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January 13, 2015
by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

Fighting the Good Fight: Conflict can be good for your relationship

January 13, 2015 05:55 by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

Peace, quiet, and tranquility are good in a relationship, right?  Well, the answer is yes—and no.  You might think that a lack of conflict is a sign of a healthy and stable relationship.  No one likes arguing and conflict.   Fighting, especially the wrong way, can result in hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and even real damage to a relationship.  Yelling, screaming, name-calling, and slamming doors are no fun for anyone. Yet conflict and disagreement are specific kinds of communication that are necessary in any healthy relationship.

Just like too much conflict can be a sign of a troubled relationship, so can too little conflict.  But conflict scares us for many reasons. We may have had bad experiences with conflict in previous relationships, or we just don’t know how to manage the powerful emotions that arise during conflict.  Perhaps we’ve had the same frustrating fight over and over again, without ever resolving the problem.  So, for a variety of reasons, we may avoid conflict any way we can, but at what cost to our mental health and the health of our relationship?

Conflict as Communication 

Brushing problems under the rug or stuffing hurt feelings to avoid a conflict will likely do more harm than good.  Those issues and feelings never really go away, they just go underground.  Giving our partner the “silent treatment” may result in silence, but also results in no communication.  As much as we may dislike or fear conflict, being able to do it well is essential for a healthy relationship.  The first step is looking at our overall communication in the relationship, and why we may be avoiding conflict and not discussing what really matters.  But being able to discuss and resolve those issues can prevent them from becoming even bigger problems down the road.  Successfully resolving conflicts together is also an opportunity for growth as individuals, and as a couple.  It deepens the bond between two people as they learn to overcome challenges and differences. Just as negative conflict experiences can damage a relationship, positive conflict resolution can strengthen and deepen it.   

Conflict as a Threat

One definition of conflict would be “a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns” (About Conflict, 2014).  An important thing to remember is that during conflict each party probably perceives some kind of threat, a threat that may or may not really exist.  When we feel threatened, we can become defensive or want to strike back.  When we are coming from a place of anger or fear, we are more likely to engage in unhealthy conflict management behaviors like these:

  • Being unable to see and respond to the things that matter to the other person

  • Behaving and speaking in angry, resentful, and hurtful ways

  • Withdrawing love and affection, which results in the other person feeling isolated, ashamed and abandoned

  • Being unable to compromise and see the other person’s side of things

  • Avoiding conflict (e.g. walking away or refusing to communicate) because of fear

  • Being unable to forgive and forget and move beyond conflicts without holding on to anger or resentment

  • Anticipating bad outcomes to conflicts (Conflict Resolution Skills, 2014)

Couples fight about all types of things, from parenting, to money, to sex.  While some disagreements are relatively easy to resolve, others may be symptomatic of underlying issues in the relationship.  Successful conflict resolution is about good communication skills and an ability to manage our own feelings and behaviors.  So, what gets in the way?

  • Beliefs about conflict:  We may carry many beliefs about conflict that come from childhood or from previous relationships.  We may believe that conflict always results in the break-up of a relationship, or that conflict results in aggression or even violence.  Sometimes, we get frustrated and just stop arguing because we believe conflicts can’t be resolved successfully.  

  • Fear of conflict:  Conflict can feel threatening. Arguments about mundane things like the laundry or picking up the kids from school can actually be about deeper issues such as trust, control, power, gender roles, basic needs, or fear of abandonment.  When we are afraid to address these real issues and painful feelings, we may start avoiding any conflict that might stir things up.

  • Lack of conflict communication skills:  Conflict and disagreements are forms of communication.  Learning and practicing good basic communication skills can help ensure that conflicts don’t escalate and become destructive, and that issues get resolved.

Negative perceptions about conflict and lack of healthy communication skills can make conflict seem more frightening and frustrating than it needs to be.  Self-awareness about our beliefs and our feelings can help us express ourselves effectively when there is disagreement.  To resolve conflict successfully, each person needs to be able to: 

  • Manage personal stress during a conflict.  This enables each person to really hear what the other person is saying and feeling, including non-verbal communication.

  • Stay in control of emotions and behaviors.  This helps each person communicate their needs and feelings without becoming threatening, hurtful, or aggressive.

  • Listen carefully to the feelings and needs being expressed by the other person, as well as their non-verbal communication. This can be difficult when emotions are running high.  Just remind yourself that you want to understand how the other person feels and their perspective.  

  • Be aware of and respectful of differences. Avoid disrespectful words and actions; these can escalate a conflict and do damage to the relationship (Conflict Resolution Skills, 2014).

Staying calm during a heated argument is difficult to do, but it is possible to be very angry and still be respectful and caring.  Each person must know their own fears and needs, and be able to hear and understand the needs and feelings of their partner. 

Conflict Resolution Styles

When it comes to conflict, each person may have their own style of managing—or avoiding—conflict.  We want to get our own needs met.  It’s important for each person to understand their style, and be open to adjusting it, if it’s not helping to resolve conflict in a healthy ways.  Some conflict resolution styles may include:

  • Competing:  This is a style in which we advocate for our needs over the needs of others.  This style tends to have more aggressive communication, and may have less regard for the future health of the relationship.  Those who have a competitive style may try to control both the content and the rules of a discussion. They may fear that losing control will result in not getting their needs met, and this can feel frightening to them.

  • Accommodating:  Accommodating is essentially the opposite of competing.  People who tend to accommodate will often yield to the needs of others and try to be diplomatic.  Sometimes the needs of others will overwhelm them, and they fail to speak up and voice their own feelings and needs.  They may see the relationship as more important than their own needs.

  • Avoiding:  Avoiding is a very common response to conflict.  We may think that if we ignore a problem, it will just go away, but that is rarely the case.  Issues tend to persist and re-surface until they are resolved in some way.  When needs and feelings go unspoken, people may sense something is wrong, but feel confused about the issues.

  • Compromising:  This is an approach to conflict in which both parties are willing to give and take. Each person gains something, but may also need to give something up, which can feel unsatisfying.
  • Collaboration:  This goes beyond compromising, and pools the needs and goals of each party to reach a common goal.  It requires trust, and is often seen as “win-win problem solving”.  The idea is to come up with a better solution than either party can come up with on their own (About Conflict, 2014). 

Understanding how we respond to and manage conflict can give us insight into possible changes we need to make in our style.  It can also help us understand our partner better.   If we recognize that we tend to run the other way or fight to get what we want at all costs, we may need to learn how to fight fair to solve problems and preserve our relationship.

Fighting Fair

The first thing to remember during conflict with your partner is that you love one another, and you want to work through the issues. That caring and willingness to the hard work of solving problems will go a long way toward strengthening the relationship.  Sometimes a lack of conflict means that people don’t care enough to even argue about issues—they are disengaged from the relationship. Here are some guidelines that couples can use to help resolve problems in healthy ways:

  • Stay calm.  Your partner is more likely to consider your viewpoint if you can remain calm and try not to overreact.

  • Express feelings in words, not actions.  Take a “time-out” if you start to feel like you are losing control because you are angry or upset.  When emotions start to run too high, it can become hard to think rationally. Take a walk, pet the cat, or do some deep breathing to regain your composure. 

  • Deal with one issue at a time: Try to stay focused on one topic until it has been resolved. Trying to deal with too many things at once can confuse things and resulting in reaching no solutions.

  • Refrain from hitting below the belt:  Attacking issues and areas that we know are sensitive for the other person creates hurt, anger, and mistrust.

  • Avoid accusations:  These just cause the other person to be defensive, rather than focusing on hearing and understanding. Talk about how the other person’s actions make you feel.

  • Avoid generalizations: Try to stay away from words like “always” and “never”, which are almost never accurate.

  • Avoid “stockpiling”: Don’t store up lots of grievances and hurts to bring out during an argument as “ammo”.  Stay focused on one issue at a time.

  • Avoid clamming up and shutting down:  Two-way communication must occur if a conflict is going to be resolved.  When one person shuts down and stops responding, anger and frustration can build.  Taking a break from the discussion is okay, if feelings are getting overwhelming, just stay engaged in the discussion.

  • Agree on some ground rules:  Learning and agreeing to some rules before a conflict occurs can help ensure it is a productive discussion.

These guidelines can often prevent conflicts from escalating into something ugly that will damage the relationship in the long run. Conflict is a part of all relationships, including healthy ones. It may be hard to believe, but resolving conflicts is good for a relationship, if done the right way.  Healthy conflict can increase trust and make relationships more satisfying.  If, despite your efforts, your conflicts seem insurmountable, it may be time to talk with a counselor.  A counselor can help mediate conflict and teach conflict resolution skills. Counseling can also help a couple to work through any underlying issues that are getting in the way of a happy, healthy relationship.


About conflict. (2014). Retrieved August 27, 2014, from

Conflict resolution skills. (2014). Retrieved August 26, 2014, from

Fighting fair to resolve conflict. (2013). Retrieved August 27, 2014, from

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