5 Steps to Handle Conflict in Your Relationship

Handling conflict in a relationship is challenging for many couples. It can be difficult to find ways to talk about disagreements or complaints that don’t devolve into arguments that don’t resolve anything, leave you both feeling worse, and potentially lead to more fights down the road.

Marriage expert John Gottman describes five steps to deal with conflicts without letting them turn into fights .

Step 1. Soften Your Startup: We looked at some tips to soften your startup in an earlier post. “Startup” refers to how you initiate a discussion with your partner about a complaint you have or an issues of conflict in your relationship. Regarding startups, Gottman says:

 

If you start an argument harshly—meaning you attack your spouse verbally—you’ll end up with at least as much tension as you began. But if you use a softened startup—meaning you complain but don’t criticize or otherwise attack your spouse—the discussion is likely to be productive. And if most of your arguments start softly, your marriage is likely to be stable and happy. If you are the one most responsible for harsh startups in your relationship, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to the fate of your marriage to soften up.

Step 2. Learn to Make and Receive Repair Attempts: Once a discussion starts off on the wrong foot and you get caught up in attacking or blaming each other, you can still turn things around if you’re able to stop this pattern long enough to get things back on track. Repair attempts refer to the ways in which you try to rescue a discussion that has stated to turn into a fight.

A repair attempt is any attempt to put the brakes on once a discussion is starting to become an argument, to prevent things from escalating further, and get things back to a nicer tone. Repair attempts Includes things such as:

  • Telling your partner how you are feeling: “I’m feeling a little upset right now.”
  • Telling your partner what you need: “I just need you to listen to me for a minute without saying anything.”
  • Apologizing: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
  • Asking to take a break: “I need to take a little break right now before I can continue to talk about this.”
  • Showing appreciation: “Thanks for telling me what you’ve been going through.”

Once you learn to make repair attempts, and just as importantly, learn to pick up on when your partner is making a repair attempt, you become able to reign things back in once a discussion starts turning into a fight, and then continue to discuss things in a more productive fashion.

Step 3. Soothe Yourself and Each Other: During conflicts with your partner, it’s easy to become flooded by overwhelming physiological reactions in response to your partner’s attacks and the negative emotions they generate. Once this happens, you’re no longer in a position to have a productive discussion because your emotions have become too overwhelming: your ability to process what your partner is saying goes out the window and it becomes almost impossible to think clearly and rationally.

When this happens, if you try to continue your discussion you’re likely to either blow up at your partner, or shut down and stop communicating altogether, either of which are only going to make things worse. When your emotions start to get too heated, it’s essential to take a time out, temporarily stop the discussion, and give yourself a chance to calm your emotions.

After you’ve calmed yourself, anything you can do to help soothe your partner will go a long way towards reducing any tension even further. This also helps makes your partner feel safer expressing themselves in the future, because they know that if things get heated or they get upset, you’re able to help calm and soothe, rather than triggering even more distress. In turn, this makes flooding less likely to happen in the future.

Step 4. Compromise: As nice as it is to get your own way, in a marriage or relationship, the key to resolving conflict is to compromise, even if you’re convinced that you’re right. In order to be able to negotiate a compromise, the above three steps need to be in place. A comprise that you’re both satisfied with is difficult to achiever unless the discussion starts gently, repairs are made when things start to escalate, and you both manage to keep relatively calm and not become overwhelmed by emotions.

Compromise involves finding some common ground you can both agree on. Gottman presents an exercise to help find that common ground:

Decide together which problem you want to tackle. Then sit separately and think about the problem. On a piece of paper, draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle make a list of the aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle list all of the aspects of the problem you can compromise about.

 

Try hard to make your outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Once you’ve filled in your circles come back and share them with each other. Look for common basis of agreement.

In order to achieve compromise, Gottman suggests asking yourselves the following questions:

  • What do we agree about?
  • What are our common feelings or the most important feelings here?
  • What common goals can we have here?
  • How can we understand this situation, this issue?
  • How do we think these goals should be accomplished?

Being able to reach compromises is an essential part of having a long-lasting, successful relationship.

Step 5. Be Tolerant of Each Other’s Faults: The final step in reducing conflict in your relationship is to realize that neither of you are perfect. It’s easy to wish your partner were different: richer, smarter, more attractive, more organized, more spontaneous, etc. However, the reality is that your partner is the way they are and they’re not going to change that much. So if you blame the problems in your relationship on the character of your partner, there’s not going to be much room for those problems to change.

Compromise is hard to reach if your focus is on changing your partner or wishing they were different. Until you’re able to accept your partner the way they are, flaws and all, you’re going to have trouble compromising. Unless you’re able to tolerate and accept each other’s faults, finding common ground is going to difficult to accomplish.


Every relationship has conflicts. There will always be times when you and your partner disagree about things or have complaints about each other’s behaviour. The key to a successful relationship isn’t to remove or avoid conflict, but to learn to navigate and negotiate these conflicts in ways that leave both of you feeling respected, listened too and safe. Using the five principles described above helps ensure that you and your partner handle conflict in ways that allow your relationship remains strong and secure.

Guelph Therapist Greg Dorter

I’m a couples counsellor and marriage therapist in Guelph who can help you work through issues in your marriage or relationship. To learn more, please see my couples counselling and relationship issues pages. For further information, or to make an appointment for marriage therapy or couples counselling, please call me at 226-500-4086 or email greg@guelphtherapist.ca.
 

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