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Handling conflict in relationships

I’m very aware of his ‘Marmite effect’ but I choose to be woken every weekday morning to the dulcet tones of Chris Evans and his ‘upbeat’ take on life.

This morning as I was continuing to listen on the drive to work, there was a quote on Pause for Thought – “a healthy relationship is one where an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences”.  Yes!

When we think about successful relationships, a basic understanding of our different personality types is important. I’m a high ‘wind’ who loves to talk, get it all out there and I process my thoughts by verbalising them. I’m the sort of person who speaks first and thinks later. My partner on the other hand is a high ‘earth’ who processes things internally, speaks little and prefers to bury his feelings rather than share them with the world, or even me! These very different ways we have of communicating affects the way we both prefer to discuss issues and resolve conflicts.

Other couples rather than being opposites, may have personalities that are very similar to each other and this will impact their communication and conflict in other ways. Perhaps both are very fiery and the effect is a bit like internal combustion. Or they may be Waters who avoid conflict and often hide their own feelings, fearful of causing problems. These couples may hold on to resentment without sharing or showing any negative feelings to each other. Two Winds are likely to struggle with a lack of structure and issues may arise around the practicalities of life together – who is going to put the rubbish out, change the bedding or clean the bathroom.

We’ve all seen those couples, usually they’ve been together for decades, interviewed for magazines or a documentary who swear there’s never been a cross word between them. Most of us wonder how this could be possible when we look at our own relationship.

While understanding our different personality types is useful and an appreciation of the different emotional needs that each partner has will always be helpful, there are definitely principles that can be applied to all couples to help manage conflict.

  1. Choose your Battles – Consider whether an issue is major or a minor. Is it something caused by my own challenges or something that affects us both? Sarah Milne Rowe in her book ‘The SHED Method’ emphasises the importance of Sleep, Hydration, Exercise and Diet and sometimes if one or more of these are out of balance, it impacts our closest relationships first.
  2. Choose your Moment –  in our busy lives it can be difficult to prioritise our relationships and we can tend to grab whatever few minutes become available. Is it just me who in a state of tiredness and stress somehow believes that 12.30am, just as my partner is dropping off to sleep, is an ideal opportunity to bring up that issue that’s been on my mind all day? It never ends well! So, planning in some regular time together, without interruptions when issues can be discussed can help avoid those night time disasters. Whether it’s weekly, fortnightly or monthly, a set time when you and your partner know there’ll be an opportunity to share and be listened to can be a relationship saver.
  3. Choose to Listen – one helpful principle we find works well when there are some serious issues to be discussed, is to agree beforehand that we will each listen to the other, uninterrupted, for 5 minutes. It can help if the person speaking holds a pen or something similar as a visual reminder that this is their time. Set the stop watch on your phone and swap over the pen at the end of the allotted time.
  4. Choose to Respond not React. Successful people take responsibility for their actions and the equation E + R = O can be helpful.  The EVENTS that happen to us in life + our RESPONSES = the OUTCOME. Yet so often we can REACT rather than RESPOND which can create a totally different OUTCOME. As Charles Swindoll said, ‘Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. 
  5. Choose a non-confrontational way to explain your feelings that uses ‘I’ messages. I find Zones of Regulation is a great tool. Check it out.
  6. Choose to Breathe – I was at an event recently where we all got to create a small banner with a word that meant something important to us. For me, it’s ‘Breathe’ every time. My partner and I went on a Transformational Breathe workshop recently and found it a really positive experience.


Ruth Adams

Ruth has worked as a trainer and a communications coach for 20 years and loves to inspire people – from a boardroom to a classroom – to find freedom and ‘unlock possibilities’.
She is an associate of Family Futures, an area coordinator for Adoption UK and a director of Achkiy, a charity working with women in the shantytowns in Peru.
Ruth is married to Alan, has 3 birth children in NY, Berlin and Barcelona, 2 forever daughters and 6 grandchildren.

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