Mastering Love: 9 Essential Conflict Resolution Skills for Couples

Why Conflict Starts in a Couple

If you’ve ever been in any kind of romantic relationship that lasted for more than just a couple of dates you will undoubtedly know the pain of having conflict rear its ugly head. Just like death and taxes, having arguments or conflict in your relationship is a foregone conclusion. This guide aims to explore effective conflict resolution techniques for couples.

Before we dive into conflict resolution techniques, when to use them or why they work, we first have to quickly explain why conflict starts in relationships in the first place. Not only why they start, but why they are different in a relationship than they are in other situations like at a workplace.

Playing the who’s fault is it game

After working with over 3,000 couples in my career I think I’ve heard just about everything that can come up in a relationship. From someone discovering their husband was having an affair with a illegal alien dwarf to blowing your life savings on the Nigerian prince scam. There are so many stories that are so outlandish you would think I was making them up.

Still throughout them all there is a predictable pattern to fights in relationships regardless of the issue. They almost always start with someone saying something that points the finger like:

  • You said you would be home early
  • How come you don’t do the dishes more often?
  • Why don’t you want to spend time with me?
  • Your mother needs to respect our privacy more
  • Why aren’t you ready to commit?

The key to all these phrases and just about any other you might hear a couple sling at one another is the word “you.” Whether it’s outright stated or implied using some linguistic gymnastics, the real core of every statement that starts a fight in a couple is the word “you.” Understanding the root of these disputes is key to effective conflict resolution.

When a couple is fighting as starts a fight with an accusation or a complaint it’s really a thinly veiled way of saying “you’re the problem in the relationship.”

The problem with that sentiment is that it takes two to tango. It is rarely 100% one person’s fault as to why the relationship is not working. While not every conflict is exactly a 50/50 share of the responsibility for the conflict, there is nearly always some fault on both sides.

To hear your partner imply that the problem with the relationship not being where it should be rests completely on your shoulders stings quite a bit because it’s not usually true. In the face of such criticism we, as people, feel the natural urge to defend ourselves.

Defense takes many forms from launching a counter-attack to justifying your actions to sarcastically agreeing that you’re the “bad” partner to going quiet and giving your partner the cold shoulder

As you hear a criticism you’ll typically run to some kind of defense technique that fits your personality. The problem is these defense tactics are usually interpreted as a counter-attack by your partner. You quickly get into a tennis match of attack/defend and the argument goes nowhere.

Studies have shown that the first 2-3 minutes of an argument in a couple define how it’s going to go for the entire duration of the argument.

The criticism leads to defense and in this attack/defend fight typically a couple will run out of steam and just part ways temporarily frustrated with the lack of any kind of productive resolution. This separation leads to stonewalling more often than not. The awkward silence sits thick in the relationship and during this time apart couples tend to grow resentful and even full of contempt for one another.

This pattern of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt are what Dr. John Gottman calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse and it’s what he has been able to use to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. Navigating through this cycle demands skillful conflict resolution strategies.

How Does Conflict Resolution Work

The way that conflict resolution, when done correctly, works is breaking this cycle of attack/defend mode by inciting a spirit of collaboration in the couple instead of being antagonistic.

Some techniques involve taking the sting out of the criticism, some help lower the defensive shields your partner has, and some are techniques to rise above the defensiveness that tend to arise in the face of unfair accusations. In an ideal world you learn these as soon as possible in your relationship – they are essential in my premarital counseling practice, for example.

At the center of each technique, however, is a subtle message to your partner that the relationship is more valuable than anything you can be arguing about. Not only that, but when you use these techniques correctly, there is a secret message of stability that gets communicated.

You are essentially telling your partner that you have confidence that no matter what the problem is you two can figure it out and make it right.

Having such confidence in the stability of the relationship is infectious. Finding and falling in love with someone isn’t easy. Matching up with a person you want to share your life with takes time, patience, a sense of openness and vulnerability. Once we have a relationship the last thing most of us want to do is see it end and have to start the hunt for a partner all over again.

Hearing that your partner is ready, willing, and able to address whatever the issues are be they logistical or emotional gives great comfort that the relationship is secure. Conveying that your relationship is on solid ground is 90% of the battle when resolving conflict in romantic relationships.

Resolving conflict in marriage

9 Conflict Resolution Techniques

Now that we know why fights happen and the goals of conflict resolution we can jump right in to understanding each of the 9 core conflict resolution techniques and how to use them.

1. Assume your partner has good intentions

Many times when we fight we feel neglected or discarded by our partner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard couples fighting about something that doesn’t seem important. I have to poke and prod to really dig under the surface and see why something is so critical to them.

I’ll ask boldly “and why is this so important to you?” The answer I typically get is some version of “because it shows that he/she cares about me.” There are a million ways to rephrase that line from “because that’s what you do in a loving relationship” to “well if he/she doesn’t want to do that then why are they with me?” No matter which way it’s phrased though, the essential idea here is that something that was said or done is assumed by the partner to have bad intentions.

It’s amazing how drastic a change can be made if you stop and ask yourself “well, I know that my wife loves me so she didn’t do this to hurt me on purpose, so what am I missing?” That assumption that the person has good intentions makes a radical shift in how you bring up issues and your partner will feel the difference. This approach is foundational to the spirit of conflict resolution in relationships.

2. Using “I” statements when explaining issues

Instead of pointing the finger at someone when there’s an issue in the relationship you can point to the pain the action is causing you. Instead of launching an attack where someone’s behavior is labeled “bad” and they feel forced to defend themselves, using statements of how something makes you feel emotionally are a great way to change the tenor of the argument.

Let’s give you an example you can chew on so you can get a flavor of what this sounds like and why it works. Let’s examine a typical criticism I hear couples discuss all the time “you always come home so late.” When you analyze the phrase it’s not difficult to see that the person on the receiving end of hearing would feel like we’re being told that they’re a “bad” partner.

Instead, let’s rephrase the criticism to have more or less the same content but be reflective of how the behavior is affecting the one uttering the statement using an “I” statement. It would sound like this: “It makes me sad and a bit lonely when you continuously come home late.”

Immediately you should be able to see how this is disarming. Instead of focusing on the behavior that is unwanted, we’re focusing on the result that it causes. Suddenly the primary issue isn’t coming home late but how one partner is feeling sad and lonely. When we hear that someone is in pain, the compassionate partner that exists in us is awakened and there’s a desire to help – and that’s the spirit of teamwork you should be going after.

3. Acknowledging Fault

In a world where you are trying to lower someone’s defensive walls, one of the strongest techniques you can deploy is acknowledging fault. When you acknowledge fault you are essentially stealing a possible argument away from your partner and making the need for defensiveness disappear.

I often tell my patients in my couples counseling practice that even if they don’t know what they possibly could have done wrong in a given situation to always open the door to accountability. What do I mean by that? I mean that even if you don’t know what you might have done wrong to say something along the lines of “and if there’s something I’ve done to hurt you or that made you uncomfortable please let me know because I want to fix that as well.”

When you open the door to accountability you’re inviting criticism which allows your partner to deliver it in a softer, more productive way if there even is a criticism at all. I have found that quite often when someone invites the criticism their partner often will just apologize or drop the issue altogether.

4. Provide Solutions

Nobody likes a complainer. I have four kids and I have to tell you that even though I love all of them with all my heart, the constant complaints that children file with their parents is enough to drive anyone crazy. With children, however, you are somewhat tolerant of the whining because they don’t have the emotion regulation skills to cope on their own. That kind of patience isn’t usually extended to a romantic partner.

When you come to your partner with a problem, it’s important to pitch at least one possible solution as to what you would like to see changed in the relationship to avoid the issue moving forward. I understand that sometimes there are problems in a relationship that are multi-layered but giving your partner at least some notion of a solution not only shows that you have a desire to move forward, it also gives them a sense of what it is that would make you happy.

But what if you really don’t have a solution in mind to the problem?

This sometimes happens. There are going to be problems in your relationship that don’t have obvious solutions. In these situations my recommendation is usually to ask that you and your partner work together to come up with a solution together. Asking to come up with a solution as a team is in and of itself a temporary solution to the conflict if nothing else.

5. Staying on Topic

Every issue in your relationship holds more emotional weight than issues in other relationships. There are two motivating factors in life at the root of just about every interaction: survival and love. When there’s a fight with your partner, unless you’ve done the work to feel secure in the face of conflict, you will naturally feel that the love in your life is threatened.

Because of the emotional heaviness that surrounds your relationship, its important to stay on topic. Each issue in your relationship has enough moving parts in it that introducing past arguments, other issues, or other areas of disagreement is just going to complicate things in a way that it is going to be impossible to reach a productive conclusion.

6. Assertiveness

There are four main styles of communication: aggressive, assertive, passive, and passive aggressive. In case you’re unfamiliar with the nuances of each let me define what assertiveness means in short: you are going to be firm in your position while keeping an open mind in case there is new information.

Being assertive means not being passive and rolling over on our needs or desires, but at the same time not insisting that your way is the only way and that other people’s needs (in this case your partner) do not matter.

Being assertive shows a self-respect that makes conflict dissipate quickly as it makes your position clear while also leaving room for compassion if it’s needed

There is one big exception to being assertive during conflict and that is if you are dealing with an aggressive partner. If your husband or wife has a tendency to fly off the handle, start yelling, or, G-d forbid, get physical, they will often misinterpret assertiveness for aggressiveness and assume you want a fight and the situation will escalate. In those cases it’s a good idea to play passive to diffuse the tension.

7. Apologizing

While I won’t go into what makes a good apology here as it would take too long to explain every detail of why and how apologies work in relationships, I will say that if you can start from a place of remorse that usually softens the ground up when trying to work through conflict.

One thing to keep in mind about apologizing is that it is one instance where body language, tone, and facial expressions make up 98% of the effectiveness. While normal communication is only 90% non-verbal, during apologies nearly all of communication is based on a conveyance of remorse. And while the words you choose are important, they are a tiny tiny minority of what makes up a good apology.

8. Asking for a break

Some people have a tendency to want to keep talking and arguing until the issue is resolved. This is a horrible idea if someone is clearly upset and their heart is racing. I don’t mean that figuratively either. When someone’s heart rate goes above a certain threshold (different for each individual) it is impossible for them to be reasonable.

In the Gottman world we call this being “flooded.” Essentially, at a certain point when your heart rate gets elevated enough, your brain switches to a fight or flight mode and your paralimbic system has taken over your ability to communicate and even remember things accurately. If you’re running away from a predator in the jungle this is incredibly useful, but for married couples, not so much.

If you feel your heart racing, taking a break has been clinically proven to be the only thing that works. How long of a break is also different from person to person but generally speaking I suggest a 20 minute break is long enough in most cases to allow your heart rate to settle so you can continue the conversation without the same combative nature that got you flooded.

9. Letting go of the small stuff

If I had a dollar for every time a couple came to me with an issue in their relationship that I knew deep down was not a real issue I’d be very very rich right now. We tend to pick fights with the ones we are closest with. We have a natural desire to connect with our partner and if that can’t be done with warmth and compassion it’s going to be done in a combative tone with animosity.

Oftentimes couples fight because they want to connect and whether they realize it or not, they’ll pick small, insignificant issues to quarrel about in an effort to try to connect. Really what’s going on is someone in the relationship is basically saying they feel lonely or abandoned, or that they don’t feel like a priority and the little things you are fighting about are just a way to get some attention and try to touch on this insecurity they have about the relationship as a whole.

The Benefits of Conflict Resolution

Learning conflict resolution in your marriage or relationship is a skill that pays dividends for the rest of your life. Understanding why conflict arises and understanding how to diffuse conflict not only ensures that big issues in your relationship don’t spiral out of control, it also carries over into other relationships in your life.

It’s not uncommon for couples to start using these same techniques on their children, their friends, their co-workers, or their extended family once they understand how to really utilize the tools effectively.

The most important benefit isn’t just the ability to resolve conflict, it’s the confidence that you can resolve conflict. That confidence that you will know how to navigate problems as they arise let you become more open, more vulnerable, and more transparent with how you’re feeling which allows not only for a deeper connection, but a life where your true self can shine bright without the fear of being judged.


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