How to resolve conflict in your relationship
Even the strongest marriage can have conflict. Maybe it’s a big difference of opinion, such as what colour to paint the bedroom. Or it could be a simple argument about who didn't replace the toilet paper after it ran out.
Either way, having disagreements is normal.
But if a simple disagreement isn't resolved, it can turn into an unhealthy fight.
So we asked relationship expert Megan Luscombe to clearly lay out what healthy conflict is, common causes of relationship conflict, and a basic resolution strategy.
Argument vs. conflict
Megan starts by saying that there’s a difference between fighting and healthy conflict.
“Fighting is generally a yelling match of ‘You vs. Me’,” she explains. “It may even include verbal abuse, such as swearing and attacking each other. Conflict can still be tense, but it’s more about discussing the disagreement. The focus is on an outcome that’s as beneficial to everyone as possible.”
And when it comes to healthy conflict, she says the focus needs to be on the conflict’s context – not on how often you argue.
“Healthy conflict should bring couples together. It involves discussing the issue with respect,” Megan adds.
“Unhealthy fighting often pushes couples apart because it lacks that respect.” It’s the kind of fight that can leave you wondering whether it's better to be single than married.
Not sure whether you’re experiencing healthy conflict or something more? Here are some red flags Megan recommends watching out for from a partner:
- verbal (swearing) or physical abuse
- saying they’re listening when they aren’t
- saying they’ll change and not doing so
- not being accountable
- exclusively blaming the other person
If these sound familiar, and you’re not sure what to do next, start by checking out this information page on the Australian Government’s website.
Common causes of conflict
What you argue about as a couple will depend on your own personal situation, but there are common themes. A Relationships Australia survey showed three key conflict themes: stress, work pressures and lack of time together. More specific relationship conflict examples could include:
- a partner losing their job and income, and the stress that comes with not being able to pay the bills
- work pressures that come from a negative workplace relationship, which then filter through into the home
- longer working hours, mismatched schedules or other priorities that leave couples with little time to spend together
Lack of intimate time together can also increase the stress on a relationship. This could be because the couple doesn’t spend enough time together generally, or because one person has a lower sex drive.
What’s the difference between conflict resolution and management?
Healthy conflict resolution is about more than just figuring out the other person’s love language and then using that. Rather, Megan says that it’s about first understanding the real issue, and then trying to find a strategy to resolve it.
Of course, completely resolving the issue is usually the best outcome, but it’s not always possible. In such cases, couples can use conflict management to help.
Megan explains that conflict management involves using longer-term strategies in situations where the conflict can’t be sorted out quickly. It tries to find a way for everyone to work together despite not fully resolving the issue, while reducing the negative side effects of not having resolved it.
Basic relationship conflict resolution in 4 steps
Perhaps these distinctions all sound great in theory. But how does relationship conflict resolution work in practice? Here are some strategies to help you find the right solution:
- Communicate openly. If everyone isn’t honest about the situation and how it affects them, nothing can be fully resolved.
- Listen attentively. If you don’t take in what your partner tries to communicate to you, resolution will be almost impossible. Respect the effort they make to open up, and pay attention to what they say and how they say it.
- Look for a solution together. Once everyone has expressed their viewpoint, you can both put time and effort into working out a solution together. Simply hearing or acknowledging the other person’s perspective can be a step towards that resolution. Sometimes, an obvious way forward will quickly present itself, while at other times, the solution may take a bit more effort and discussion.
- Plan a way forward together. Once you’ve come up with some possible solutions, make a plan to enact one. Then see whether it helps. If one solution doesn't work within an agreed timeframe, move to the next one.
Moving forward in a better way
“Using the right conflict resolution strategies should help make your relationship better, not worse,” concludes Megan.
However, if you’re both putting in respect and effort, but still struggling with relationship conflict, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
Megan says that the important thing is to recognise that this doesn't mean you’ve failed. It simply means you aren't willing to give up yet.
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Megan Luscombe is a Life + Relationships Coach who specialises in helping people take ownership of their lives and relationships. Her passion for teaching boundary-setting, confidence-building and self-doubt elimination is the driving force behind her practice.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board August 2021.