Not seeing eye-to-eye with your partner can be less stressful when you have a toolkit of conflict resolution strategies.
Conflict is natural, and it doesn’t have to be a negative force in your romantic relationship. It can facilitate learning about one another, open your mind to new ideas, and help you grow together.
When you and your partner disagree and don’t resolve the conflict, however, important topics may get pushed aside or ignored instead. Prolonged or repetitive friction or conflict can have effects similar to long-term stress, and it can slowly impact your connection.
Conflict resolution in relationships is key to lasting and meaningful bonds.
Friction and arguments can be uncomfortable, but they don’t have to last indefinitely.
Developing specific conflict resolution strategies can help turn disagreements with your partner into growth opportunities for both.
Here are specific strategies for couples to overcome conflict and challenges:
1. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect
Randy Brazzel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Houston, explains that going into an argument with the goal of proving your partner wrong can be a recipe for resentment.
To settle disagreements and reach healthy conflict resolution, he recommends that both partners agree to treat each other respectfully with “fair fighting rules.”
These conflict resolution rules may include:
- no cussing
- no name-calling
- no raising your voice or yelling
- no direct or indirect violent behavior
- no going off-topic until it’s resolved
- looking each other in the eyes when talking
- cooling off and trying again later when things heat up
“Without feeling respected, it is hard for us to communicate openly,” says Brazzel. “If you want honest dialogue you have to treat each other with respect and kindness. Everyone wins when there is an atmosphere of mutual respect.”
Mutual respect makes room for feeling safe and cared for in the relationship.
2. Recentering when things get emotional
It’s OK to be passionate about your stance on life. Sometimes emotions can come out full force when you’re feeling challenged on that stance, though.
Heather Browne, a psychotherapist from Los Angeles, indicates stepping back from the conflict if either party is feeling overwhelmed can be important.
“Say to the other, ‘I want you to know that you are more important to me than this issue. Can you receive that?’,” advises Browne.
If you notice your partner is becoming more upset during the argument, you can also ask them, “How can I help you feel safer right now?”
These questions and statements can be important reminders — to both of you — that your partner isn’t your enemy. This is someone you care about, even in moments when you’re at odds.
Other conflict-resolution gestures Browne recommends include:
- offering a hug if that’s something you know won’t upset the other person
- telling your partner you love them
- sharing that you want to work through this but it’s OK if it takes some time
- reminding them you’re not deliberately trying to frustrate them
- offering to listen without critique
Developing emotional regulation skills can also help prevent and resolve fights with your partner.
3. Addressing protective behaviors
“While in conflict, remember that both partners are looking to protect themselves,” says Michele Paiva, a practitioner of Zen-Buddhism in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
“We protect ourselves because inside, we are still the children we once were, and when stressed, we go to the coping strategies that we learned as a child and that continue to help us cope,” she explains.
Paiva says everyone’s protective behaviors can look different. Sometimes they can look like emotional distancing or putting up walls.
“Conflict is expected and does not mean your partner does not love you,” she adds. “In fact, all relationships brimming with love have some form of conflict.”
When you anticipate protective behaviors from your partner, Paiva indicates you’re able to respond more compassionately toward them, rather than taking it as a personal attack.
Chances are you’ve seen a pattern of protective behaviors in your partner in the past. Some common behaviors to watch for include:
- shutting down during a conversation
- emotional distancing
This doesn’t mean you should allow toxic behaviors during conflict simply because you recognize them as protective behaviors. It might not be your place to call them out, either.
Consider taking these behaviors as a guide to engage or disengage at certain times.
When you do this, you may be able to recognize what’s happening without escalating the argument because you feel attacked.
If your partner’s behavior becomes unacceptable when emotions are high, it’s OK to let them know they’ve crossed a boundary and you can come back to the conversation when everyone is calm.
4. Validating feelings
“When trying to resolve an argument, it is important to validate the feelings your partner has before trying to correct any misperceptions or misunderstandings,” says Brazzel.
When you tell someone they’re wrong at the start, it may only make them feel misunderstood and unheard. This won’t likely lead to conflict resolution.
Acknowledging your partner’s feelings, first, can avoid starting the conflict in a state of resentment and defensiveness.
You can help validate your partner’s feelings by:
- not interrupting while they explain how they feel
- nodding while they talk
- making eye contact
- keeping a neutral or thoughtful expression
- making affirmative statements like “I understand,” “that’s a good point,” or, “yes, that makes sense.”
- thanking them for expressing their thoughts
- repeating to them what you’ve heard
- asking questions about what they said
5. Seeking the root cause of conflict
Paiva suggests taking time during conflict to question what challenges may be creating the issue.
“Freedom is the root of most happiness,” she says. “Think of social justice issues of any marginalized group; the belly of it contains an element of lack of equality; equality is freedom.
“In your relationship, in conflict, one or both individuals feel some lack of freedom. Try to look toward that, rather than the topical conflict.”
You can help uncover the root causes of conflict by asking your partner questions like:
- Do you have needs that you feel aren’t being met?
- What changes do you think would help resolve this conflict?
- How can I help you feel better/safer?
- Is there something I do that makes you feel invalidated?
6. Seeking professional help
It’s OK to ask for a professional mediator when relationship conflict feels overwhelming.
Attending couples therapy may help work on specific strategies to solve conflicts in the relationship and also prevent them.
Even the strongest and healthiest relationships may face conflict from time to time. It’s natural to not always share thoughts and opinions with your partner, or to have arguments from time to time.
How you approach conflict resolution in your relationship, however, may directly impact the health of your bond.
Broadening your conflict resolution skills can help you and your partner approach disagreements with kindness and compassion, rather than with resentment and defensiveness.