Top 10 ways to manage conflict as a couple

Couple chatting

You may have seen actress Sarah Shahi starring as Kate Reed in Fairly Legal – who gives up her legal career to become a mediator. Here’s real life mediator Maria Arpa, of the Centre for Peaceful Solutions, shares her top tips to manage couple conflict.

Living in an intimate relationship can be a struggle in the context of a busy life. Whilst we try to juggle many responsibilities, it is important to ensure that everyday living does not diminish your relationship with your partner. Maintaining your relationship requires active consideration. It is all too common a trap to focus your attention on work or the children only to discover that your relationship has deteriorated. Relationships are kept alive through dialogue. Knowing what to discuss is really important. If you are continuously having the same argument, you need to understand the underlying issues are so that you can re-connect to each other.
Here are some areas of dialogue that create points of mutual understanding:

Investing in the relationship. Ask yourselves what and how you invest in the relationship. This is not a competition or a blaming session. It is a genuine conversation about what is good and what is lacking. Don’t try to solve it. Just allow it to be and agree to reflect on it.

Decision making processes. You need to find your voice as a couple for making decisions. Whereas it was just you, now there is another voice to consider in decision making. You need to decide what the decision making process is in your family and who can influence it? For example, extended family can cause division by demanding that celebration rituals follow a family tradition.

Tiredness and rest. Life is incredibly demanding these days. It’s important to discuss how tired you both are and how you will support each other to get some rest. When you are tired, your tolerance levels decrease and so does your ability to see the world in a calm, non threatening way. Many couples engage in a tiredness competition using arguments to prove that they are the most tired. If you both truly cannot give each other support to get rest then you may need to consider what help is available. If one or both of you is exhausted, the situation will not improve without a plan.

Expressions of love. It is easy to slip into a routine which excludes expressions of love. Relationships can become starved of loving care and the longer it lasts the harder it is to recover. It’s important to understand what an expression of love is for your partner. You may believe that you can say it with flowers but your partner may prefer a shoulder rub. Discovering what you both like is a really important discussion.

Sex and recreation. It is important to have some private time. Many couples snatch a bit of sex here and there to keep a thread going and if this is the best you can manage day to day then you need to talk about it. There are no rules about what is right. It may be that you simply need to acknowledge that the sex isn’t as good as it could be and plan for a time when you will address it. Or it may be that you can both book a day off work and sneak off somewhere special.

Environment and comfort. Think about your home. It is worth discussing what adjustments you have made to accommodate each other or the children and how that has affected your comfort levels. Feeling uncomfortable in the home has an enormous impact on our ability to give to each other. If the living room you so lovingly furnished together has now become an obstacle course of brightly coloured plastic toys, it’s worth acknowledging how that feels and whether you can live with it or need to rethink.

Autonomy versus collaboration. Finding a balance between yourself as an individual and yourself as part of a couple is imperative. The objective is to find what works for both of you. This takes time and experimentation. Very few couples find the balance straight away. Sadly, many couples engage in a power struggle only to concede to a level that they can cope with rather than a life-enriching agreement.

Respect versus contempt. Maintaining respect is a mutual process that requires us to consider our behaviour and the impact we have on each other. Consistently breaking agreements diminishes trust and invites contempt. Contempt is a very difficult place to come back from in an intimate relationship.

Making space for empathy. Giving each other empathy is a foundation for a healthy relationship. Being empathic is simply allowing the other person space to feel whatever they feel without trying to change it, fix it or ignore it. A relationship without empathy is a dried up watering hole.

Unconditional love and conditional agreements. Healthy relationships are based on agreements. The only way to get to agreement is through creative and compassionate dialogue. Learning these skills will enhance your enjoyment of life and your relationship.

If you cannot imagine remaining calm or listening to the other person, if just thinking about the problem or the person sets you off or if you can only imagine the other person as bad or wrong, you probably need a mediator.

Fairly Legal is on the Universal Channel at 8pm on Sundays. Maria Arpa can be contacted through her own website, or through Centre for Peaceful Solutions.

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