Couples conflict is inevitable. If you have been in an intimate relationship for any length of time, you know what it’s like to have conflict. You have probably argued about money, parenting, or what to do for the holidays. Some conflict is about important issues, while other conflict is mundane, but both types are stressful.
This may not be what you want to hear, but if you are in an intimate relationship, you will have conflict. The only couples who never fight are so distant that they are not in a close relationship. Humans are unpredictable, we make mistakes, and we have a tendency to be selfish. It makes sense that the closer we are to someone else, the more likely we would have conflict.
Some couples conflict is toxic. When people attack each other, resort to name-calling, or become aggressive, the conflict is destructive. When people take revenge through manipulation or hold a grudge, that conflict is particularly toxic and must be avoided in healthy relationships.
Not all couples conflict is toxic or destructive. In fact, conflict can be an important way for us to learn. This type of learning may include a better understanding of facts, or it may be more abstract, such as interpersonal skills. If conflict occurs in a respectful and non-aggressive manner, it is much more likely that learning will occur.
Even if your conflict is healthy and does not include destructive behaviors, you may notice that some conflict doesn’t resolve. It seems like you have the same fight over and over again. So, when a couple has fights that seem to be a pattern, what can be resolved and what can’t?
Fixable Couples Conflict
Many arguments have practical solutions. For example, a couple may disagree about how much money to spend on a home renovation. Another example may involve whether or not to allow a child to have a mobile phone at age 12, or wait until age 15. Being fixable does not imply that the disagreement is easy. Either of these disagreements could become a very tense conflict.
A fixable conflict is one that has a solution for all parties involved, which is sufficient that the argument doesn’t resurface (without cause). Solutions don’t always involve an even compromise — especially if one party is mistaken. A fixable conflict does not mean that the conflict is easy. In fact, a problem that you can solve may be more complex than a problem you can’t fix. How can you know if a problem is fixable?
- Is the problem definable? Can you and your partner agree on the variables about which you are disagreeing?
- Are you able to influence those variables? If you are arguing about something over which you have no control, the problem is not likely fixable.
- Is most of the problem related to emotions or personality? If a great deal of the problem involves personality or emotional reactions, rather than variables under your influence, the problem may not be fixable.
- Do you and your partner understand your disagreement? If both of you understand the topic, it is much more likely to be fixable. If either or both of you do not understand, or if part of the topic is obscured by another topic (or argument), chances are the problem is not fixable.
Non-Fixable Couples Conflict
Non-fixable couples conflict is an ominous phrase. This type of conflict can be frustrating and challenging. Are you experiencing such conflict in your relationship? Don’t despair — All couples have non-fixable couples conflict!
If you find that you have conflict that you are not able to fix, look for patterns. Does the same argument seem to come up again and again? If so, are what patterns have you found to the argument? Do some of these patterns seem to be related to personality differences, values, expectations, or the families you were born into?
We all have aspects of our personality and background that are very resistant to change. A shy person can’t suddenly enjoy being in large crowds through willpower. Likewise, an extremely organized person is not going to enjoy not having some structure. You may have certain expectations in your romantic relationship that you learned from childhood (by watching your caregivers). What roles does each partner have? How is household labor divided? How should parenting be done?
There are many different ways to approach the above questions, and while there are some bad behaviors (ie abusive language, not willing to negotiate), there are also many options that may work for some families which may or may not work for yours. You may find that you need to have an ongoing conversation with your partner about these perpetual issues. If the conversation takes place in a loving and respectful manner, you and your partner can still grow close, in spite of your differences.
Conflict of that is non-fixable doesn’t necessarily need to be toxic or harmful. In fact, fixable conflict can easily become toxic. Toxic conflict is something for you and your partner to avoid.
Toxic conflict can be obvious:
- Name calling
- Physical abuse
Toxic conflict can also be subtle:
- passive aggressive behavior
- dismissing or ignoring concerns
Toxic conflict often results in one or both partners feeling attacked, degraded, or manipulated. Unfortunately, toxic conflict will often lead to a person getting what they want in the short term. Sometimes the other person will give in to someone out of fear or hurt, and the person engaging in negative behaviors will “win”. This short term success has a high price tag, however. Toxic conflict will lead to a breakdown in empathy and trust, and will contribute to relationship failure.
Healthier Conflict Resolution
We have looked at some examples of conflict that is fixable and non-fixable. We have looked at conflict that is toxic (something to be avoided). What are some strategies for healthier conflict?
- Identify whether or not the problem is fixable or non-fixable
- If it is non-fixable, try to speak to each other’s emotional needs, even though a solution can’t necessarily be reached
- If it is fixable, try to define the problem. What would lead to a successful outcome? How can we each contribute to the success?
- Be careful about your timing. Don’t attempt to address a sensitive issue when one or both of you is upset, tired, or distracted. Consider working together to set a time that may work for both of you.
- Set a time limit. Avoid arguing for hours or for an open-ended time. 15 to 30 minutes is generally long enough for most topics in one sitting. Arguing for more than 30 minutes can lead to emotional overload and toxic behaviors. Remember, you can always set an appointment to return to the discussion.
- Learn to soothe yourself emotionally. Avoid becoming too emotional in a disagreement.
- Complement each other and express appreciation for each other’s efforts in solving a difficult problem together.