Conflicting goals, motives, and needs can cause stress in any relationship, particularly a romantic one.
While conflict is not uncommon, if left unresolved along with related stress, it can damage the bonds that form between people (Overall & McNulty, 2017).
If we accept that all partners will disagree at times, we must also recognize that it is crucial to find a resolution to ensure that the relationship’s health is maintained (Grieger, 2015).
This article explores conflict and its resolution in couples and other relationships, introducing key strategies and activities to help avoid or recover from any harm done.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
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Is Conflict Resolution Important for Healthy Relationships?
Conflict need not always lead to damage. Challenge and disagreement within a relationship (romantic or otherwise) can encourage growth, deeper understanding, improved communication, and progress toward a goal (Overall & McNulty, 2017; Tatkin, 2012).
But this is not always the case.
The most critical aspect of conflict affecting the health of a relationship is its resolution. There will always be disagreement and differences of opinion of one kind or another. However, to avoid a loss of trust, damage to intimacy, or behavior that further upsets the relationship, “the couple will want to make sure that the resolution does not leave lingering hurt or resentment in one or both of them” (Grieger, 2015, p. 161).
Clinical psychologist Russell Grieger (2015) suggests that disagreements have four possible outcomes:
- The outcome is good for the first person, but not the second.
This is a win–lose situation. One person gets what they want, while the other is left defeated, possibly feeling hurt, angry, and resentful. Such feelings may lead to further disagreements or surface in other areas of the relationship.
- The outcome benefits the second person, but not the first.
This is similar to the first possible outcome, only this time it is the first person within the relationship who is left feeling thwarted or slighted (a lose–win scenario).
- The outcome is bad for both people.
The third option is bad for both people; they equally face loss (lose–lose). Often a result of stubbornness on both sides when neither wants the other to ‘win,’ so neither will give in. Again, this is damaging for the relationship and, if ongoing or repeated, ultimately toxic.
- A resolution is found that is appropriate for both people.
The couple or partners work toward an equally beneficial resolution and achieve a win–win outcome. Neither person is left feeling defeated or damaged, leading to increased confidence and trust in the relationship.
Undoubtedly, the fourth option is the most ideal for a long-term, healthy partnership and avoids the potential for a downward spiral in the relationship (Grieger, 2015). When in response to conflict, a win–win outcome leads to growth and moving forward.
How to Resolve Conflicts in Relationships: 4 Steps
Grieger (2015) uses a simple yet effective four-step process with couples handling troublesome conflict to overcome resolute differences.
- Step 1 – Eliminate relationship disturbances
Firstly, it is vital to remove or at least reduce emotions that will get in the way of conflict resolution, such as hurt, anger, and resentment.
Otherwise, either side is unlikely to listen patiently and openly to what the other is saying.
- Step 2 – Commit to a win–win posture
Each party must commit to finding a solution that works equally for both. One side winning while the other loses is not acceptable. The couple must remain motivated and open to change.
- Step 3 – Adopt purposeful listening
A win–win solution is more likely when each partner is actively listening to the other. Each individual knows what a win looks like for themselves but now must purposefully listen to the other, avoiding censorship or judgment.
Once both have a shared understanding, a win–win solution is possible.
- Step 4 – Practice synergistic brainstorming
The couple can progress toward identifying a workable resolution, having removed any emotional contamination, adopted a win–win mindset, and fully committed to a win for both.
The couple can share ideas, hopes, needs, goals, and concerns until finding a solution that satisfies both of them.
5 Helpful Strategies for Couples & Married People
Conflict can become an unhealthy habit, leading to a repeating pattern of one or both partners consistently feeling they have lost (Grieger, 2015).
It’s important to consider what brought the couple together in the first place and what they can do more or less of to show their love and understand one another better going forward.
Launching and landing rituals
Heading out to work, school, or the store is described as launching, a time when one partner leaves the relationship world for the non-relationship world (Tatkin, 2012).
Launchings and landings (returning to the relationship) can be an opportunity for conflict or the perfect chance to build healthy relationship-building habits.
Ask yourself or your client:
- Do you run out the door?
- Do you give a lingering kiss and share a moment?
- Do you return, slamming the door as you come in and ask what’s for dinner?
- Do you walk in with a smile and a funny story to tell?
What is right for one couple may not be for the next. It is essential to consider the message sent by each partner’s behavior. An enjoyable farewell and return can, in time, improve connections and reduce the risk of conflict.
Blueprint for love
Caddell (2013) describes the importance of building a blueprint for love. Conflict often arises from misunderstandings or a failure to consider the other’s needs and wishes.
Understanding what a loving relationship looks like to your partner may make it easier to recognize what upsets or frustrates them.
Use the Blueprint for Love worksheet to reflect on how a relationship’s blueprint for love might look.
The exercise begins by asking the client to think of a couple from their past who had a loving relationship. It may be their parents, or they can choose two other people who showed love, acceptance, and caring for one another. Then the person considers what they are looking for in a relationship.
Nothing swept under the rug
Conflict is often unavoidable and sometimes outside of our control. However, how we respond to disagreements, harsh words, and arguments is.
Tatkin (2012, p. 155) suggests couples should adopt the “policy never to avoid anything, no matter how difficult.” Not leaving things to fester and returning at a later date requires paying attention to one another and recognizing what is sensitive for the other person.
Aim to discuss and agree on a mutually beneficial outcome as soon as possible after an issue occurs. If that’s not possible, then agree when it can be discussed.
Revisiting the past
Sometimes couples forget what they saw in each other when they first met. Instead, they become wrapped up in repeating patterns of arguing, disagreements, and conflict.
Revisiting the past can serve as a helpful reminder of what is good about a couple and review why they are together (Williams, 2012).
Ask the couple to consider and discuss the following relationship therapy questions:
- What made you fall in love with each other?
- What were your early years like together?
- How were things better then?
- How are things better now?
- How do you currently show your partner that you care?
- What does your partner do that makes you feel loved?
- What caring behaviors can you do more of or start?
Focus on good communication
Clear, open, and complete dialogue is crucial to a successful relationship and reducing conflict. Sharing and understanding are best achieved when we are not projecting our own beliefs about a partner or what they are going to say but genuinely paying attention to verbal and nonverbal behavior (Hannah, Luquet, Hendrix, Hunt, & Mason, 2005).
Effective listening takes practice. Focus on your partner, what they have to say, and how they act; do not divide attention by looking at your phone or people passing by. Hear what they are saying and how they say it, rather than attending to your own thoughts. And crucially, be comfortable with moments of silence and practice nonjudgment.
5 Exercises, Activities, & Worksheets for Couples Therapy
We often attempt to avoid or reduce conflict at all costs.
Yet this can lead to any resolution being preferable to none due to the fear or discomfort of conflict.
To break out of the lose–win, win–lose, or lose–lose pattern often experienced in a relationship, each partnership must find their own path to achieving a win–win outcome (Grieger, 2015).
The following couples therapy exercises help to remove obstacles in the way of achieving positive outcomes in order to better understand how to ensure both partners win:
Removing relationship disturbances
Existing relationship disturbances can negatively affect finding an appropriate conflict resolution.
Ask each partner to complete the Removing Relationship Disturbances worksheet.
The exercise begins by each partner identifying existing disagreements and conflicts in their relationship and the emotional reactions that accompany them.
Couples answer the following:
- What do we disagree about?
- How do I emotionally react?
- How does my partner emotionally react?
To help with this exercise, couples can think about times when they experienced hurt, upset, anger, insecurity, and fear.
Next, they consider what they could do to remove such disturbances, being specific. What actions could resolve the problem causing these emotional reactions?
Agree to a Win–Win Mindset
Finding a better outcome to conflict requires adopting a win–win mindset. Grieger (2015) suggests rather than asking yourself, “How can I get what I want?” ask, “How can we get what we want?”
This change in approach requires a commitment from both partners to find solutions to problems that lead to mutual satisfaction.
Ask each partner to complete the Agree to a Win–Win Mindset and sign off on the following:
I, ____________________________, commit to adopting a win–win mindset where I work toward outcomes from current and future disagreements so that we both get what we want and need.
Tell them that to achieve a win–win outcome from conflicts, they need to commit to the mindset that they want to reach satisfactory results from all aspects of their relationship.
Once they have both physically signed up, put the sheet somewhere visible in the house to remind both parties that a new mindset is required throughout the relationship, now and in the future.
Listening With Purpose
To understand what a win means for the other person during conflict or a disagreement, it is essential to listen well, forming a deep understanding of their needs, hopes, fears, and wishes.
Use the Listening With Purpose worksheet to capture what winning looks like for both partners in a relationship before considering the next steps.
The couple should take some time, preferably in a place where they both feel safe and comfortable, to discuss what outcome they would like from the existing disagreement.
Without judgment and allowing each person the opportunity to talk openly, they should be able to share what they want. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer – only a true reflection of needs.
Brainstorming for Synergy
Compromise is essential in any relationship, particularly during conflict. Each partner must consider giving something up of similar value so that they meet somewhere in the middle (Grieger, 2015).
Use the Brainstorming for Synergy worksheet to encourage bouncing ideas off each other until the couple finds a win for both partners.
Capture the following:
- What is the disagreement about?
- What does a win for each person look like?
- Brainstorm ideas that could lead to mutual satisfaction.
Often, resolutions to conflict and disagreement feel like a win to both parties; this is a win–win situation. The couple’s goal should be for mutual satisfaction.
Regular Couple Check-Ups
We have regular check-ups for our physical wellbeing, so why not for our relationship health? Without regular monitoring, we don’t know if we are doing things right or wrong for the relationship and avoiding unnecessary conflict.
Grieger (2015) suggests the beginning of the month is a great time to attend to the health of the relationship. Use the Regular Couple Check-Ups worksheet to take stock honestly and openly and make plans for keeping the relationship on track or shake things up a little.
Ask each partner to consider the following questions together or apart:
- What is working well in the relationship, and what should we keep doing?
- What is working okay in the relationship that we could improve?
- What are we not doing that we need to start?
- What are we not doing so well and need to stop, improve, or replace?
The check-ups must be approached with an open, win–win mindset. This is not an opportunity to score points, but to perform a relationship health check and move forward in a positive way.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
If you’re looking for more tools to help your clients strengthen their relationships, be sure to check out three of our hand-picked exercises from the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, which you can download for free in our 3 Positive Relationships Exercises Pack.
Here’s a quick snapshot of what’s included:
- Connecting with Others by Self-Disclosure
In this exercise, clients practice answering questions that require personal disclosure. With one person acting as a listener while the other speaks, it is an opportunity for clients to get comfortable with the vulnerability inherent in self-disclosure as a means to strengthen intimacy and connection.
- Identifying our Expert Companions
This exercise introduces clients to the notion of an expert companion as someone who can listen and help guide them through challenging times. In it, clients will discover the qualities inherent in their ideal expert companion and identify someone in their life who is best suited to fill this valuable role.
- The Sound Relationship House Inspection
This exercise teaches couples the nine elements of the Sound Relationship House (SRH) as a metaphor for the functioning of their relationship. By having each partner rate their perception of the nine elements, couples will clarify areas of agreement and aspects of the relationship that would benefit from greater nurturing and attention.
Try out these powerful tools for yourself by downloading the exercise pack today.
Additional reading we recommend includes:
- 14 Conflict Resolution Strategies & Techniques for the Workplace
This article about conflict resolution in the workplace is a helpful additional read, especially where couples work together. Whether it is working in the family business or working from home, these can cause conflict so be sure to have a look at this article too.
A Take-Home Message
Conflict is a natural part of life. While it is not always damaging, it plays an inevitable role in every relationship.
Indeed, “all couples have disagreements. It is impossible to avoid them. It is how they handle them that will make or break their relationship” (Grieger, 2015, p. 164).
While couples should try to avoid a repeating pattern of conflict, when conflict is inevitable, they should seek a solution that leaves neither party feeling unfairly treated, hurt, or angry. If the resolution leaves one person feeling slighted or resentful, it can creep into other areas of the relationship.
A win–win outcome is most likely when we commit to fairness and listen to one another with open minds and hearts. We must use what we hear and what we already know of the other person to work together and find a solution where no one is left feeling they have lost.
While it is essential to avoid unnecessary conflict, it is helpful to develop an environment in which a couple can flourish and adopt a compassionate, trusting outlook that avoids damage or aids healing when conflict is unavoidable.
These strategies, worksheets, and exercises, teamed with the desire to grow and develop as a couple, provide a way to resolve conflict and form deeper bonds.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Caddell, J. (2013). Your best love: The couple’s workbook and guide to their best relationship. Author.
- Grieger, R. (2015). The couples therapy companion: A cognitive behavior workbook. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
- Hannah, M. T., Luquet, W., Hendrix, H., Hunt, H., & Mason, R. C. (2005). Imago relationship therapy: Perspectives on theory. Jossey-Bass.
- 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.
- Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain and attachment style can help you defuse conflict and build a secure relationship. New Harbinger.
- Williams, M. (2012). Couples counseling: A step by step guide for therapists. Viale.