Research-Backed Advice

3 Tips for Healthy Conflict Resolution in Relationships

Highlights:

  • Conflict happens. It’s how you deal with it that matters.
  • Know when you’re becoming activated and learn how to calm down.
  • Work to figure out the root of the issues.
  • The goal is not to “win.” It’s to solve issues together and find common ground.

Every couple butts heads at one time or another. But conflict doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is unhealthy. It’s how you handle disagreements that matters. Healthy conflict resolution in relationships can make all the difference.

Maybe you’re wondering whether you and your partner fight too much. Or perhaps you’re looking for ways to navigate conflicts and tell your partner what you want and need.

In this article, we share three conflict resolution strategies you can use to manage conflict in a romantic relationship. These strategies may also help you manage issues with family and friends.

How often do couples fight in a healthy relationship?

It depends. No number of fights automatically makes a relationship unhealthy, and the frequency of conflicts may ebb and flow over time. 

What matters is how you and your partner deal with and manage conflict.

Dr. John Gottman, a prominent relationship psychologist, professor, and researcher,  uses the 5 to 1-ratio to describe stable marriages. According to Gottman, you should have at least five positive interactions for every negative one, regardless of the total number of conflicts. 

His research suggests that those who experience very few positive interactions with their spouses are more likely to get a divorce. But the evidence also shows that low levels of conflict don’t necessarily mean a couple is happy.

Quality is much more important than quantity. For example, getting into two big disagreements a week and creating a tense and resentful environment may be much worse for your relationship than disagreeing four times but figuring out how to understand each other’s feelings and move on.

Fights vs. conflicts

People in healthy relationships may engage in conflicts but don’t necessarily fight.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), fighting involves direct physical aggression or threat displays when one partner shows signs of impending attack or aggression. The other partner may show submissive signals to the aggressive partner. This dynamic results in a power imbalance.

On the other hand, conflict happens when partners experience opposing events, behaviors, desires, attitudes, or emotions. 

Healthy vs. unhealthy conflict in a relationship

Romantic relationships will grow and change over time. You and your partner will likely face conflict about many life stressors—money, kids, work. 

While conflict is unavoidable, it’s possible to learn to manage it in a healthier way.

Healthy conflict resolution involves working together to create an open space for disagreement, discussion, and compromise. It’s important to remember that you can’t always resolve conflict right away. Sometimes, issues may require ongoing work from you and your partner. Being in a healthy relationship doesn’t mean you’ll never experience conflict. It simply means dealing with disagreements so that you and your partner feel respected and listened to.

Unhealthy conflict resolution may involve wanting to “win” instead of seeking to solve issues together. 

Outside influences may also play a role in creating unhealthy conflict. A 2017 study by Timmons, Arbel, and Margolin looked at patterns of stress and conflict in couples and found that something called stress spillover can occur, where everyday stressors one person experiences can spark conflict in the relationship. 

For some couples, the initial disagreement risks spilling over into the next day, causing even more conflict. If you recognize this happening in your relationship, it can help to find ways to reduce or manage individual stressors, helping alleviate the strain they put on your relationship.

Most couples likely approach conflict resolution with a mix of healthy and unhealthy strategies. Your relationship isn’t inherently unhealthy because you have one unhealthy, isolated disagreement with your partner. 

By using the tips below, you can help ensure that you and your partner continue to, or begin to, deal with conflict in a fair and healthy way.

3 healthy ways to resolve conflict in a relationship

Wondering how to approach healthy conflict resolution in relationships? Consider these three techniques to help you resolve disagreements.

1. The Anger Funnel — know your signal and how to calm down

When working with couples, Doug Elliot, a registered clinical counselor with an MA in counseling psychology, shuts down discussions that turn into fights — occasionally having people exit the room to breathe or get a coffee. “Whatever needs to happen to bring that state back to where I can get them listening again,” he says.

Although initially uninterested in teaching anger management classes, Elliot found this part of his practicum incredibly valuable for learning basic emotional regulation concepts. He’s since specialized in conflict resolution, addiction, and human sexuality.

“When the body says there’s a problem, it starts dropping adrenaline into the bloodstream, and breathing becomes shallow,” he explains. “People get flushed, and all these animalistic, aggressive things start happening. You have to know your signals.”

The “anger funnel” is a technique Elliott has shared with thousands of people to help them understand how their underlying emotions turn into anger. Certain emotional states, such as fear, hurt, unfairness, disrespect, sadness, guilt, or shame, are at the top of the funnel. They filter down and come out the bottom of the funnel as anger. “All you need is one of them to be triggered for anger to start and for the [body to react],” he said.

Elliott suggests taking a breath, going home, and then saying to your partner: “okay, I want to talk to you about how I felt disrespected and ashamed because that used to happen when I was a kid, and my dad said I was useless,” or whatever the issue may be.

“Now we’re talking at the top of the funnel, now we’re talking about what actually matters,” he says. By using the funnel and explaining to your partner what was disguised as anger, you can have a conversation about the underlying issue and come to a better understanding of what happened.

Taking time apart from your partner to cool down makes it easier to identify the root of the problem and underlying emotions. Elliot also advises not to rehearse the argument or “practice” the fight while taking the time to calm down. “Just breathe, sit on a park bench, pet the dog — whatever you need to do.”

Once you and your partner are calm — which can take an hour, a day, or a week depending on the couple — a conversation at the top of the funnel can take place. Elliot explains that disagreements become calmer and more rational instead of sparking anger. 

2. Reframe “conflict” as problems you can solve together

Many people tend to avoid conflict. Elliot suggests approaching conflict as a problem to solve together. Mindset change can make it easier to approach issues together. 

Elliot says he often asks those who tend to avoid conflict, “do you want to be a problem solver in your relationship?” No one has ever answered no.

When couples repress issues because they worry it’ll cause a fight, the issue goes into what he calls the “resentment bank account.” It builds up and eventually reaches capacity. By dealing with problems together, as they come up, the resentment bank account stays low.

Sometimes, other factors come into play and complicate conflict resolution. For example, you or your partner may deal with addiction or mental health conditions. 

Elliot recommends addressing addiction before focusing too much on couple’s work.

“Things like depression, however, are not necessarily gonna go totally away,” he explained. “So, what we want to do is be working on them in tandem.” If you have anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions, ongoing personal counseling followed by couple’s sessions may be beneficial. 

3. Conduct weekly check-ins

Checking in with your partner every week at an agreed-upon day and time can help keep the resentment bank account low. It’s a low-pressure place to ask yourselves how you’re doing today, this week, and in general. 

People don’t often talk about problems until they’re activated, causing direct conflict. “If you have a designated time, you might have a beef you’re holding onto, but you can hold onto it until Friday and bring it up at a time when there’s no activation,” said Elliot, “at a time where you’ve agreed that it’s okay to bring up issues in a safe and calm environment — neither one of you is angry, you’re just talking.”

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring things up right away and should bottle up your emotions.

It’s more about being kind to yourself and giving yourself time to come down from feeling the fight or flight reaction so that when you do discuss the issue, you can do so calmly and clearly.

This technique might help if you have something that’s bothering you but you aren’t ready to discuss it with your partner yet. Then, it’s okay to save it for later that day or for the weekly check-in, which is designed as an emotionally safe space for you to discuss issues you might not have had the time or courage to talk about in the moment.

If you’re actively in a disagreement with your partner, don’t avoid the issue and wait until the weekly check-in to deal with it. Instead, try taking a few minutes to calm down before coming back to the situation and working on resolving the conflict.

What are the 4 conflict resolution types?

Gottman identifies four types of conflict resolution approaches to marriage: 

  • volatile
  • conflict-avoiding
  • hostile
  • validating

Hostile

Hostile couples use insults, sarcasm, and negativity to cause harm to the other person. They tend to have more negativity than positivity in their relationships. 

Volatile

Volatile couples have passionate disputes, meaning they’re both at the bottom of the anger funnel. They have equally passionate make-ups and can usually resolve their problems at the end of the day. They use wit and laughter, leading to more positive than negative interactions overall, maintaining Gottman’s 5 to 1-ratio.  

If you frequently conflict with your partner while mainly maintaining positive interactions, that might just be what works for you.

Conflict-avoiding

Couples who tend to avoid conflict have fewer arguments and less anger toward one another and instead try to fix the situation themselves or hope that it will just work itself out in the end. 

In some cases, this can build resentment, but Gottman suggests that conflict-avoidant couples can work to accept their differences. Having weekly check-ins is a good way to keep resentment low and work on finding common ground.

Validating

Validating couples are calm during conflict, communicate with mutual respect, and work through issues together. They may do this by taking the time to cool down, expressing empathy, and calmly working through problems — even when things become heated. 

If this describes your relationship, make sure your partner feels heard and respected, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their point of view. This way, you both get to voice your opinions, feel validated, and work to find a compromise.

The final word

There are many ways to have a healthy relationship and deal with conflict. 

Even if you and your partner don’t always agree, you can still have a healthy relationship. You don’t always have to work to calmly find a compromise. The key is to find a balance between negative interactions and positive ones.

Conflict is a typical part of all romantic relationships. It’s the way you deal with disagreements and cope with conflict that makes a difference. Making space for healthy conflict resolution may involve regularly checking in with your partner, finding moments to focus on the positive, and creating room for open communication.

Bridget Stringer-Holden
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Bridget Stringer-Holden is a journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. She's currently pursuing her Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia as a recipient of the Vancouver Sun David Bains Scholarship, and she has bylines in Vancouver Magazine, Western Living, BC Business, Radio-Canada, Healthline, and the Capilano Courier. Bridget finds meaning in uplifting the voices of others.

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