles and that a resolution appears to be unattainable for the time being, it is okay to end the conversation and revisit it later. You can say, politely, “This conversation is not getting us anywhere close to resolving this issue. We should agree to disagree for the moment and come back to this another time”. This is completely acceptable and, hopefully, your partner will agree. As long as you both agree that revisiting the conversation at a later time will be productive and helpful you are still working towards a resolution. Healthy conflict resolution only comes about if both parties are willing to work towards a resolution in the first place. This can only take place if you both understand that you might not be right, that you are part of the reason for the conflict and that a compromise is necessary. 

  • Have a conversation without pointing blame. When a conflict arises most people become very defensive and end up openly blaming their partner.  This only causes conflict to worsen as the person being blamed will then become defensive and any further conversation will, most likely, be impossible to achieve. A better way to approach this is to use a combination of I statements and behavior descriptions. The I statements will focus on how you feel, without pointing blame at your partner, while the behaviour descriptions will focus on a specific behavior your partner is engaging in rather than highlighting or creating a character flaw. It is important to remember that if you want to resolve a conflict you do not want to make it worse by assassinating your partner's character. Be direct, be honest but do not blame!

  • Pick your battles and do not divert. It is common that, during a conflict, many couples will bring up any and all past, or present, issues and throw them at each other. In the process they completely move away from the conflict at hand and, in the long run, make things worse. Think about it this way. You decide that you want to think of ways to save your money. It would not be constructive that, while doing this, you decide to try and exercise more, think of ways of dealing with that awkward situation at work, and start trying to clean out your garage. In short, you would not try and solve all of these problems at the same time because it is impossible and you will not be able to complete them all to a decent standard. If you are in a conflict with your partner you should not bring up other, different issues because you cannot solve them healthily all at once. Focus on the issue at hand and make sure a healthy resolution is found before trying to solve any other problems you may be having. 

  • Take a different perspective. As well as listening to your partner you need to take their perspective into account. In doing so this should help you to understand where they are coming from. People that are able to do this are less likely to become angry during a conflict. In taking their point of view into account you can see why they think the way they do but more importantly you will have some understanding of how they view your involvement in the conflict. So, make sure to listen carefully to your partner and try and see where they are coming from in order to resolve your conflict healthily!

  • Contempt is not the answer. Let’s be honest, conflict is a negative occurrence. During a conflict, we have all been guilty of saying things we did not mean just as a way of getting our point across. However, one of the worst things to do during a conflict is to show your partner contempt, to belittle them. This involves things like rolling your eyes when they say something or smirking. Not only is this behaviour very disrespectful but it also gives the impression that you are disgusted with your partner. Contempt makes any attempt at a real, healthy conversation almost impossible and is likely to make your partner angry rather than a resolution being found. Do not act with contempt, keep smirks and eye-rolling away and make sure your partner does not feel belittled if you want to solve a conflict in a healthy way. It is also important to make sure you are not treated with contempt. This does not mean that you respond to contemptuous remarks or act in an angry way. Merely explain to your partner that you are hurt by their belittling remarks or rude facial expressions and that you would like to resolve the conflict without it getting out of hand. 

  • Do not become overwhelmed with negativity. When a partner is acting negatively towards you during a conflict it is very hard to not get sucked in a reciprocate. However, we all know that indulging in this urge will only make the conflict worse and will probably create new conflicts. If this occurs then the conflict becomes a game of negativity tennis and the possibility of reaching a resolution becomes less and less likely. If your partner is being exceptionally negative, try and use the approaches we have already mentioned (see it from their perspective, take a time out, really listen) and you will find that they will begin to calm down quicker. However, make sure you still respond and are clear about your views, feelings, and opinions without making them feel worse. In the same way as “misery loves company”, negativity loves a dueling partner. Do not let negativity overwhelm your conflict and you will find a resolution much easier to find!

We have given you many tools to ensure any conflict you and your partner have can be resolved in a healthy, respectful way. Many of the negative ways people deal with conflict are, unfortunately, human nature. Our thought process is always to protect ourselves, fight or flight, but sometimes we need to try and step away from this in order to resolve any conflict in a healthy way.

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