Dealing With Conflict in Relationships

There are two main problems areas in relationships that we are concerned primarily with trying to regulate ;

1.    the power/control balance between two individuals
2.    how much closeness and distance is required by both

This fine-tuning is often challenged when a relationship is ‘triangulated’ by something/someone external to the relationship e.g. addictions, children, work, sport, physical and mental illness, infidelity and other losses.  It is how connected the couple can remain to each other that will largely determine whether they can they hold on to goodwill in their relationship.

Factors that Erode the Wellbeing of Relationships


At the top of the list usually will be their inability to communicate effectively and it may have been a long time since they spoke to each other with a view to understanding what is being said.  How they connect is more about responding to what may now be present as follows ;

(1) criticism (a frustration response to hurt and can include the use of the words ‘always’ and ‘never’)
(2) contempt (insulting, name calling, eye rolling, etc)
(3) defensiveness (it’s your problem not mine)
(4) stonewalling (withdrawing),

When the above (aka the four horsemen of the apocalypse) are present, they are strong predictors of separation as the relationship will usually be limited in terms of trust, and that a lack of feeling that the other one has your back

Taking Responsibility

If a behaviour has become problematic or where there has been DV (violence), then that behaviour has to be accounted for by the person who has been acting out e.g. ‘you drove me to it’ is not taking responsibility. Similarlily, it is quite common for people to seek professional help so that the therapist can ‘fix my partner’.  In reality, both will have had a part to play and trying to repair/rebuild will require change from both partners.  In the case of addiction, generally speaking the addictive behaviour needs to be addressed separately.

What can come as a surprise is that a change in behaviour can have an impact on the relationship and not quite the one anyone was expecting.  At least with the  well known path or cycle of addiction, we know what is coming next even if it upsetting.   New behaviour changes the rules and confusion and can be even more frightening than they used to be.  Perhaps this might explain, partially anyway,why there can be a relapse or the relationship may not be able to cope with the new dynamic and will end.  Seeking professional help can be very supportive to a relationship that is adapting to such a significant change.

Expectations/Unmet needs

Sometimes we think our partner has let us down when really it is down to our own (often unconscious) expectations … we wanted something that didn’t happen.  Maybe your partner didn’t know or maybe they wanted the opposite.  Sometimes we have needs that they won’t ever be able to meet or may not even want to.  Have you both been clear about this? For example, perhaps one wants a child and the other has made it clear from the outset that it’s not part of their plan.   If you stay with them in spite of having very strong and clear differences, then you are responsible for your decision to remain with them, knowing their wishes, rather than blaming the other one for your unhappiness.

Pushing their Buttons

Over the course of a relationship we learn what rubs our partner the wrong way – it might be poor timekeeping, laziness, lack of affection, or leaving the top off the toothpaste.   Conversely, if we want to build a relationship that is shored up with goodwill and trust, we make it our business to become familiar with our partner’s ‘love language(s)’ – what makes them feel loved (bear in mind that it might be quite These languages are as follows

•    Words of affirmation
•    Quality Time
•    Receiving Gifts
•    Acts of Service
•    Physical Touch

Seeking Help

In Ireland, by the time most couples have finally arrived into counselling, they will have already tried every other avenue to find resolution. They may well be on the brink of separation and feeling despair and frustration with their efforts.  Research tells us that on average, the problems between them will have been there about 6 years – a long time to be unhappy.

Seeking help early can be a powerful way to take control of the issue(s) and redress the imbalance(s) that is causing the problem.

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