Conflict can be an inevitable part of being in a committed relationship. You’re not always going to see eye to eye on everything, and rows can blow up from time to time when you strongly disagree over something.
Partners often declare sex, money and childcare to be their biggest issues when they come to therapy. However, as couples counsellors, we note that the topics partners frequently argue about are everyday grievances. These daily resentments – which can include not enough special time spent together, feeling taken for granted, or not communicating kindly and openly with each other – can unfortunately fester and grow. Partners can start to believe that their needs aren’t being met in the relationship. This can trigger ‘tit for tat’ behaviours that further erode the partnership – and yet they can get stuck in a cycle of being subtly or overtly horrible to each other.
The first step to stop this cycle from starting is to bring awareness to how you are in relationships. Is your current relationship echoing a dynamic from the past that hasn’t been resolved? Are you replaying behaviours that aren’t terribly helpful? Or are you aware of an old childhood wound that your partner may be triggering? If you can reframe your arguments and differences as a way of working through current and old issues, you’re your current relationship may begin to feel like an opportunity rather than a threat.
Here we offer three strategies that can support you to heal conflict in your relationship and build a stronger base going forward…
1. Choose issues you can resolve
What differentiates happy couples from unhappy ones is that they argue only about issues they can find a solution to – according to a study from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. They won’t argue about something that is ongoing and difficult to solve, as this can undermine a partner’s confidence in the relationship. Focusing on a solution can build up both partners’ confidence, instead of using a row to score points and undermine them. Once they’ve built up ways of resolving conflict with solvable issues, they may feel in a stronger position to tackle the trickier issues.
2. Focus on ‘active repair’
A separate study by the University of Texas at Dallas identified four categories for couples to deal with arguments: avoidance, active repair, gaining a new perspective, and letting go. Their research concluded that ‘active repair’ was the healthiest way to resolve conflict. Active repair in effect means ‘kiss and make up’: this may involve taking things through, saying sorry, and finding ways to restore affection. Active repair also offers the opportunity to strengthen intimacy in the relationship, say the researchers.
3. Avoid the blame game
It’s way too easy to structure arguments with blame at their core: “You always let me down. You never remember to take the rubbish out. You make me feel overlooked and irrelevant.” The person can see the other person’s flaws more easily than their own. But playing the blame game you will put your partner on the defensive and the argument will escalate. Instead, try speaking from an “I” perspective – and focus on your feelings as a result of your partner’s behaviour, rather than blaming them. For example: “When I take the bins out every week, I begin to feel a little taken for granted. Can we chat about ways to share things a bit more?” Using more assertive phrasing gives you ownership of your feelings and is more likely to open the way for a more constructive discussion.
4. Talk it over with a professional
If you and your partner have tried and tried and still haven’t found a way to resolve the ongoing conflict in your relationship, then you may want to try couples counselling. A trained professional can hear the story from both sides and support you in identifying some constructive ways to heal your relationship and take it forward.
We have couples counselling appointments at The Awareness Centre in Clapham and Tooting – as well as a low-cost psychosexual and relationship counselling service at our Clapham branch. For more information and to book an initial session, call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]