6 Skills to Help Couples Manage Conflict

by Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT

Conflict happens in all relationships. It is manageable.

For everyone who has ever been in a relationship, they all have experienced the same thing: conflict and fights. Conflict is one of the most common features of relationships of every type. And that is normal. Expect to experience disagreements, conflict and fights in your relationships.  What you do not need to expect, is that those fights, that initial conflict, to spiral out of control. Conflict is manageable, and you and your partner can grow from it.

Conflict can be managed using these skills to turn a problem into a solution

Here is the secret: conflict can be managed and it does have its own rules to follow to make it healthy and productive. Unfortunately, most of us are not taught how to have a fight correctly, so we are left trying to figure things out when we are disagreeing with our partner. That’s just not helpful. Here are some rules, and some skills to use when you are having a conflict, that will turn it from a problem, to a solution.

Dr. Gottman found that conflict all follow the same pathways. Conflict needed to be handed and set up correctly from the beginning, in order to have the best chance of being resolved successfully. As Tolstoy once said, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Happiness comes from following basic skills and rules for handling disagreement and family discord.

  1. Soften the Startup.
  2. Accept Influence.
  3. Make Effective Repairs During the Conflict
  4. De-escalate
  5. Psychological Soothing of Yourself and Your Partner
  6. Compromise

Now this may sound like a lot to do, especially when you are mad at your partner, but if you do a couple simple things, you can make this a healthy and fast process.

Softening the Startup helps keep the conversation calm and focused.
connect hands

How you start the conversation off, will frequently determine how the conversation ends. What was learned was that when the problem was framed in certain ways, the talk went in much better ways, than others.  For this, keep the conversation focused on yourself, not your partner, by using I statements, and keeping it focused on the behavior, not judgments.

Using I statements helps you express your need without attacking or blaming your partner.

What you would want to say is, “When I have to cook the meals, do the dishes, do laundry, I get overwhelmed and tired. I need more help.” Do that instead of, “You never help me around the house, you are so lazy!” Say them out loud. Do you hear the difference? One starts a talk off about getting your needs met, the other sets your partner on the defensive and feeling attacked and hurt. That is a general rule to follow, if you think it will leave your partner feeling hurt and on the defensive, find another way to say it.

Validate your partner’s experience

Next, understand you played a part in this. Your partner likely has their own side of the story that may have some validity to it. It may be uncomfortable, but listen to them, and let them have their say as well. Do not go right into debate mode, and talk about how they are wrong. Just listen to them, and try to understand their point of view. You may want to say something like, “So you have been putting in more hours at work to help us pay the bills, and don’t have the energy to help around the house anymore.” You did not agree or disagree, you just let them know you heard them. That helps move the conversation along, and have both of you feel like you have a say in how it ends.

Taking a break to de-escalate the conversation is okay and needed at times.

Also, remember to take a time out if you need one. Taking time to say that you, or your partner, are getting too emotional and need to walk away to have a breath, a snack, or just to talk about something else for a few minutes, is a perfectly reasonable action to take. You both have the right to ask for what you need, and to take basic actions to get it. Remember to be respectful to your partner as you are to your own needs.

What are you needing for self-care when you feel hurt or overwhelmed?

Learn what works for you to take care of yourself when you are upset, hurting or overwhelmed. These are often called self-care or self-soothing skills and behaviors that make us feel more peaceful, centered and calm. Doing these things, like watching TV, reading, doing yoga, or prayer help us all calm and refocus our energies. At some points, you or your partner will need to do something to take care of yourselves. This happens, and is normal if you need a break and need to do something else for a few minutes so you can eventually go back to talking about the conflict at hand. Let yourself and your partner take the time to do whatever it is that helps them self-soothe.

Compromising helps you come together to create a win-win solution

we win

Finally remember what Nassim Taleb said, “Love without compromise is like theft.” We all need to come to a resolution at some point in the process and then leave this conflict behind. Compromise allows us to do that. That way you both will feel like you were heard and got something out of it, with both of you getting some needs met. There are many ways to do this, but the key is that you both have to give and get something and feel good about the deal. Know what you can live with and accept, and what is out of bounds for your own needs.

You can improve your handling of conflict and create more peace and harmony

Conflict has long been a part of human relationships, and will likely be that way for the rest of time. We need conflict to help us learn and grow, and become better people together. Through love, compassion and compromise, we can become even stronger couples, and following these steps and using these skills will be the way to get us there.

Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFTCarlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene can help couples learn more effective ways of communicating that will help both partners feel heard and appreciated. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.