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Managing Conflict in Your Relationship
Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.

Four years ago Dan sustained a devastating personal injury with permanent impairments. He had been married to Sheila for several years before his accident and both he and his wife enjoyed their relationship and the joy that it brought them. Since his injury however, Dan had become increasingly demanding of Shiela often expressing anger and dissatisfaction with the care that she provided to him and how she cleaned their home.

Shiela, on the other hand, was often critical and demeaning to her husband. They could both be mean and hurtful in their attacks on each other. As a result of their frustration, Dan and Sheila often went several days without speaking and at other times, small issues would easily blow up into major disagreements. Both were becoming increasingly distant from each other and questioned the future of their marriage.

This short case report is an example of how easily a relationship can be damaged and placed in jeopardy. Without a change in how this couple manages conflict, a separation or divorce seems likely. Unfortunately, resolving differences and ultimately saving their relationship never seemed like a priority. Managing conflict was a skill they never learned.

For most people, a relationship with a spouse or special person is one of our most prized and valuable assets. A relationship provides a feeling of completeness and a general sense of well being. According to many researchers, if a relationship is healthy there is a far greater likelihood that an individual will be more satisfied with life, more productive at work and more likely to be happy. A healthy relationship even results in better physical health.

Conflict and arguments are an inevitable part of any close relationship. It is how the couple manages a dispute that determines the stability of the relationship. Handling conflict is a skill which can be learned. It requires practice, discipline and self-control.

In the midst of conflict, most people forget the overall goal in addressing the conflict: Having your partner understand your feelings and resolving the disagreement. The more a couple can keep this goal in mind the less likely either will engage in criticism, yelling or name-calling. These behaviors only fuel the conflict.

In fact, underneath many arguments, there is at least one person in the relationship who feels neglected and devalued. The natural balance of the relationship has been lost. Often, conflicts in a relationship are an attempt to be heard, to be valued and to re-establish the equilibrium that once existed.

We all want to be able to feel cared about and appreciated. If one member of a couple begins to feel neglected, these concerns need to be raised before they become too great. By keeping in close touch with each other, feelings can be discussed before they become too emotionally charged and explosive.

Although there are no sure bets on how to keep a relationship healthy, there are some important things to remember in managing conflict in your relationship. Changing the way you and your partner argue is not easy, but it can be done. You can choose to express your feelings in a more constructive manner that can build closeness, understanding and trust. Here are some important tips in managing conflict in your relationship:

Remember that both people contribute to the conflict. An argument is never the result of one individual alone. Both people bring issues to the relationship and react in ways that contribute to the conflict. It is important for each person to understand and identify triggers that may spark old resentments or intensify emotions.Say what you feel, not what the other person is. Rather than focusing on what the other person did wrong or blaming your partner for a problem, talk about your feelings. It is important to communicate how the situation has made you feel and how you are trying to handle it. Never call the other person a name! If you can stay focused on yourself and start your sentences with “I” rather than “You”, you have come a long way in resolving a dispute.

Keep your pride out of an argument. Often people have difficulty compromising and reaching a middle ground because of pride. Keep in mind that resolving conflict is not about proving something or seeing who is right or wrong. Try to put your pride aside in an argument and focus on what you need to do in order to feel better. Be willing to apologize. It takes a strong person to be able to apologize or to admit that a mistake has been made. At other times, when necessary, be willing to forgive.

Don’t try to control your partner. Don’t tell the other person how to behave or what they need to do. None of us like to be treated as a child. (Once was enough.) Treating someone like a child simply encourages him or her to act in the opposite way and to rebel. Just because you think in a certain way or behave in a certain way, doesn’t mean the other person should do the same.

Focus on the present and don’t drag up old unresolved problems from the past. Focus on the current issue and how it makes you feel now. Past conflicts are over and done with. Holding on to old grudges and old hurt is unproductive and destructive. Those issues may never get resolved and you need to let go of them. Most times, letting go of an old issue is something you must do internally. If you are unable to let these unresolved issues go, and they are consistently hurting your relationship, you may want to talk with a professional.

Take time out when you need it. Trying to resolve conflict when emotions are high is usually a losing battle. If you feel your anger escalating, it may be best to walk away, take some time to cool off and plan on discussing this issue at a later time. Think about how you feel before you try to resolve a problem. Don’t shoot from the hip. Taking time out should be used whenever necessary. The goal during a time out is to calm down, so that you and your partner will be able to listen and discuss the concerns of each other.

Don’t shout in an argument. No conflict can get resolved if one person is shouting. Shouting at each other is intimidating and a struggle for power. Give feedback to the other person about the tone of their voice. If the two of you can’t discuss the issue in a calm voice, this is an indication that emotions are out of control and a resolution is not possible at the present time. Express your feelings calmly and in control.

Don’t enter a conflict when alcohol is a factor. If one or both individuals have been drinking alcohol, this is not a time to deal with conflict, misunderstandings or differences of opinion. Under these conditions, anything can be said and anything can happen. With alcohol, there is a better chance of escalating the problem than resolving it. Sometimes it may be helpful to see if there is a pattern between alcohol use and conflict. Many couples discover that alcohol use is a factor in many of their conflicts and disagreements.

Understand that not everything can be resolved. Many times people simply feel differently about an issue. We have different opinions, different ways of handling a situation and different feelings. Be willing to acknowledge that having these different opinions are OK. Couples can live together and be happy in site of unresolved conflict. No one should feel forced or coerced into change. Sometimes, just accepting that there are differences of opinion is sufficient.

In summary, managing conflict requires a variety of skills and a commitment to preserve the relationship. All relationships require negotiations, compromise and sharing. Conflict is inevitable. Learning to manage this conflict and to resolve disagreements is an important skill necessary for the health of any relationship.

Regardless of how conflicts have been resolved in the past, you can decide to make some changes. You can choose to listen more carefully, be more understanding and be more sensitive to each other’s feelings. Over time, trust must be established. These are critical steps in maintaining a positive relationship.

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