How to manage conflict in your relationship

Learning to negotiate with your partner is an important skill.

How to manage conflict in your relationship

PICK a topic, any topic — money, sex, parenting — and if you’re in a relationship you’ll probably have had a row about it at some stage.

But don’t stress about it, you’re no different to anybody else. After all, arguments are more or less inevitable in a relationship.

You don’t have to go too far to find some famous examples. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a famously turbulent and complicated relationship as had Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Love has been a bit of a roller-coaster for Katy Perry and John Mayer, while Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber have reportedly had some doozies. Pippa Middleton and her boyfriend Alex Ludon’s on-off relationship has also attracted much media attention.

But what you may not know is that lovers’ tiffs can be bad for your health.

Research published in the US last November shows that couples who don’t argue live longer — the implication being that marital conflict can put you at risk of poor health.

Human nature being what it is, however, there’s little or no chance of a healthy, row-free relationship — the findings of a survey published in 2009 showed that the average married couple has two arguments per week, which result in the silent treatment for two hours and 14 minutes each time. The findings, from a survey by the British firm and based on interviews with 3,000 couples, reveal that couples spend nearly 10 days a year not speaking to each other following domestic rows.

So what is at the root of such conflict? Any number of issues, according to the experts, but arguments between couples are most often about money (and control of money), sex, parenting, inequality in terms of decision making, secrets or lies, saying the wrong thing or taking each other for granted.

However, withdrawing from an argument and simply nursing a grudge in silence is not a realistic alternative — grudges can be very destructive mentally, physically and emotionally, warns Tony Moore, a counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland.

“On the surface everything may appear fine but behind the scenes there’s a lot of anger building up,” he says, adding that people can suffer from depression and anxiety caused by being subjugated by a dominant partner.

“If you change the way you argue, says Moore, you can and make it less damaging, and even perhaps beneficial to your relationship.

Adopting some good techniques such as listening and focusing on a solution for example, can make your relationship stronger, he says.

That’s because these techniques give you a greater insight into the mind of the other person in the relationship.

“You’re learning what is important to that person.

“Although we may be living with someone, we may not be fully aware of what they think about things, so a well-managed argument helps us understand the other person.”

Every couple will have disputes but it’s crucial to learn how to navigate them without resorting to physical, verbal violence or aggression that can be a hallmark of a flaming row.

“It’s about learning how to take the emotion out of it,” says Moore.

What’s important to realise is that the subject of the argument may often mean less to one person than the other.

“One partner is more emotionally involved and connected to the subject than the other,” he says.

It’s important, therefore, to make an effort to discover why a seemingly insignificant issue may be of such importance to your partner.

Listen respectfully to what the other person is saying and ask why the issue is so important to the other person, he says.

If you fail to listen and keep interrupting them, you’re simply devaluing both the person and what they’re saying — and that can cause resentment.

“While a row can be beneficial, both sides must be careful as to how they conduct their argument — it’s not necessary to shout, bang things around or use intimidating behaviour to get your own way.”

Some people excuse that sort of behaviour by claiming that they’re merely “expressing how they feel” says Moore, adding that there is an appropriate way to conduct an argument.

Don’t drink if you’re having an argument, and focus on the fact that the row is about reaching a solution.

“If you’re having a full and frank exchange of views, it’s is important to acknowledge that you’re doing this purely to reach a solution, agreement or accommodation.”

Early intervention can make all the difference. “Patterns of conflict are set down in the first seven years of a couple’s relationship,” says Maeve Hurley, CEO of Ag Eisteacht, a charity that focuses on family wellbeing.

“Conflict is inevitable and healthy but how a couple manages it is what matters.

“With the Ag Eisteacht programme we ask couples to stop, talk it out and work it out,” says Hurley.

“Make sure you feel calm. How we say things, how we stand or sit, our tone of voice is so important,” she says.

“Explain your position, talk about how you feel and what your needs are without criticising your partner. Use ‘I’ statements and ask for their point of view.”

There are two golden rules around rows, believes change management specialist Fidelma Greene.

“The first is do unto others as you want them to do unto you — but sometimes that backfires in a relationship because your partner’s way of viewing the world is different to yours so he or she doesn’t actually want to be treated the way you want to be treated,” says Greene.

When that’s the case, the advice from Greene is to follow the platinum rule devised by communications expert Dr Tony Alessandra: treat others as they wish to be treated.

“In other words look at the outcome you want. You have to stand in the shoes of the person you are talking with. It takes a lot of awareness to try to see things from their point of view.”

However, this is not about simply caving in to a domineering partner — it’s about trying to see the other person’s point of view.

The second rule is timing — this is crucial. If you know something is going to be sensitive, be careful that you pick a time to broach the subject, when neither you nor your partner are tired or hungry, she counsels.

The use of bad language should be the exception — it’s often disrespectful and offensive, says Moore.

There must also be an acknowledgement of equality and respect between the partners — this is paramount.

A good place to start when you and your partner are having a major disagreement about something, says psychotherapist Anne Colgan, is by acknowledging the fact that relationships are about needs being met — and that rows are about needs not being met. Communication is at the centre of it all.

“A row will not necessarily start as soon as a need is not met — it may explode over something small.” She finds that a common problem with arguing couples is caused by when one partner makes assumptions about what the other partner is thinking. “Don’t assume,” she counsels.

Managing disagreement in a relationship is about constant negotiation, says Colgan.

In couples’ counselling one of the first priorities is to work out who is not being listened to — and who is dominating who.

A sense of inequality in a relationship, believes Colgan, can lead to many rows.

However, if you’ve got children, you must tread carefully.

“A child becomes more sensitised to arguments over time” says Maeve Hurley.

“They may react by being sad and troubled, easy to miss, or they might act it out or become the parent child.”

Under no circumstances should parents have aggressive arguments in front of their children says Moore.

“Children should never see father pushing or shouting at a mother, for example,” he says.

“There is no situation in which bad language and raised voices should be allowed.”

¦ Ag Eisteacht is running a course, How to Argue Better, on Jan 28 in Cork and on Feb 4 in Dublin.

For details see


Here are some tips for keeping arguments respectful:

¦ Pick a good time to discuss something sensitive — for example, when you and your partner are not tired or hungry.

¦ Keep the Platinum Rule in mind — treat your partner as he/ she wishes to be treated.

¦ Start the discussion with something simple that needs to be sorted out and move on to more complicated issues.

¦ Listen respectfully and don’t interrupt.

¦ Don’t drink during a row.

¦ Focus on finding a solution.

¦ Avoid bad language or disrespectful or aggressive behaviour.

¦ Acknowledge that your partner is equal and deserves your respect.

¦ If necessary decide on a temporary solution — if you try something and it fails to work, agree to try something else.

¦ Look at your own behaviour. Face up to your responsibility for the problem under discussion. What is it about your behaviour that may have contributed to this row?

¦ Be prepared to compromise and to let some things go.

¦ Acknowledge that sometimes you take on the responsibility for someone whose actions are not your responsibility.

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