Healthy conflict is an important part of any romantic relationship. It’s a sign that both people are being honest with each other, and talking about deep issues instead of sweeping them under the rug. But I think a lot of us have negative images come to mind when we hear the word “conflict,” or memories like these:
- The boyfriend we constantly argued with (Too much conflict)
- The parents who screamed at each other (Handling conflict in negative ways)
- The relatives who avoided conflict at all costs (Avoiding conflict)
However, conflict, when handled in a healthy way, isn’t a bad thing. It actually builds a deeper sense of trust and intimacy in a relationship.
And when two people are in a close relationship, and both are being honest, conflicts (or disagreements) are inevitable. That doesn’t mean you’ll have constant disagreements, but at some point you will have strong differing opinions and you’ll need to talk through them instead of avoiding them. And that situation can bring you closer together or push you farther apart—depending on how you handle it.
So today I want to share five tips for how to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Tip #1: Be honest (right away).
Recently a girlfriend called me, venting about something her husband said that was very hurtful to her. At the end of her story, I asked, “What did he say when you told him how much that hurt you?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell him…should I?” she asked.
Yes! Yes, you absolutely should!
In order to have a healthy relationship, it’s essential that you both are honest with each other. It’s so easy to try to cover up the things that bother us, hoping they’ll just go away, or hoping the other person will like us more if we always agree with them. But sweeping those things under the rug doesn’t make them go away; it just means that eventually you’ll realize you have a trash heap in the middle of your floor, taking up so much space that you can no longer tiptoe around it.
My father-in-law likes to say that it’s the little foxes that spoil the vineyards (a piece of truth from Song of Solomon). That means oftentimes it’s not a big thing that ruins a relationship; instead, it’s the little things that slowly build up until they explode. That’s why it’s important to be honest with each other and to bring up disagreements and hurts as they happen, instead of waiting for them to explode.
Tip #2: Be aware of the time and place you choose to talk.
I still remember going over to a newly married couple’s house and hearing each spouse make jabs at the other all through dinner. It seemed like they were still having a passive-aggressive form of conflict right in front of us, and let me tell you, it was super awkward!
Having conflict in front of other people puts you both on the defensive—you want the onlookers to think well of you, and so you aren’t fully honest in the discussion. You’re just worrying about how you’ll be seen. It can also be hurtful; it breaks trust instead of building it.
My husband, James, and I have a rule of thumb to never have conflict in front of other people—unless it’s a trusted mentor or counselor who we have decided ahead of time to invite into our conflict to help us solve it.
We also try to find a time when both of us have the metal and emotional energy it takes to really talk through the situation. I’ve found it takes a lot more energy for James to have tough conversations than it does for me, so I’ll often ask him, “Hey, this has been bothering me. Do you have the energy to talk about this now or should we find another time?” We then find a time in the near future to sit down—alone—and talk.
Tip #3: Be aware of the words you use.
During any form of conflict, it’s so important to choose your words carefully. You know the old saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Yeah. That’s not true.
Words dig deep into our hearts and can stay there for years. Once they’re said, you can’t take them back. So it’s important to calm down a little bit, take some deep breaths and really think about how you’re saying what you’re saying.
Here are three things to keep in mind:
- Consider the tone and volume of your voice. The Bible says a gentle answer turns away wrath, so listen to your voice as you’re talking. Does your tone sound belittling, accusing or just plain loud? My tone of voice can immediately put James on the defensive or help him feel loved even in the middle of a conflict.
- Use “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You don’t love me!” and blaming James, or thinking I know his motives, I try to explain how I’m feeling. For example, “When you did ____, I felt unloved, even though I know you love me.” Focus on expressing how YOU are feeling, instead of blaming the other person.
- Avoid “always” and “never” statements. It’s rarely true that someone always or never does something; plus, these kinds of statements put the other person on the defensive and make them feel unseen. So instead of saying, “You never help me around the house!”, I could say, “I really appreciated when you helped with the dishes last week, but I could use some more help. I feel like I’m doing a lot of the housework by myself, and it’s getting really tiring. Do you think we could split up the housework a little better?”
Tip #4: Focus on understanding, not on being right.
This is the hardest part for me. I just want James to say, “Oh, you’re totally right and I was totally wrong.” But that’s my pride talking. Instead, my goal needs to be understanding where James is coming from so that I can love him and work through the issue with him.
One of the ways we do this is by really trying to listen to what the other person is saying. It’s easy to get distracted by focusing on what I’m going to say next, but instead, I try to focus on what he is saying and ask questions to help myself understand him better. I also need to humble myself and be willing to ask for forgiveness when I’ve hurt him.
Basically, don’t make the disagreement about proving you are right; instead see conflict as an opportunity to learn about your significant other. The more I learn about James, the better I can love him.
Tip #5: Be willing to ask for help.
During our first year of marriage, there was one issue that we talked about over and over again, and it just felt like we were going in circles. We were both very hurt by this issue, but couldn’t seem to find any resolution. So we asked for help. Turns out a lot of the issue was caused by hurt in my past, and I was able to work through a lot of that with a counselor.
James and I don’t go around talking with everyone about things we’re working through. But we do each have a few close friends of the same gender, as well as some older couples, that we talk with to get an outside perspective, wisdom and help when we need it. There’s no shame in asking for help; we will all need it at some point, and it takes great strength to ask for it. It also will make your relationship stronger in the long run (or, if you’re dating, it can help you see whether or not you’re a good fit for each other).
As we’ve implemented these five tips in our marriage, we’ve found that healthy conflict actually helps us get to know each other better, and then be able to love each other better.
In the same way, using these tips while dating can help you learn a ton about your boyfriend and build a healthy relationship from the beginning. It can also help you discover whether or not you work well together.
I hope these tips can help you as they’ve helped us, whether you’re dating, married or even working through conflict with a friend or family member.