The Art of Managing Conflict in an Intimate Relationship

My wife and I were chatting the other day and both remarked that it would have been so beneficial in the early days of our marriage to be able to have seen a psychologist for some couples therapy and/or to learn some skills to enhance our relationship. Unfortunately ours was the era where we just had to learn the hard way by trial and error! Fortunately we learnt! However, it took us a while longer and at higher cost than was necessary! Nowadays as a registered psychologist, the ability to convey insight into how relationships function and skills to enhance relationships is one of the prime reasons why I love working with couples seeking support in their relationship. So here is some fundamental truths that will help you in your relationship now!

Research shows that the most problematic issues, conflict or differences in relationships don’t get solved (69% in fact). At best they can only be managed. Indeed the reason for this is that most challenging issues in which couples get ‘trapped in’ have more to do with character differences and personality traits. For example, Steve values organisation and neatness; whereas Sarah couldn’t care less about organisation and believes sharing time with friends is most important. Steve loves spending money – Sarah loves saving money. Steve loves hot weather holidays – Sarah loves cold weather holiday’s etc etc. Additionally, there are often major differences in our families of origin, cultures and family traditions, personal values and beliefs, passions and interests among many more differences. The list is long and the differences that typically attracted us to each other, end up being the ones that repel us after a while?! As such, coming to understand and accept that these differences will remain, and learning to manage, not solve problems, are among the most effective skills we can learn to master our intimate relationships.

Therefore I encourage my clients with the following strategies: 1. Change your mindset It's not conflict in a relationship that is bad, it is not managing it constructively which is bad! The aim is not to think "my relationship is doomed" because we have conflict or to think the goal is to remove all conflict. The goal is to see how we can manage/negotiate a win/win solution that allows us to function and enjoy our diversity and differences. 2. Celebrate the differences! Choose to see the joy and strength we have as a result of our differences. Choose to see how our differences were something that attracted us to one another. Rather than fight them now I can choose to appreciate them as they strengthen and enhance our relationship. 3. Find a win/win solution! The way that we constructively manage our differences is to find a win/win solution. Unfortunately people often think that a constructive solution is for one party to just give in or reluctantly comply. This is never a solution and will most often lead to resentment and contempt. It may take time and energy, but a constructive solution is one that really takes into account each other’s position on an issue and then lovingly finds a way to discuss with each other how to give up some ground and move closer and closer to an agreed, acceptable solution with each other. There are many more things we can learn about how intimate relationships function and skills we can develop to enhance our relationships but it is vitally important to firstly learn how to achieve a loving, mutually beneficial win/win way to manage and not change conflict arising from individual differences!

By Mark Webb

M&Co. Registered Psychologist