Some conflict in relationships is inevitable, but there are ways to handle conflict so that it is not destructive to you individually or as a couple.

Marriage and living together involves two people being together in a relationship for up to seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, year in, year out. There is a great deal of physical closeness as they eat, sleep and share the same house together.

To make things more complex, they care for each other and have high expectations of how they wish to be treated by each other. Being human, they may occasionally let each other down.

What does conflict in a relationship indicate?

Conflict, most commonly expressed as anger, can indicate that all is not well for a couple. That some change is needed to keep their relationship healthy.

If conflict has a purpose, then instead of asking "how can we avoid conflict?" we should ask "how can we manage not to hurt each other or our relationship when we have a row?" and "how can we learn from the conflict?"

Avoiding conflict could mean avoiding important issues which would be better faced and sorted out.

Conflict is a symptom. Treating the symptom by patching things up without finding out what caused the conflict is unwise.

Anger

Anger is for many people a "bad" feeling and one that can be frightening because of its intensity and possible consequences.

There are four ways of responding when we feel angry:

  • expressing our anger
  • denying our anger
  • acknowledging our anger
  • acting on our anger.

Expressing anger

Anger could be expressed by attacking the person we are angry with, doing a lot of shouting and screaming and perhaps using physical force by hitting, pushing, or punching the other person. Another less obvious way of expressing anger is by withdrawing or controlling behaviours. These behaviours may include withdrawal or limiting positive regard or affection.

Expressing anger in either of these ways will often leave a wound in the relationship which is harder to heal than the original cause of the anger. It may make you feel better temporarily, but can also leave you feeling guilty (because of the effects of your anger) even if you are convinced you were in the right.

Those who deal with their anger by expressing it often claim that their anger takes over, and that they can't help their actions.

It may feel as if anger is beyond our control, but in reality everyone can learn to control their response to anger.

Denying anger

A second way of dealing with anger is to bottle it up and deny it. This means pretending that you are not really angry and denying it if your partner suggests you are angry. Some people become so good at denying their anger that they even fool themselves and become unaware that they are angry, even though it is obvious to those around them.

Bottling up anger and refusing to deal with it may solve a problem for a while, but it will create worse problems in the future. Facing up to conflict, whilst sometimes painful, can improve a relationship.

Ignoring anger means ignoring the warning signals that all is not right in the relationship. It also leaves the other person in the conflict feeling frustrated because they sense that something is wrong, but cannot get things out into the open and sort them out. It can become like living with an active volcano, waiting for the eruption!

In extreme cases, denying anger can gradually destroy a relationship. For example, it is difficult for a couple to be intimate and trusting with each other if they keep denying or ignoring the anger between them.

Acknowledging anger

This is the most constructive way of handling anger.

Acting on our anger

First you will need to make a decision that you will not attack your partner when you get angry. This means that you will not, for example, use anger as the opportunity to score points about past failings by your partner. You decide that when there is a conflict between you, you will aim to resolve it as quickly and as constructively as possible.

When conflict arises and you feel angry with your partner, try to follow these steps:

  • Admit that you are angry

Try using "I" statements such as "I'm feeling absolutely fed up with the way the kitchen was left last night", rather than "you" statements - "You're so selfish leaving the kitchen in a mess last night".

"You" statements will inevitably be heard as an attack, and lead to the other person being defensive. They can make the conflict worse.

Admitting your anger lets your partner know how you are feeling. It helps to get problems into the open so that both partners can do something about them.

BUT NOTE that admitting your anger is different from expressing it. You will need to sound as if you really are angry, but that does not mean you have to shout and swear!

  • Ask for "time out"

This is essential if either you or your partner feels too angry to talk about the problem - "I'm too angry now; let's talk about it later".

Ask for "time out" if you need it. Don't leave it to your partner to suggest it - you are the one who knows how you feel, don't expect your partner to read your mind.

Don't use "time out" to avoid issues. It is important that you come back later and try to sort things out.

  • Explore your feelings

There is nearly always another feeling underlying anger like sadness, hurt, disappointment, or a sense of being let down or taken for granted. Let your partner know how you feel. The underlying feeling will usually be a clue to the real issue that you and your partner need to face up to and talk about. For example:

"You're always off out with your damn mates! I'm fed up to the back teeth with them - and with you! You're just totally selfish!"

It's unlikely that reducing the amount of time he spends with his mates will solve anything. Almost certainly the real issue is that she is feeling unappreciated and left out. Something needs to change so that she feels differently.

When he hears that she wants to spend more time with him because she cares for him and enjoys his company, he may be more likely to change his behaviour than if he hears a criticism of his mates.

  • Listen to your partner's point of view. There may be an angle on the situation that you haven't considered.
  • Be prepared to acknowledge your part in the problem. Saying sorry does not mean that you are accepting all the responsibility.
  • Ask what lessons can be learnt from the conflict. This will improve your relationship and lessen the chances of a similar conflict happening again.
  • Be prepared to forgive and make up. When you are ready, but don't make your partner wait as a punishment. A row between two people who love each other is like a "little separation". Reunion after separation can lead to a deepening of closeness and intimacy in the relationship.

When your partner is angry

When your partner expresses anger with you:

  • Listen to their complaint
  • Show genuine interest
  • Acknowledge that your partner would be annoyed/ angry
  • Take time out if necessary - practice self-soothing
  • Be prepared to change what you do
  • Apologise if appropriate.

Physical violence in relationships

Physical violence is of concern in a significant number of intimate and family relationships. Physical violence is NEVER acceptable as a response to conflict or provocation.

Physical violence in intimate and family relationships is now considered a serious offence. Once physical violence occurs in a relationship, it can easily become a pattern. It often becomes more frequent, and usually becomes more serious the longer the relationship continues. It can ultimately lead to serious injury, or even death. Violence in an intimate or family relationship is a sign that something is wrong. It should be taken seriously and assistance should be sought.

If you are having difficulty in resolving conflicts, and especially if there is violence involved, seek the assistance of a counsellor.

Learning how to handle conflict more effectively

Couples who are able to communicate effectively are more likely to be able to handle conflict constructively. A first step, therefore might be to attend a course or workshop on communication skills in marriage or a relationship course for couples or parents.