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Healthy Conflict for Couples

What is healthy conflict?

Healthy conflict is a way of handling and resolving the differences of opinion that occur between spouses or partners. Healthy conflicts consist of 3 stages: preparing for the conflict and stating its agenda; the heated part of the argument; and the negotiation or wind-down phase. Many couples engage in mutual blaming and accusations, explosive anger, and not hearing each other.

What are the usual major areas of differences for couples?

Different ideas result in conflict in the following areas at some time in most relationships:

  • child rearing
  • managing money
  • in-laws
  • sex
  • individual time versus shared time
  • social life
  • jealousy
  • alcohol or drug use
  • differences in goals and values
  • control struggles (who's in charge)
  • communication problems
  • sharing household and child care responsibilities

Why is it good to have conflict out in the open?

A relationship will not be truly intimate unless each partner knows what the other one is thinking and feeling. This means bringing differences of opinion out into the open, not "suffering in silence." Speaking up, finding out what's wrong, and then coming to a joint decision on what to do about it are signs of a healthy relationship. Many people do not learn these skills in childhood and may therefore need to learn how to have a healthy conflict.

How do you prepare yourself for a disagreement?

  • Be sure that you have identified the real issue. Perhaps you think you are upset about a recent event, but it may cover up something bigger you are really concerned or angry about.
  • Ask yourself if the issue is worth talking about. Make sure it is about something your partner has done or not done, rather than about who he or she is.
  • Try to choose a time when the stress level is not high.
  • Decide before you talk about the issue what solution would be acceptable to you.

How do you prepare your partner for a disagreement?

  • Make an appointment with your partner. Make sure it is within a day after the grievance starts, so that you feel less frustration.
  • Tell your partner what the discussion will be about.
  • Try to choose a time when your partner is not under stress.

What are the rules of healthy conflict?

  • No physical violence.
  • Each partner must follow the rules of active listening to make sure each understands what the other is saying. This means making eye contact, verbally acknowledging the other's feelings (apologizing when appropriate), and asking questions to be sure each understands the other's feelings.
  • If anger gets in the way, take a brief time-out (from half an hour to no more than 24 hours) and state a definite time to return to the issue. If anger returns when the discussion resumes, take another time-out.
  • Be specific. State your problem and why it bothers you.
  • After you have stated the problem as you see it, your partner states his or her point of view on the issue.
  • Do not state what you believe your partner is thinking. Each person speaks for himself or herself.
  • Agree to disagree sometimes.
  • Maintain mutually respectful behavior. Do not call names or accuse your partner of lying.
  • Avoid labeling your partner ("You are just like your mother").
  • Use "I" statements (as in, "I feel annoyed when you leave your things around for me to pick up"), rather than more blaming "you" statements ("You are inconsiderate").
  • Avoid stating old grievances and stick to the agenda of the current conflict.
  • If you are having trouble coming to an agreement or compromise, agree on an intermission, from an hour to a week.

What should you do after the conflict is over?

The conflict is over when both parties agree to a compromise or agree that the conflict is over.

When the conflict is over:

  • Each partner needs to think about what he or she learned from the conflict. For example, has any new information been gained about a partner's likes or dislikes?
  • Each partner needs to think about how he or she was hurt or hurt the other during the conflict.
  • Each partner needs to think about whether the conflict was valuable in letting off steam.
  • Is each partner satisfied with the conclusion?

Share your thoughts with your partner.

Written by Lee Scheingold, MSW.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2004-04-16
Last reviewed: 2010-09-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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