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Conflicts in relationships: How to navigate it

Conflicts happen in all relationships, even the most loving ones. But did you know navigating them effectively can actually strengthen your bond? Discover how with our practical guide to handling conflicts in your relationship.

Relationship Expert Amy Clark June 1, 2023 • 21 minutes read
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It’s not the conflict that’s the problem, but how we handle it. Dealing with conflicts in a healthy way can make or break a partnership. [1] While disagreements and arguments are normal in any relationship, learning how to navigate them constructively is key to maintaining a strong and healthy relationship.

In this article, we take a deep dive into how to navigate conflicts in relationships, providing valuable insights into common conflict topics and the signs that indicate potential conflicts in your relationship. We’ll also explore different ways people cope with conflicts and provide you with 12 practical steps that you can take to navigate them successfully.

Want to know even more about handling conflicts? Here's everything you need to know about dealing with conflicts and challenges in relationships!

Understanding relationship conflicts

Understanding relationship conflicts

A relationship conflict is a disagreement or struggle between two individuals in a romantic relationship. It’s normal to have conflicts in a relationship - whether it’s romantic or not. [2] [3] However, this does not mean that arguments should be taken lightly.

Conflicts in relationships can vary in severity, from minor disagreements to full-blown arguments that have a significant impact on the quality of the relationship. If conflicts are ignored or handled poorly, they can lead to resentment, hurt feelings, and even the breakdown of the relationship. However, if handled constructively, they can lead to a deeper understanding of each other and ultimately strengthen your relationship.

How often is it “normal” to fight with your partner? If you're wondering how often it's okay to argue in a relationship - here's the answer.

Common conflict topics in relationships

Although every relationship is unique, certain topics commonly spark conflicts between partners. We have collected the most frequently reported conflict topics in relationships for you:

1. Communication

Communication is one of the most important parts of a relationship and can be one of its biggest challenges. Misunderstandings, disagreements about how to communicate with each other, or feeling unheard are common sources of conflict.

2. Personal/Partner habits

Conflicts may arise due to one partner’s specific habits, such as not picking up after themselves, spending too much money, or spending too much time on their phone.

3. Household chores

Who does what around the house can be a major source of conflict, especially when both partners are busy with work or other commitments.

4. Finances

Money and financial issues are other major sources of conflict - whether it’s disagreements about spending habits or establishing a budget.

5. Decision-making

Conflicts can arise when partners have different opinions on how to approach decision-making. Another possible source of conflict related to decision-making is when one partner feels they don’t have an equal say or feel like their opinion is not being heard or taken seriously.

6. Quality-time

In a relationship, partners may have different expectations for the amount of time they spend together, as well as different ideas about what activities constitute quality time. These differing expectations can lead to conflict if not addressed and may cause one partner to feel neglected or unappreciated.

7. Parenting

Parenting can be a complex topic for couples to navigate, and disagreements can easily arise when partners have different views on how to raise children.

8. Sex

Differing sexual needs and preferences can often create conflicts between partners. While some people may place a high value on sex and view it as a vital component of their relationship, others may not prioritize it as much. When partners have different levels of interest or mismatched libidos, it can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and conflict.

9. Screen-time

Screen time, or the amount of time spent on electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and computers, is becoming an increasingly common source of conflict in relationships. One partner may feel ignored or neglected if the other spends too much time on their phone or computer, leading to feelings of resentment and conflict.

10. Role expectations

“Role expectations” refers to the expectations that each partner has about their roles and responsibilities within the relationship. In some cases, one partner may feel overwhelmed or burdened by their responsibilities, while the other partner may feel that their efforts are not being recognized or appreciated. This can lead to conflicts around the division of labor and expectations of each other. [4]

While there are endless things that can lead to arguments in relationships, some can have a more serious impact than others. Check out these warning signs of arguments that may mean the end of your relationship.

Ways of coping with conflicts in relationships

Ways of coping with conflicts in relationships

We all react differently to conflicts, and no way of coping is inherently good or bad. However, research suggests some coping strategies may be healthier than others. [5]

For example, developing a plan to solve a problem or finding a positive perspective makes people feel better. However, confrontational coping, such as expressing anger, trying to change the other person’s mind, and distancing oneself from the problem, can lead to increased distress and negative emotions. [5]

If it's hard for you to control your anger, here are healthy ways to express anger in relationships.

How you handle a stressful situation can greatly affect how you feel about it. That’s why it’s important to understand the different types of coping strategies and their effects. [5]

Ways of coping describe how people actually respond to stress as they contend with real-life problems. Common coping strategies include problem-solving, seeking social support, distraction, escape, opposition, and social isolation. [6]

1. Problem-solving

Problem-solving is an active way of coping that includes planning, strategizing, and taking steps to solve the issue at hand. [5]

2. Support-seeking

Support-seeking, which is also an active coping strategy, involves seeking social support from friends, family members, or other sources. [5]

3. Distraction

Distraction is a way of dealing with stress by diverting one’s attention away from the problem. One engages in pleasurable activities to take one’s mind off of stress. [5]

4. Escape

Escape is a coping strategy that involves avoiding the situation or attempting to evade the stressor through denial or mental withdrawal. [5]

5. Opposition

Opposition describes coping mechanisms such as projecting one’s feelings onto others, getting angry or aggressive, and putting the blame on someone else. [5]

6. Social Isolation

Social isolation as a way of coping refers to a behavior where individuals withdraw from social interaction or avoid others as a means of dealing with stress or emotional distress. [5]


6 Signs of conflicts in relationships

Signs of conflicts in relationships

Recognizing signs of conflict in a relationship is an essential step in addressing and resolving any issues. Conflicts are a normal part of any relationship, but when left unaddressed, they can fester and grow into larger problems. By recognizing the warning signs of conflict, individuals can address the issues early on and work towards finding solutions together.

Keep an eye out for these six signs that suggest there may be some unresolved conflicts in your relationship:

1. Lack of communication or avoidance of certain topics

A lack of communication or avoiding certain topics is a red flag that a conflict may be brewing in your relationship. You may also notice a decrease in the quality of your conversations or feel like you’re talking but not really connecting.

2. Feeling disconnected or emotionally distant from your partner

If you find that you or your partner are becoming increasingly distant, it could be a sign that there are unresolved conflicts in your relationship. Emotional distance can lead to a sense of loneliness and isolation, which can ultimately damage the bond between partners.

3. Passive-aggressive behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior can be a sign of underlying conflicts in a relationship. This can include things like silent treatment or making subtle jabs at your partner. These behaviors can lead to a buildup of resentment and tension in the relationship. Try to address the behavior head-on and have an open and honest conversation about what is causing the passive-aggressive behavior.

4. Recurring arguments

If you find that you and your partner are arguing about the same things over and over again, it could be a sign of unresolved conflicts. This can create a feeling of frustration and hopelessness within the relationship. Try to identify the underlying issues and work together to find a resolution.

5. The feeling of being taken for granted or unappreciated

When one partner feels like they’re doing more than their fair share or their efforts are going unnoticed, it can lead to feelings of being unappreciated or taken for granted. This can cause resentment and conflict, particularly if it’s an ongoing issue that’s not being addressed.

6. Lack of intimacy

Lack of intimacy can also be a sign of conflicts in a relationship. This can include a lack of physical affection, such as hugging, kissing, or holding hands. It can also include a lack of sexual intimacy, where one or both partners may feel unfulfilled or unsatisfied. This sign is especially important for couples who were once more physically and emotionally intimate, as a decrease in intimacy can indicate problems that need to be addressed.


12 Powerful steps on how to navigate relationship conflicts

Powerful steps on how to navigate relationship conflict

How you handle conflicts can have a significant impact on the well-being of your relationship. The way you communicate, the words you choose, and the actions you take can either strengthen your bond or tear it apart.

With these 12 powerful steps, you can learn how to navigate conflicts in your relationship in a healthy way.

1. Active listening

Active listening is a crucial communication skill, not only in couples but also in any relationship. [7] It involves paying attention to what the other person is saying without interrupting and giving verbal or non-verbal cues to let your partner know that you’re listening. [8]

Verbal cues are important indicators of active listening during a conversation. Paraphrasing what your partner said and asking follow-up questions are two effective verbal cues that demonstrate your engagement and understanding. [8]

The non-verbal cues that can indicate active listening include making eye contact, nodding to show understanding, and using body language that shows that you’re paying attention. [8]

By listening actively, you not only show your partner that you value their thoughts and feelings, but you also gain a deeper understanding of their perspective.

2. Use I-statements

The words we choose to use can have a significant impact on the outcome of a conversation and our relationships. [9] One important language tool that can help prevent arguments and misunderstandings is the use of I-statements. [10]

Using I-statements in conversations can be an effective way to communicate your feelings and needs without placing blame on your partner. By focusing on your own perspective, you’re able to express yourself while avoiding accusations and hostility. [11]

For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me”, which might make your partner defensive, try saying, “I feel like I’m not being heard by you.” This communicates the same message while highlighting your own feelings, which can be less confrontational.

3. Be direct

Being direct when addressing a problem in your relationship is key to resolving the issue. [12] This means using clear and specific language to communicate your thoughts and feelings.

Using vague messages like “You should care more” or “You don’t love me enough” is not helpful in fixing the problem as they can lead to misunderstandings and frustration. [12]

Instead, try to be direct and use clear language when communicating. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t love me enough.” try saying something like, “I need more affection from you, like hugs and kisses. Can we talk about how to make that happen?”.

Being direct can help your partner better understand what you need from them and work with you to find a solution.

4. Stay respectful

Dealing with conflicts in a healthy manner involves avoiding negative communication, such as name-calling and insults, as they can cause your partner to become defensive and the conflict to worsen. [13] [14] If you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated during an argument, take a step back and breath. Give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts before continuing the conversation. [14]

The best way to make sure to stay respectful is to use “I” statements such as “I feel…” and avoid blame. Using this method, you’re able to express your needs and feelings without attacking or insulting your partner. [11]

Here are more useful tips on how to fight fair in your relationship.

5. Focus on the current issue

Stay focused on the issue at hand. Jumping from one topic to another can make it harder to resolve the conflict or come up with a solution.

It is also important to make sure that you don’t bring up past issues while trying to tackle the current issue. Doing so can be counterproductive and lead to further arguments.

Instead, focus on the current problem and make sure to address it directly. Once you’re done discussing the issue, then you can move on to another subject matter.

6. Perspective-taking

When you’re in the middle of a disagreement with your partner, it’s easy to get caught up in your own feelings and forget that there are two sides to every story. Try to look at the issue from your partner’s point of view. What are they feeling? What might be motivating them?

If you have trouble understanding their perspective, just ask them to explain it and listen without judgment. This can help you gain insight into their feelings and be more understanding of the situation.

Remember, understanding your partner’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does show that you respect their feelings and are committed to finding a resolution that works for both of you.

7. Compromise

When you’re open to compromise, you increase your chances of finding a solution that works for both of you. [15] Compromising allows you to take care of your own needs while also considering your partner’s needs. [16]

While there are some topics that can’t be compromised on (e.g., having kids), most conflicts can be solved by finding common ground.

Compromising doesn’t mean giving up your values or disrespecting yourself. It’s all about finding a middle ground and both partners being willing to give a little to gain a lot in the long run.

8. Cooperation

Working together is key to overcoming any problems in your relationship that come your way. [12] By working together and remaining optimistic, you’re more likely to find solutions that benefit both of you. This not only resolves the issue at hand, but it can also increase relationship satisfaction and strengthen your bond. [17]

Remember, it takes both partners to work together and be proactive in finding solutions to challenges that arise. By doing so, you’ll be able to maintain a healthy and fulfilling relationship. [18]

Are you currently having your first fight? Learn how you and your partner can successfully manage your first fight as a couple.

9. Take a time-out

Time-outs are a useful tool when navigating conflicts in relationships. Taking a break can help you to calm down, defuse emotions and gain a fresh perspective when you return to the argument. [19]

However, if you’re taking a time-out, it’s important not to do things that will make you more upset, like dwelling on negative thoughts or planning a counterattack. [19]

Instead, take the time to do something calming or refreshing, like taking a walk, listening to music, or whatever else helps you to relax. When you’re calm and collected, it’s easier to come back to the discussion with an open mind and a willingness to find a resolution. [19]

10. Agree to disagree

Just because you are in a relationship doesn’t mean you have to share the same opinions or beliefs. It’s important to remember that it’s okay to agree to disagree.

Trying to force your partner to share your viewpoint or constantly arguing about it can cause unnecessary strain and tension in the relationship. Accepting that you may have different viewpoints can help prevent arguments from escalating and allow both parties to move on.

When you respect each other’s differences, it can strengthen your relationship and allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other. Ultimately, a healthy relationship involves acknowledging and accepting differences while still maintaining mutual respect and love.

Being able to agree to disagree also requires knowing when and how to stop arguing. Here's everything you need to know about how to stop fighting in a relationship.

11. Use humor

When used appropriately, humor can help to reduce tension during arguments and ultimately strengthen your relationship. [20] While it might not be appropriate in every situation, adding some levity to a heated discussion can help lighten the mood and take away some of the intensity.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should use humor as a way to belittle your partner or deflect from the issue at hand. You don’t want to make light of the situation or your partner’s feelings. Instead, use humor with caution and be mindful of how you’re applying it in the context of the argument.

Finding a balance between being serious and lighthearted can help keep arguments from escalating out of control and keep your relationship strong.

12. Couples therapy

If you and your partner are having trouble overcoming issues on your own, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Couples therapy can provide a safe environment for couples to share their thoughts and feelings with each other and learn new communication and problem-solving skills. [21] [22]

Two widely used forms of therapy for couples are emotion-focused therapy and behavioral couples therapy. These therapies have been proven to be effective in resolving relationship issues and enhancing the quality of relationships. [23]

However, whatever therapy you decide to pursue, the most important thing is that you’re both committed to working together to improve your relationship. With the right support, you can learn how to navigate conflicts in your relationship in a healthy way and reach a deeper understanding of each other.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of a healthy, thriving relationship. Learn more about how to unlock your relationship's full potential in our in-depth communication guide.


FAQ about navigating conflicts in relationships

1. How do you handle a conflict in a relationship?

When handling a conflict in a relationship, it’s important to approach the situation with an open and empathetic mindset. Listen actively to your partner’s concerns and try to see things from their perspective. Avoid using blame or criticism, and instead, use “I” statements to express how you feel about the situation.

Once you have both expressed your concerns, work together to find a solution that works for both of you. Be willing to compromise and make sure that both of you feel heard and understood.

It’s also important to remember that conflicts are a normal part of any relationship, and it’s how you handle them that can make or break the relationship. Don’t let the conflict escalate into a personal attack or bring up past grievances. Instead, focus on finding a solution and moving forward together.

2. How do you resolve conflict in a relationship in a healthy way?

To resolve conflict in a relationship in a healthy way, it is important to start by creating a safe and calm environment for both partners to communicate their thoughts and feelings. This can involve setting ground rules for the conversation, such as not interrupting or using disrespectful language.

Start by identifying the issue and discussing how it makes each partner feel. Use “I” statements to express your feelings and avoid blaming the other person. Encourage your partner to do the same.

Once both partners have had a chance to express their feelings, work together to find a solution that meets both of your needs. This may involve compromise and brainstorming different options. Remember to stay respectful and avoid attacking each other personally.

It’s also important to take a break and step away from the situation if things become too heated. Take some time to cool down and come back to the conversation when you’re both feeling more calm and rational.

3. What is the 3-day rule after an argument?

The “3-day rule” after an argument is a guideline that suggests waiting for three days after an argument before trying to resolve the issue. During this time, both partners are encouraged to take a step back and give each other space to cool off and process their emotions. This can help prevent further escalation of the conflict and allow for a more productive and rational conversation when both partners are ready to address the issue.

However, it’s important to note that the “3-day rule” is not a hard and fast rule that applies to every situation. Some conflicts may require immediate attention and resolution, while others may need more time and space to be fully processed. Ultimately, the best approach to resolving conflict in a relationship is to communicate openly and honestly with your partner and to work together to find a solution that works for both of you.


Secrets to a healthy relationship: Books every couple should read

It's no secret that a healthy relationship is key in a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship. This list of books about healthy relationships will help you learn how to communicate better, resolve conflict, and deepen your connection. From classic self-help books to more modern reads, these titles will give you the tools you need to build a strong and healthy relationship.

  1. Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships
  2. Love in Every Season: Understanding the Four Stages of Every Healthy Relationship
  3. Love More, Fight Less: Communication Skills Every Couple Needs: A Relationship Workbook for Couples
  4. Infidelity Recovery Workbook for Couples: Tools and Exercises to Rebuild Your Relationship
  5. Healthy Me, Healthy Us: Your Relationships Are Only as Strong as You Are

References

  1. Byrne, M., Carr, A., & Clark, M. (2004). The efficacy of behavioral couples therapy and emotionally focused therapy for couple distress. Contemporary Family Therapy, 26(4), 361-387.
  2. Shantz, C. U. (1987). Conflict between children. Child Development, 58, 283–305.
  3. Gurman, A. S. (2008). A framework for the comparative study of couple therapy. In Alan S Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (4th ed., pp. 1-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  4. Meyer, D., & Sledge, R. (2021). The Relationship Between Conflict Topics and Romantic Relationship Dynamics. Journal of Family Issues, 43(2), 306–323. doi.org
  5. Lazarus, R. S. (1993). Coping theory and research: past, present, and future. Psychosomatic Medicine, 55(3), 234–247. doi.org
  6. Skinner, E. A., & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2007). The Development of Coping. Annual Review of Psychology, 58(1), 119–144. doi.org
  7. Rogers, A., & Welch, B. (2009). Using standardized clients in the classroom: An evaluation of a training module to teach active listening skills to social work students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 29(2), 153-168.
  8. Weger, H., Bell, G. C., Minei, E., & Robinson, M. J. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13–31. doi.org
  9. Barrett, L. F., Lindquist, K. A., & Gendron, M. (2007). Language as context for the perception of emotion. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(8), 327-332.
  10. Simmons, R. A., Gordon, P. C., & Chambless, D. L. (2005). Pronouns in marital interaction: What do you and I say about marital health?. Psychological science, 16(12), 932-936.
  11. Biesen, J. N., Schooler, D. E., & Smith, D. A. (2016). What a difference a pronoun makes: I/We versus you/me and worried couples’ perceptions of their interaction quality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 35(2), 180-205.Author (Year). Title of the work.
  12. Overall, N. C., & McNulty, J. K. (2017). What Type of Communication during Conflict is Beneficial for Intimate Relationships?. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 1–5.
  13. Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). Regulating partners in intimate relationships: The costs and benefits of different communication strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 620–639. doi.org
  14. Pike, G. R., & Sillars, A. L. (1985). Reciprocity of marital communication. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2(3), 303-324.
  15. Lantagne, A., Furman, W., & Novak, J. (2017). Stay or Leave: Predictors of Relationship Dissolution in Emerging Adulthood. Emerging adulthood (Print), 5(4), 241–250.
  16. Reese-Weber, M., & Bartle-Haring, S. (1998). Conflict resolution styles in family subsystems and adolescent romantic relationships. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 27(6), 735-752.
  17. Assad, K. K., Donnellan, M. B., & Conger, R. D. (2007). Optimism: an enduring resource for romantic relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(2), 285–297.
  18. Gaines, S. O., Jr., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Relationship maintenance in intercultural couples: An interdependence analysis. In D. J. Canary & M. Dainton (Eds.), Maintaining relationships through communication: Relational, contextual, and cultural variations (pp. 231-253). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  19. Mischel, W., DeSmet, A. L., & Kross, E. (2014). Self-regulation in the service of conflict resolution. In P. T. Coleman, M. Deutsch, & E. C. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice, 310–330. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
  20. Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43(3), 301-314.
  21. WILLI, J. (1997). The Significance of Romantic Love for Marriage. Family Process, 36(2), 171–182.
  22. Straus, M. A., & Gozjolko, K. L. (2014). Intimate Terrorism and gender differences in injury of dating partners by male and female university students. Journal of Family Violence, 29(1), 51–65.
  23. Mead, D. E. (2002). Marital distress, co-occurring depression, and marital therapy: A review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28(3), 299-314.
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Author picture of Amy Clark
Relationship Expert

Amy Clark

Amy Clark is a freelance writer who writes about relationships, marriage, and family. She has been happily married for over ten years and loves her husband and three kids. Before …

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