How To Manage Conflict In Relationships

I find that third-party advice is almost always the same when it comes to dealing with adversity in relationships.

  1. Stand your ground and dictate your terms.
  2. Try and communicate objectively and calmly.
  3. Don’t feel guilty about putting your needs first (for a change?).
  4. Offer constructive criticism rather than an ultimatum.

Okay. Admittedly this is all — in an ideal and emotionally sterile world — good advice. The trouble is, when emotions are involved we must negotiate with our fear. Which is anything but logical in most cases.

Perhaps it is fear of rejection. Perhaps it’s the fear of confrontation. The point is, relationships are not logical, nor are they sterile. And they will make spaghetti out of any calm and calculated scenario we simulate in our heads once our carefully chewed over simulation is brought out into the light.

In short, it doesn’t matter how right or fair we think we are, we still have something to lose. And not only that, we also have to consider our partner’s subjectivity as well.

The Art of Disagreeing

Sure, dropping guilt or fear and standing our ground is an important thing to learn to do in the name of fending off long-term resentment. But there is a difference between our needs and our wants. And we shouldn’t turn every little aspect of the relationship which we are unhappy with into a war.

conflict in relationshipsNeeds Versus Wants

That’s where disagreement comes in. And unlike conflict, disagreement involves being open to compromise.

Here’s what we need to realize about relationship disagreement:

  • Right and wrong are more or less irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how wrong they are about homeopathy, if it’s something they enjoy it’s something that adds value to their lives (and thus value to the relationship too).
  • Feelings aren’t objective or fair. We can’t objectively argue someone in love with us (we may objectively recognize that someone is an outstanding person and still not feel anything for them romantically). Subjectivity tends to rule romance.
  • You are individuals, not just partners. Attempting to “become one” may sound like the pinnacle of love, but the end result of co-dependency is anything but fulfilling. We shouldn’t demand that our partners mirror our views or ambitions.

If we approach arguments with this trinity in mind, compromising tends to become a whole lot easier.

Unfortunately, many people tend to become fixated on what is “right” orĀ  “fair” and fail to perceive the underlying nature of our humanity; we are anything but logical. Especially when it comes to our emotions.

We are better off accepting our partner’s needs at face value, and instead asking ourselves how we FEEL about them.

Instead of weighing the objective value (which is never objective anyway) of their position, it is more important to consider whether or not it is something which fundamentally bothers us.

For instance, your partner might want weekdays off for themselves leading to something of an on-and-off partnership. If we compare this to what most people consider a normal or standard relationship, it might seem a sign that something isn’t clicking correcting. Why would they need this time apart?

But this is where the fallacy of objectivity comes in. There is no relationship standard. If it works for you, no matter how illogical or strange, it works.

Perhaps this off and on relationship allows you both the space you need as individuals in order to function at full capacity. To routinely remind yourselves about your individuality. Again, if it works, it works.

Of course, if this only suits half of the equation, I.E them, and this fragmented relationship is leaving you feeling cast aside and taken for granted, then it needs to be confronted. But the point here is that the discussion should revolve around how the situation is making you feel, not around some grand idyllic relationship constant (because there is no such thing).

So, in this case, rather than saying something like “this isn’t how relationships are supposed to be“, it would be more constructive to say “I’m not okay with this, I’d prefer a degree more constancy“. This way, you avoid triggering their defenses because it is not an accusation. You bypass the guilt and pride and let them know how you feel without the judgement.

Shedding the judgment clears the path to compromise in most cases. But is negotiation always a good thing?

The Role Of Personal Needs

I don’t mean to make disagreeing sound “fun”, most of the time it really isn’t. But more importantly, sometimes we simply shouldn’t expect compromise, because compromising fundamental needs usually leads to a swift romantic dead-end. After-all, if we can’t cling to the building blocks of what makes us tick (no matter how illogical), we can’t expect to experience a healthy, fulfilling long-term relationship.

For example, let’s say that your partner smokes, they did so before they met you, they do so now, and they probably will in the future as well. Until now, their smoking was undesirable but tolerable. Now, however, you realize that it is an issue you can no longer stomach, and you are beginning to not so subtly push in that direction.

In most cases this is not a simple disagreement, because their right and need to smoke is immovable. As is your newfound need to have a smoke-free partner.

What now?

This is a classic case of conflict rather than disagreement, because there is no reasonable compromise that satisfies both parties. Either:

  • They quit smoking and sacrifice their own needs in the name of the relationship (which may lead to long term resentment and dissatisfaction).
  • They refuse and you are left with the same choice. Take a hit in the name of peace or seek greener pastures.

Neither scenario is ideal, and at some level — no matter the decision made — there will be some degree of grief because the end result will pull you in different directions.

A disagreement is different because it usually serves to reunite and usher you in the same direction (if handled well — but more on that later).

Despite appearing to be destructive, conflict in this sense is nevertheless useful. Your partner may not have known your position on smoking and might have thought it was fine. And their constant smoking will have lead to an avalanche of resentment on your end, if it was unpalatable.

Bringing the issue to the surface in this way, disclosing your personal needs, means that come rain, wind or shine, at the very least they now know the truth and can chew on it.

Had the issue not been brought up, there was the risk that resentment would have killed the relationship sooner rather than later anyway. Remember that even if conflict and confrontation are not pleasurable experiences at least you’re not being smoked on.

The question to ask ourselves here is whether the issue at hand is fundamental to our overall well-being. If it is a core need of ours and not just something that we feel could “optimize” our end of the relationship, then it shouldn’t be compromised.

Does that sound unfair? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t matter.

As previously mentioned fairness and right-and-wrong come excluded to our emotions. It doesn’t matter how fair it is if it makes us miserable, does it? It’s just the reality of coming to terms with an individual’s needs, which again, do not always make sense.

This doesn’t mean we have a license to flaunt ultimatums in every direction and on every topic, doing so will jeopardize our relationships. It should be reserved for the handful of personal needs we absolutely need in order to flourish (which is why courtship and dating are so important, so that we and our partners are forewarned of what these needs are).

Managing Conflict Practical Tips

As mentioned right at the beginning the problem lies not in theory but in practice. Because while we recognize that we may need change, we still have to measure that against the fear of backlash and where that resistance may lead.

Unfortunately, there is no realistic way of softening the message. You could do obvious things such as choosing an appropriate time and place (not cushion talk five minutes before bed). Or modulating our tone of voices. But it bears mentioning that none of this will significantly alter the chances of emotional affirmation, though it might help a little.

What is essential is the clarity of our message. And that we understand that if we present them with a fork in the road that they might take both paths, and not just the one we want them to. If we can’t accept this, then we shouldn’t offer the ultimatum in the first place.

We simply cannot control or blame our partner for not accepting a change in the terms of agreement. Did I mention that fairness comes excluded? All that really matters is how they feel. And we can’t control that half as well as we think we can.

What we can do is to:

  • Ensure that the message is not delivered as an accusation. Tell them how you feel and leave it at that, forget the kitchen sink.
  • Consider whether the issue is a core need or not. If it is then consider it an ultimatum (that goes both ways), if it isn’t be prepared to compromise. It bears repeating: forget about the issue in terms of right and wrong.
  • Fortify yourself against rejection before the fact. Well, as much as you can. If you can’t digest the fact that they might not see it your way, or they decide against your proposal, it might inject insecurity and resentment into an already delicate conversation, and detract from the topic at hand in a haze of unrelated insecurity (now they’re talking about a perceived slight from five years ago). Don’t make this an emotional tug of war or you both end up losing.

No matter how bleak the whole thing may seem, the point is that relationships evolve or they die — just like anything else. And that’s okay. In fact, personally speaking, I think that’s a blessing.

It means that no matter if it all falls apart, or whether it leads to something more vibrant; in both cases you stay true to your needs, and thus, the core of what makes you tick. In a weird way then, it really doesn’t matter if it’s the temporary grief of loss, or the triumph of compromise, you can’t help but win so long as you are prepared to keep your needs on the surface.

Either way you choose you.

About the author

James Nelmondo

James "the Unknown" Nelmondo is a self-styled relationship enthusiast, former infant, part-time dumper and full-time dumpee.


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  • Amazing, it’s going to help me.
    It’s me again after the comment I left you on your forum, because this article really is on point with my situation and, if you don’t mind I would love to read what you have to say about this.
    If you remember well, I had a conflict with my ex about themes such as racism, politics, immigration, and all that fueled by his personal issues. Anyway he told me awful things (let’s say he definitely made the debate personal) and played what you called “hot and cold” behavior after dumping me (blocking/unblocking). Now I want to get some of my stuff back (one of the two things has a sentimental value to it even though I can totally buy the same thing again…) and his behavior drove me crazy. I was going to follow your advice about going to his house directly but I followed another advice for practical reasons : it’s difficult to go to his house from where I am so I didn’t want to take the risk to go for nothing and at that time I didn’t know who could come with me/was afraid to ask. So I simply asked him if he could leave my stuff on his door step and let me know when I can pick them up. He told me I shouldn’t have told him I didn’t want to see him, I should have been nicer last time we spoke, and for that reason he decided to block me again in a way I cannot reach him anywhere. So I got really, really angry. Called him from another phone and yelled, sent him a bitter text message provoking him. He finally agreed to give me my stuff but once again very uncooperatively and announced me that anyway he was going on a trip for 3 weeks so we’ll see after.
    Honestly I don’t understand what I did wrong. He’s the one who initially “dumped” me because he couldn’t bear the fact I have such a different worldview and called me a child. Then, why? Why do I feel like I did something awful? Why do I deserve such a treatment? I’m so not used to that I don’t have much experience when it comes to hm dating, breaking up, all that. It’s not like I cheated on him or anything. I feel like I should give up getting my stuff back although it matters to me but at the same time I’m just so angry how unfair that is. My plan for now is to follow your original advice taking the risk to go there in 3 weeks without further notification (with my brother). It really did stress me out, I’m just trying to get over my anger and forget about him during 3 weeks. I mean I just wanted to take care of that nicely and as peacefully as possible, and move on. But I guess I was being naive lol? Believing that it could be possible to get past all that and end things quickly, once and for all.

    • Hey Asmo, your post was actually what inspired me to write this since I realized I haven’t really talked about the issue much, so thanks for that!

      I think you’re looking at the issue backwards in a way, if you’ll permit me a suggestion.

      Why do I feel like I did something awful? Why do I deserve such a treatment?

      If your conscience is clear, then the question is the other way around. Not what have I done, but what is causing him to treat me this way. Sometimes the whole point about anger is that it is a way to keep you together, because bad press is better than no press.

      Anger is fuel for those who are loathe to let go. It keeps the connection alive.

      I obviously can’t read his mind, and this really is all just a guess on my part, but I sounds like he’s trying prop himself up by tearing you down. It’s a self-esteem issue. If the breakup (particularly due to the fact that you prompted it) has left his sense of self-confidence reeling, he’ll want to feel secure and be in control. And by stringing you along regarding your personal effects he’s doing exactly that. He’s in control again, even if it is an illusion.

    • Hi James,

      I’m really glad my post inspired you. As always, your replies appease me a lot ( I’m also asking questions around me to trusted poeple and it helps too). Although what you say are only hypotheses about what his behavior translates, it’s still important to me. I’d love one day to write for your blog, in anyway I can’t wait for your future articles. Thanks again ~