In any type of relationship, conflict is bound to occur at some point. It could be as small as fighting over a household chore to something as big as fighting over politics, religion, financial management, parenting methods or something else. Whatever caused the conflict, however, doesn’t have to end the relationship. Practicing strong communication and conflict resolution skills can help you overcome the fight and even come out stronger as a couple.
Fighting fair can strengthen relationships
One survey of 1,000 adults, published in Joseph Grenny’s book Crucial Conversations, actually found that couples who “fight fair” were 10 times more likely to report being happy in their relationships than those who avoided conflict altogether. This is likely because fighting fair is a hallmark of strong communication between partners. In fact, more than four in five respondents to the same survey claimed poor communication played a role in a previous failed relationship. It makes sense that partners who know how to communicate with each other in an honest, healthy way, even in times of disagreement, are most likely to have a harmonious relationship where everyone’s needs are met.
12 conflict resolution strategies to try
“Disagreements are a normal part of close relationships, and the way we handle them can make a big difference for relationship health and sustainability,” therapist Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, tells O.school. “Having some basic tenets or ground rules for fighting can help couples manage these things respectfully, all while minimizing resentment that can worsen over time.”
No matter your historical relationship with conflict, it’s never too late to learn to “fight fair.” Here are some conflict resolution strategies to help you and your partner(s) get through even the worst of times.
1. Know your partner.
According to counselor and trauma specialist Shawnessa Devonish, the first step to healthy conflict is to come prepared to hear your partner. This includes knowing the basics of how they approach friction, as well as any emotional baggage that might color their experience with a given pain point. “It’s so important to tailor your communication tactics, especially when discussing a conflict, around things like your partner’s attachment style,” Devonish tells O.school. “This allows your partner to successfully receive what you are expressing, and encourages them to feel safe and secure with the relationship.”
2. Take deep breaths and schedule a time to talk.
Deep breathing activates the rest-and-digest response; this calms the body so you can return to the problem at hand with a level head. When deep breaths aren’t enough, consider moving the discussion to a scheduled time. Attempting to solve a problem in the heat of the moment may not be the most productive, especially if tempers are running high.
3. Use “I” messages.
Focusing on I-centric statements can be an effective way to promote constructive conversations without placing blame on your partner. Originally coined by psychologist Haim Ginott, “I” messages help a speaker address undesirable behavior without using accusatory language. This, in turn, will mitigate resentment that could fester even after an argument has ended. For example, if you find yourself about to blurt out “You never listen!” reframe the thought and say “I feel unheard” instead.
4. Listen to hear and not respond.
“You’ll never be able to understand where your partner is coming from if you are only focused on coming up with a rebuttal,” Devonish points out. “For the sake of the relationship, work on actively listening to your partner’s concerns, so you can collaboratively and successfully come up with a solution.”
5. Avoid triggering your partner — even for a “win.”
In an argument between committed partners, there is no “winning team.” In fact, you should be viewing yourselves as a unit, making up the same team. With that in mind, Devonish recommends avoiding exacerbating the conflict by saying or doing hurtful or triggering things, even if you think it will help you “win” the debate. While hurling that insult may feel satisfying in that moment, it can be detrimental to long-term success.
6. Steer clear of name-calling.
While it sounds like a no-brainer, being conscious about name-calling can be key in a fair fight. “When we get emotionally heated, it’s easy to fall into the trap of calling someone ‘dumb’ or worse,” Caraballo tells O.school.
7. Leave the past in the past.
If this isn’t your first tussle, it can feel natural to conflate your partner’s past mistakes with the struggle at hand. However, if you hope to emerge from conflict stronger, try not to open old wounds or bring up previously resolved conflicts as ammo for your current disagreement. Stay focused on the issue at hand.
8. Create space for time outs.
When things feel heated, tense, or impossible to work through, it can be helpful to initiate a loving and intentional break in the conversation. “The moment you find that you and your partner are talking in circles, that's a sign that the conversation is no longer working and you need to take a break,” Caraballo says. To clarify: storming out mid-sentence and refusing to return to the conversation does not qualify as fighting fair.
9. Revisit the issue.
After you’ve taken a step back from the disagreement, you and your partner need to commit to coming back to the table if you hope to work through any conflict together. Make it a point to circle back with a new perspective and continue to talk about what resolution can look like. “Calmer heads can prevail,” Caraballo says, “while unfinished business can lead to resentment.”
10. Learn your partner’s apology language.
A key part of knowing how your partner handles disagreements is knowing their apology language. Everyone needs something a little different to feel understood, and thus that the issue has been resolved and that both parties can move forward without resentment. If your apology language differs, however, your resolution may involve more compromises.
11. Don’t shy away from compromise.
“It’s selfish to think that only your needs should be met for a conflict to be resolved,” says Devonish. This is why healthy resolution involves active compromise so that both parties feel they are being heard and acknowledged. Brainstorm on a middle ground where everyone walks away satisfied.
12. Move forward with intention.
The truth is there is no way to guarantee that the same argument won't come up again, even if it’s dealt with in a healthy way. “It's actually not at all uncommon for some couples to have a disagreement over and over again, especially if it pokes at a core relationship difference,” Caraballo explains. This is why it’s more realistic to work on ensuring that if a situation can’t be resolved immediately, that there is at least continual improvement as time goes on. Couples therapy can be a useful tool for holding two partners accountable to ongoing progress. According to Caraballo, “It's a great place to learn healthier, assertive communication skills and repair previous relationship injuries, too.”
The bottom line
At the end of the day, fighting fair is a skill that can be sharpened and developed over time. If you or a partner have previously felt unsafe or unseen in high stress conflict situations, it’s understandable that arguing can feel daunting. But with practice, you can learn to engage in conflict in a healthy manner. In the meantime, Caraballo recommends finding strategies that reduce stress when problems arise. “This might look like checking in with your energy before addressing something that you know will lead to conflict, taking breaks in difficult moments, and finding ways to regulate emotions in the moment so you can continue to work with your partner.”