Credit Photo: Ashleigh W. @ Flickr

Managing Conflict in Relationships

Can an argument ever be healthy?

Most couples find coping with conflict in their relationships quite challenging. Couples may avoid confronting each other with difficult issues, because they fear the consequences, but disagreements are a normal part of any relationship. They are a way of addressing problems in your relationships and airing your point of view. Arguments can sometimes be a healthy and constructive way of changing the status quo and moving forward in relationships. They do not have to descend into all out conflict or fuel destructive behaviour.

Having an argument may be appropriate if feelings aren’t being voiced or you need to stand up for yourself. They may even be helpful, when couples are not communicating their ideas and needs effectively. One person may feel misunderstood or unappreciated but be afraid to voice this. An argument can be a way initiating this kind of communication or expressing your feelings.

Risking an argument can be a way of reinvigorating your relationship and expressing strong emotions; allowing the other person to know what is going on for you, especially in a crisis. People are not mind-readers and your partner may feel the need to challenge you if you’re not expressing yourself. Having an argument can clear the air when you have both come to a crossroads, or a way of breaking the deadlock and creating new opportunities for growth and change in your relationship.

Most couples do not like confrontation and avoid it at all costs, but the more you sit on a problem, the more likely it will lead festering resentment and frustration. This is especially true when each person’s fears and disappointments have not been articulated. By bottling up your emotions and withholding feelings from your partner you cannot hope to understand each other better. On the other hand, taking ownership of your feelings and expressing them openly and directly, can lead to greater trust in a relationship.

You may feel the need to stand up for yourself, as long as you do not seek to humiliate your partner or win the argument. By seeking to win, someone always has to lose. This can only generate further anger and resentment. The truth is, in any relationship you both bring problems to the relationship. No one is above reproach. So arguing with empathy when you need to get your point across or negotiate a new set of boundaries is often a way of creating a platform for you both to feel heard and appreciated. However, it is best if you follow a workable set of guidelines that you have both agreed to, if you are going to feel safe enough to argue. The aim of the argument should be mutually defined, an agreement based on compromise and acceptance, not fear and coercion.

Arguments don't have to be angry and hurtful, if you define the terms or the argument and do not allow it to spill over in to accusation and counter-accusation. With a degree of self-awareness and empathy for each other, there are several techniques you can try, which will allow you to express yourself without indulging in conflict. The ability to argue effectively can give you the confidence to say what you believe without seeking to air a list of grievances. or punish your partner. Remember to pick your battles - some things aren't worth arguing about. Disagreements need to be few and far between and about things that really matter to you.

What to Remember in an Argument:

  1. Never start on the offensive/defensive:as this will set the agenda for positioning yourselves into winners and losers. When you feel so intense or angry you cannot control yourself call ‘time-out’ and walk away. Try to return to the issue after careful reflection and consideration, not with a list of grievances drawn up in the other person’s absence. Work through your issues, once your feelings have settled down but are still 'live'. Do not sweep your issues under the carpet and hope they will disappear. Calmly focus on the point you are trying to discuss, bearing in mind how it benefits both parties. Be open and direct, but not coercive.
  2. You are trying to repair your relationship not destroy it:try to agree on a solution which benefits both people, not just one. Come to an appropriate compromise even if there are differences between you (such as beliefs and points of view). Not everyone can be expected to think the way you do, however reasonable you believe it is. You may want your partner to respect and even empathise with your position, but you cannot demand it without abusing their freewill. There may be a satisfactory compromise which suits some but not all of your needs – i.e. prioritise those issues which are most meaningful to you. And be prepared to make sacrifices, except those which compromise your wellbeing and freedom.
  3. Learn to tolerate, even when there is disagreement:being tolerant does not mean putting up with something you find unacceptable, it comes from a place of genuine acceptance and a willingness to live with something you find difficult, but not impossible. You can acknowledge the validity of someone else’s position, without giving up your principles. And you may make concessions in situations where their gain matters more to them, than your loss matters to you.
  4. Exercise fair play:we often know exactly how to push another person's buttons, but it's important to resist this impulse if you want to come to an agreement by mutual consent. Ensure that no matter how upset you are with your partner, you do not choose the one option that pushes you towards all out conflict or gives you the upper hand. Being abusive or taking the moral high ground, will not win you any favours.
  5. Respect the other person’s position even when you disagree:gaining mutual respect is vital if you are seeking cooperation. So any argument needs to be two-sided. If you ignore your partner's point of view, they will not be in a position to listen to you. Disagreeing with a person's opinion is fine, but refusing to hear it makes for a one-sided relationship that leaves one party feeling aggrieved. In a mutually satisfying relationship both people need to feel heard and understood.
  6. Learn to be empathic: the more you can see the other person’s point of view ‘as if’ it were your own, the more likely you are to create common ground, in spite of disagreement. Remember, your partner is a unique individual with their own feelings, values and beliefs just like you. There's no such thing as the 'truth'. There are many versions of the truth depending where you stand. If you empathise, you are more likely to win the other person’s trust even when you disagree. In this way, the other person knows you are not trying to be vindictive or humiliate them. It may seem clichéd, but treat others the way that you want to be treated. Don't dismiss your partner's ideas because you don't agree. Listen attentively and try to see the reasonableness of their words and actions. Even when you balk at what they say. If you love someone, winning isn't important, but resolving your issues is.
  7. Challenge opinions, not the person they belong to:when you have a discussion, remember to challenge that person's ideas and actions, not the judge the person themselves. Try not to judge the person for thinking or believing what they do, and try not to recall past misdemeanours either.
  8. The past is no defence; stick to the here-and-now:deal with the present issues so your partner has a chance to put things right. If all you do is blame them, there is no opportunity to make amends. When you rake up a list of old misdemeanours to beat you partner into submission and will not win support. You cannot keep revisiting the past to punish your partner. Stick to the problems in the here-and-now. Recall the facts and outline the changes you could both make, rather than emotional blackmail that is designed to elicit guilt or anxiety. Make the desired changes achievable and clear. Do not drone on when you take a backward step, but reaffirm the original agreement. Also do not challenge your partner's behaviour in an over-generalised way i.e. “you always do that”, “you never get things done”, “that’s just the kind of person you are”. This means we rely on prejudice and assumptions, rather than the evidence no matter what your partner does.
  9. Acknowledge and apologise for mistakes, not deny or justify them:when you make a mistake, own up to it. Your partner will be more likely to respect and trust you if you acknowledge mistakes and apologise when it’s appropriate. It shows them you can be vulnerable and are willing to take risks by being honest. Admit that you may have misunderstood or feel misinformed. Making mistakes doesn't make you a loser or failure, but may earn you a sense of integrity and respect. It shows you can take responsibility by putting things right. Whether the consequences were intentional or not, you can apologize for mistakes without losing ground. Be the adult and do not be afraid to be accountable.
  10. Remain open to new ideas and feedback, they may be helpful:if you find yourself in disagreement, try to remain open to new ideas and other people’s feedback. Their intention may not be to hurt you, but simply want to change the way things are. If you listen with a degree of openness and acceptance, there may be an opportunity for change and growth. You don't want to be wrong stubborn and opinionated if it means remaining closed-minded. Open yourself up to the possibility of a new way of thinking or adapting which may suit you better. Listening to feedback shows you are willing to take on board new ideas and respond appropriately. It shows a willingness to invest in change for the mutual benefit your relationship. Do not automatically assume the other person wants to attack or criticise you, when they simply want to reflect a different viewpoint.