Relationship Conflict: What is it? How to Manage and Repair
Locking horns? Use these coping strategies to transform conflicts into an opportunity to improve connection.
Conflict in relationships is often unavoidable. All relationships are expected to experience good times, and some not-so-good times. The good times can create happy memories and strong connections with your partner. However, a relationship is strengthened and shaped most by how conflict is managed between two people, and how well the not-so-good times are repaired within a relationship.
In the midst of conflict with your partner, expressing your feelings and taking time to better understand the problem at hand is paramount. However, to achieve this, engagement in the repairing process must be of equal effort in your relationship. I’m not saying it is easy; when emotions fuel our reactions, it can be difficult to reconnect, especially following the combative nature of some arguments. But it is absolutely achievable if both parties adopt helpful communication and behavioural strategies. Without a respectful and kind reparation framework, emotional intimacy can break down and resentment can build. Imagine how refreshing it will be when you and your partner start a journey of healthy conflict resolution and reconnection!
The Gottman Institute is a powerhouse of relationship education resources. They support couples in understanding why conflicts may occur, and how to work through the hard times to create stronger connections. So let’s explore what conflict is, which of the 5 Gottman Conflicting Couples styles you identify with, and which coping strategies will work best for both of you.
What is Conflict
In relationships, a disagreement between people is defined as ‘conflict’. This could be in the form of an opinion, a decision, a principle, a personality trait or a belief. The intensity of conflict will vary by couple and situation. Some couples may experience small and large conflicts, while other couples may only experience distance due to avoidance of the problem.
5 Types of Couples and Conflict
As every relationship is unique, every couple will engage in conflict differently. This is because each person brings a very specific and personal context of beliefs, upbringings, and behaviours to a relationship. Couples tend to fight in different ways, influenced by the combination of their personal experiences.
The Gottman Institute identifies 5 types of conflicting couples:
1. Conflict Avoiders:
This conflict style focuses on avoiding and minimising conflicts with their partner. While this may sound peaceful, it may also encourage ignoring your needs and desires, or ignoring areas that require growth in a relationship. Conflict avoidant couples respect independence. They enjoy separate interests, while still maintaining care and connection within the relationship.
2. Volatile Couples:
This type of conflict is characterised by being intensely emotional. It is important to note that volatile does not mean aggression. And while conflict may involve anger, they are not disrespectful or insulting. The volatile couple will be satisfied by a challenge, amused by the opportunity to debate. There are very few boundaries set in place. This commonly creates conflicts around individual and relationship roles
3. Validating Couples:
Couples of this conflict style are expressive, but are mostly calm or neutral. Validating couples may fluctuate between the conflict avoiders and the volatile couples. Validating couples aim to understand and empathise with their partners. They are willing to confront issues that are of great personal importance. This type of couple is mild in their expression of emotion, and can calm down to compromise just as quickly.
4. Hostile Couples:
This style of conflict is similar to the validating couple, but involves defensiveness by both partners. This couple is quick to criticise their partner, with limited awareness of their own actions or behaviours. They tend to use many “you always” or “you never” statements. Unlike volatile couples, the conflict between a hostile couple will involve contempt -a harsher and often more hurtful style of communication.
5. Hostile-Detached Couples:
This conflict style is likened to the effect of two battling sides engaged in a stalemate. While the couple may throw emotionally-fuelled comments, the nature of the conflict is detached and neglected. The hostile-detached couple does not regulate negativity.
Take some time with your partner to consider and identify your conflict styles, as acknowledging the model of your conflict is extremely influential to the health and longevity of your relationship. Create a plan together on how you will both manage conflict and what is important for you to stay connected during these times.
How to manage conflict
Have you ever felt like this in an argument: You know you’re right, but the other person doesn’t understand? If only they’d listen! Why are they being so difficult? As your voice starts escalating, you trace your mind for every piece of evidence that proves you’re right or to get your point across. Within minutes, it escalates into blame, harsher words are being exchanged past hurts raised and parties storming off.
In the heat of an argument, it can be challenging to take a moment and think logically. This is actually neurologically impossible: we can not think logically when the brain is so emotionally charged. When we get to this state, we lose all ability to think rationally and therefore become vulnerable to misunderstanding and hurting each other. To avoid conflict escalating to this point of illogical and emotional reactions, it’s crucial to develop a management plan with your partner that outlines some healthy ways to manage conflict so you come out the other side feeling close and connected.
Try these 5 approaches to help manage conflict when it arises in your relationship.
1) Remember that you are on the same team
While experiencing conflict it is easy to fall into the mindset that you are against your partner, as if you are on opposing teams. Conflict is usually a product of a misunderstanding or miscommunication. It is important to remember that you and your partner are not fighting each other, but rather battling the miscommunication between you. When your mindset shifts to the belief that you and your partner are on the same team, facing a problem together, your aim may be to seek an understanding, rather than to gain a win.
2) Focus on the issue at hand
In the midst of a fight with your partner, it can be very easy to fall into the habit of bringing up past issues of conflict. As you can imagine, this escalates the fight, and instead of discussing one issue, you are now dealing with many. At this point, the conflict becomes messy. It is important to focus on the primary issue you are disagreeing on, and once you have both communicated your feelings, and feel heard by each other, you can work towards a resolution to the single issue at hand.
3) Take a deep breath, communicate calmly and listen to your partner
Calm and open communication allows conflict to become more rational and solution driven. Open communication refers to speaking with transparency, and avoids casting judgement. As conflict rises in intensity, it can become overwhelming. Taking a breath, thinking before you speak, and focusing on calm and respectful communication will start to diffuse the tension. Once calm, you are able to listen to your partner. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, it means parking our own views to create a safe space for our partner to be heard and understood. When both partners can achieve this they are much more likely to work through conflict successfully.
4) Use I Statements
While arguing with your partner you are thinking and reacting from your unique point of view. This can mean that your partner views the issue differently, and may interpret the conversation in a different light. Through communicating with “I” statements, your partner will understand what you are feeling and start to view your perspective. ‘I’ statements replace blame with understanding. For example, “I feel neglected when you’re on your phone during date night”. This could replace a combative statement like, “You never pay attention to me, you’re always on your phone.” It is clear that these two statements have different natures, the ‘I’ statement creating a more healthy and constructive discussion.
5) Give each other some time to cool off
The phrase “time heals all wounds” isn’t completely wrong. Conflict can heighten emotions and tension within a relationship. In the heat of an argument, it can be difficult to view things rationally and respectfully. However, a great way to de-escalate the tension within your relationship is to take some time away from the situation to think calmly and rationally. By taking some time away from the situation for a few hours, you both may regain some composure and come back together to talk it out.
How to repair your relationship when things go south during conflict
Even with all the best efforts and intentions during conflict with our partners, we can still find ourselves feeling misunderstood, hurt and disconnected after the fall out. While we may feel upset and not want to communicate with our partner, it is so important to try and attempt to discuss the conflict within a few hours after the fall out. When too much time passes it creates a greater gap in understanding and an opportunity for your partner to overthink what has happened, building more distress and often making it harder to repair and reconnect.
According to the Gottman’s, it’s not how often you engage in conflict that is the problem but how well you repair the conflict after the fact that is detrimental to the health of your relationship and connection.
Here are some important steps to consider as you repair and reconnect after conflict
to your partner and being accountable for your part in an argument allows your partner to feel supported and builds a connection.
when your partner shares their thoughts and feelings. This includes maintaining eye contact, refraining from fidgeting or picking up a device, and not interrupting them.
Share your triggers
so that future arguments may be prevented.
These tips are helpful, but are sometimes easier said than done. If you find yourself falling into negative conflict patterns, consider taking a breather from your argument. A few deep breaths can work wonders, this clears your mind, allowing you to think more clearly and rationally. While conflict resolution may push you into an uncomfortable space, take heart, it’s not all fire and brimstone. The aftermath of a conflict, when managed effectively can actually bring you and your partner closer together, increasing intimacy.
It’s always productive to talk with your partner about how you are feeling. However, if you find it more often leads to conflict and/or escalation speaking with a couples therapist is likely the most valuable step in preventing further hurt and/or disconnection. It will allow you both to share your perspectives, feel more understood and go home with a better understanding of your situation and some valuable tools to help improve your communication.
If you’re struggling with conflict in your relationship, consider counselling support. Contact Kylie Lepri for a FREE 15-minute phone call to discuss your situation. Discover how counselling can help you. Call us now on 0404 032636 or book your free phone call online.
The team at Kylie Lepri Counselling are all registered Counsellors and Psychotherapists. Specialising in Individual, Relationship and Family therapy. Providing online and in person support to clients all over Australia. Get Kylie’s FREE e-Book: 5 Proven Strategies to help manage stress today, by joining her newsletter below.