Secrets Healthy Couples Use to Resolve Conflict

By Edwin A. Locke Ph.D. and Ellen Kenner Ph.D.


If you hear a couple say “We never fight,” do you raise an eyebrow? Do you assume one partner is a doormat and just gives in to the other, hence no fighting? Or do you think, “Maybe they fight silently, giving each other the cold shoulder for days (or weeks) on end, and never vent.” Perhaps you assume they are lying, pretending to you (and to themselves) that their relationship is “perfect.”

Your raised eyebrow is an appropriate response. Conflict is inevitable in all relationships. Why? Because no two individuals have identical values, interests, preferences, habits or thought paths. Conflicts can flare up over big decisions (whether to have children and how to raise them), chronic issues (frequency of sex, how you spend money, time spent with relatives), or smaller issues (time spent on the computer, cleaning the den).

Everyone has a unique history, a different “rule book” from their own childhood, and different ways of coping with conflict (e.g., sarcasm, the silent treatment, lecturing, nagging). Very few people are masters of communication.

How do you become more skilled at resolving conflict in your relationship? First, understand the common types of differences that cause conflict:

  • Turning reasonable, optional differences into moral ones.
    (“I can’t believe you left the lights on again!”)
  • Expecting your partner to read your mind.
    (“But you should just know that I don’t want to go out tonight.”)
  • Violating the “trader relationship."
    (“I do all the work and you just sit on the couch.”)
  • Not spending enough time together.
    (“She’s always on the run, taking the kids here and there, and visiting with friends or her parents. There’s no time for us.”)

Becoming more skilled at communication also involves knowing what methods sabotage relationships. These include sarcasm, name-calling, threats, lecturing, and catastrophing.

They also include global attacks (You always…, You never….) and “You language” (You make me angry! You frustrate me!). A surefire way to sabotage a relationship is to fake “niceness.” If your partner sees you scowling and asks, “Hey, what’s up hon? Do you not want to take the camping trip?” and you respond in a forced sweet voice, “No, it’s fine. It will be fun” while thinking, Of course I don’t want to take this stupid trip and sleep with the mosquitoes–your relationship is in trouble. Sweet dishonesty destroys relationships–and your self-esteem.

How do you rescue your relationship? First, nip escalating tensions in the bud. Don’t let your anger or hurt feelings fester and resentments build. Then learn how to communicate with one another in ways that express how you feel, without attacking your loved one. Instead of using “you” language (“You make me angry”, “You never listen.”), use “I” language (“I feel angry. I feel ignored.)

Like learning a foreign language, you won’t become “fluent” in good communication skills overnight. Be good to yourself and your partner and set realistic goals. You both can learn new skills and grow together, and become closer in doing so.

“Ah, that’s a lot of work!” you may think. Gently remind yourself that heated, unresolved arguments are a lot of work, and generate enough stress to power an eventual divorce.

You can change the way you resolve conflict. Together you can learn respectful ways to understand and manage your differences. You may then experience one another as loving friends (not foes) even when differences arise. And that’s an incredible achievement–you will have become more fluent in good communication skills.

Copyright © 2011 Edwin A. Locke and Ellen Kenner