How to manage relationship conflict in a healthy way…& strengthen your bond

By Athen Fisher, LMFT, ICEEFT Certified Therapist, Owner of Love Story Therapy Whether it’s arguing about doing the dishes, finances or sex, conflict is a normal and unavoidable part of any long-term relationship.  And while conflict may not be pleasant at times, the way you and your partner manage conflict can actually strengthen the bonds of your relationship and increase security, positive regard and connection.  It’s kind of like working out.  It may feel good to some, not so good to others, but the end results of a physical workout are improvements in mind and body.  I think the side effects may be worth the discomfort. Dr. Thao Ha, an expert in developmental psychology at ASU, has identified 9 steps for managing relationship conflict in a healthy way, backed by science.  These are the steps, along with my tips for how to apply them in real time.
  1. Be respectful and honest.
Healthy communication is key.  We can have healthy communication about an issue or topic even if we do not agree on something.  Stay away from name calling, character attacks, criticism, lying and “all or nothing” statements. Getting defensive and/or dismissing your partner’s feelings is also harmful.  If you do not feel comfortable talking about something in that moment, voice to your partner that you do not feel comfortable talking about that right now.
  1. Remember, it’s not you against your partner. It’s you and your partner against the problem.
I talk to my couples about their negative cycle of communication being their common enemy, because it is often the unhealthy communication pattern that causes the most distance, damage and pulls them apart.
  1. Stick to one topic at a time.
Try to avoid piggybacking, which is bringing up another topic just as one partner brings up a grievance.  If there is a theme from the past, possibly express that theme rather than all the different individual incidents and examples.  A discussion can easily devolve from talking about whose turn it is to take out the trash to many other different topics.
  1. Consider writing down your thoughts before having a discussion with your partner.
Pen to paper or fingers to iPhone notes keyboard, describe the situation bothering you and how you feel about the situation.  Then take turns sharing with and then listening to your partner.
  1. Practice active listening and paraphrase back to your partner.
Try and summarize what you are hearing your partner communicate, which will help them feel heard and seen.  This is key, regardless of agreement.  This may sound like “Okay, what I think I am hearing you say is…” or “I am hearing that [insert event, action, problem] made you feel [insert emotion or message your partner received], am I getting that right?”  This may look like eye contact, nodding, making verbal acknowledgements that you are tuned in (i.e., “yeah, uh-huh, hmm”).
  1. If the conversation is getting heated, step away and pick a time and place to discuss it again.
We know from science, that our body and nervous system get overwhelmed at times during conflict and shut down, or get overactive.  This is the fight, flight or freeze response when we feel there is a threat to the security of our relationship and we flag these threats when we do not feel seen, heard, connected to our partner and in times of conflict.  When things escalate in a conflict, it is impossible to think and communicate clearly and effectively.  If you or your partner has reached this point, take a break and schedule a time to talk about it later.  You will give your mind and body time to slow down, increase oxygen to the brain and de-escalate.  Don’t just drop the topic and never come back to it.
  1. Do something enjoyable together to reduce tension.
Take a walk, watch a funny show, go to dinner together, to increase positive feelings even as a conflict is still unresolved.  Using mindful jokes and humor or giving a hug is also an effective way to reduce tension for many couples.
  1. Help with responsibilities without your partner’s awareness.
Go grocery shopping, do the dishes or bring home or make dinner without your partner asking.  Doing acts of service and taking something off their plate can realy help and show you care in an actionable way.
  1. Remind yourself what you love about your partner and tell them.
When we get caught up in a negative cycle of communication, it is easy to only see the problem/s, issues, our partner’s flaws.  It is important and helpful to take a deep breath, step away and reflect on what you appreciate and love about your partner and share with them.  Sometimes thinking about the qualities that drew you to your partner earlier on in the relationship is helpful with this if you have been in a difficult place for a while.  John Gottman’s relationship research has shown that it takes 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction to restore and maintain a healthy balance in a relationship.   Last but not least, seeking professional guidance and support from a licensed therapist or counselor is a huge step in working on relationship and conflict resolution skills in yourself or your relationship.  Individual therapy, marriage counseling, couples therapy can be incredibly beneficial for couples and individuals seeking more support and help on managing relationship conflict.  Sometimes the patterns are so ingrained, complex and have been in place for so long, making it very difficult to get out of them and resolve them on your own. Professional support becomes crucial at that point.  In my office, I typically see couples with patterns of pursue/withdraw, avoid/avoid, and attack/counterattack actions in their negative conflict cycles. At Love Story Therapy, both Penelope and I provide individual therapy, couples therapy and marriage counseling for couples that would like skills, support and to go deeper.  Reach out today to schedule a session or schedule a complimentary phone consult to see what a good fit may be for you!     Sources: