How to Have Healthy Conflict in Your Relationship

Once we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in a new relationship, our focus is generally on keeping it that way — we want to make the first few months of new relationship energy last as long as possible and keep things as idyllic as possible. What this often translates to, whether we mean for it to happen or not, is trying to avoid fights — keeping ourselves in perfect agreement as much as possible and never having any conflict whatsoever.

Not only is this not necessarily what’s best for you — I actually think it’s good to be “messy” early on in a relationship — it’s not necessarily what’s best for your relationship. Although of course fighting doesn’t usually feel fun, it’s possible for conflict to be generative and constructive, facilitating conversations or change that really need to happen in your relationship, not punitive or harmful. I understand that many of us didn’t have childhood homes or earlier relationships where that was the case, and wanting to avoid conflict makes sense. However, doing so may cause your relationship to stagnate at best, and devolve into passive aggression and resentment at worst — so here’s my advice for instead making sure your conflict is healthy and productive.

Commit to communicating directly and listening actively


Fights aren’t always when we’re at our communicative best. We may be overly appeasing, trying to end the argument as soon as possible; we may freeze up or get quiet, and intentionally or unintentionally stonewall our partner; we may say things we don’t mean or let our emotions get the best of us. While these things are all understandable, the times when it’s the hardest are when it’s most important to try our best to be the most skilled listeners and communicators we can be.

First, take care to communicate clearly and directly — you can and should be kind and respectful while doing this, but don’t use snide, low blows, or passive-aggressive hints. It’s the difference between saying “Of course, you have plans with Julie tonight, I don’t know what I expected,” and “I have to be honest and tell you that I feel hurt you made plans with Julie on the anniversary of my father’s death; I was hoping you would be available to stay with me since I always feel sensitive and need some emotional support on this day.”

When your partner is speaking, make sure you’re actively listening to what they’re saying. Try to understand their perspective and avoid interrupting them, and as much as possible focus deeply on their perspective rather than letting your attention drift to what you want to say next. Conflict can be generative when both parties view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. This means being open to feedback, reflecting on what can be done differently in the future, and using the conflict as a way to improve the relationship.

Focus on the issue, not the person


It’s important to remember that you’re discussing an issue, not attacking your partner. Avoid making personal attacks and instead focus on the specific issue at hand. When we make personal attacks, it can quickly escalate the conflict and make the other person feel attacked and defensive, which can be counterproductive to resolving the issue.

This doesn’t necessarily sound like it should be hard — of course, we’re in a relationship with our partner because we like and admire them, and none of us think of ourselves as people who would leverage personal attacks about our partner. But it’s easy to do so without necessarily meaning to — pay attention to what you say in arguments, and notice when you’re saying “You always do this” rather than “We’ve talked about this a few times and I’m feeling frustrated that it seems like it’s still playing out the same way.”

In addition to love, the cornerstone of any relationship is mutual respect — demonstrating actively to your partner that your respect for them as a person stays constant even during conflict will go an incredibly long way toward making your partner feel safe and secure in the relationship on a fundamental level. It may make them feel safe enough to bring up other issues and problems — which may sound like a bad thing, but having the opportunity to hear those issues out, work through them even if that includes a fight, and find a real resolution is what will give your relationship the strength to truly last and get stronger over time.

Try to work together toward a solution, not to “win”


Although it can, again, sound counterintuitive, the goal in any argument isn’t to end the argument — it’s to resolve the core issue, and they’re not always the same thing. It’s normal to think of ourselves as pitted against our partner during a fight, that’s part of why they’re so painful. It can help to actively practice — and communicate explicitly to our partner — a philosophy that imagines you and your partner united together against the issue itself. This approach assumes as a given that you have a shared goal and priorities in that you both want to get each others’ needs met and for the other to be happy; the project is just to get on the same page about what will accomplish that.

When both parties are committed to finding a solution that works for both of them, conflict can become generative. This means being willing to brainstorm solutions together, being open to new ideas, and working together to come up with a solution that meets both parties needs.

Apologize sincerely and actively prioritize repair


If an argument ends in us admitting we’ve done something wrong, or our partner “winning”; our pride is often, despite our best efforts, a little wounded. We may, reasonably, want to just quit while we’re ahead as much as possible rather than prolonging our injury. But this can lead to your partner feeling like you grudgingly conceded the point and their concerns weren’t actually heard or empathized with. It will likely lead to returning to this argument in the future, with your partner feeling like you didn’t really listen to them before; this, in turn, will likely make you feel even more frustrated, thinking “We already went over this, what more do you want?” 

The key to avoiding this? If you’ve said or done something hurtful during a conflict, apologize sincerely and take responsibility for your actions. (If you know your partner’s apology language, even better.) This can help rebuild trust and show your partner that you value the relationship. It may sound like a small thing, or like being forced to apologize by a kindergarten teacher, but put yourself in your partner’s shoes: think about the difference between hearing, “Fine, you know what, I’ll just do it your way. Are you happy now?” and hearing “I understand now why that bothers you so much, even though it wouldn’t bother me the same way; I’m sorry I hurt your feelings or made you feel unimportant in this respect, and I’ll really work to do it differently in the future.” In which situation do you feel respected and affirmed as both a person and a partner?

The healthiest couples also prioritize rituals and routines for repair and reconnection after an argument. No matter how respectful and loving you’ve worked to be during an argument, you’re both likely left feeling sensitive and raw; intentionally doing something like taking a walk together, cuddling, watching a shared favorite movie together, or making dinner together can help move on from the fight and re-cement how much you care about each other.

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