Conflict in the relationship: where to begin?

It is inevitable that conflict will occur in any and all of our relationships. Whether it be with our siblings, our parents, or our friends, or work colleagues, there will be moments of stress, irritability, and conflict that may, at least temporarily, rupture that bond. Conflict is never more inevitable than in our romantic relationships. The human condition demands that friction occur when two or more people, each flawed and neurotic in their own way, try to forge a life with each other. But this is good and healthy and normal! I would suggest conflict is not only health but necessary to deepen our understanding of our partner. It provides opportunities to build kindness and empathy for both you and them. Just as in the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, only when an object has been cracked, chipped, or broken, can we reforge it even more beautiful and unique than before.

However, more serious problems can occur when that object is cracked a little too often, and then perhaps over time, pieces start to go missing. So, while conflict is inevitable, healthy, and can lead to a better relationship, it can also be a part of the dissolution of the relationship.

Broadly speaking conflict or problems in a relationship can come down to one of two issues: an issue of fire or an issue of ice. Problems with fire refer to frequent or intense arguments and conflict, whereby you might both be irritable and quick to react to the other. Problems with ice refer to issues with distance or apathy, it can be like you are two individuals who happen to live in the same house, physically close but emotionally apart.

Again, very broadly, it is more common that issues of fire occur when people are younger or within the first 7ish years of a relationship. Issues of ice tend to occur when people are older or have been in a longer-term relationship (8+ years).

Understanding which of these categories your relationship may belong to is the first step in then being able to implement strategies to resolve and repair your relationship. For example, issues of fire can be resolved by building more effective communication strategies, by knowing how to have “good” fights, and learning how to best negotiate your differences. Issues of ice, on the other hand, can be overcome by reforming the relational friendship, rekindling affection, intimacy, and desire, and strengthening the attachment. Of course, there are many other poignant experiences which may co-occur with issues of either fire or ice such as becoming a parent, negotiating blended families, sexual dysfunction, or one partner having an affair (to just name a few). Often, these problems do not exist in a vacuum (i.e., they do not occur by themselves). While these problems may appear to be the most pressing and obvious, it is very important to understand the landscape in which they occurred as this gives insight into how they may be resolved.

If you are still at the stage where you want to do something to improve or salvage the relationship then it is important to take the view that whatever the problem is, it is separate to both you and your partner. By this, I mean that we do not want to view you or your partner as intrinsically bad or the problem. If one person were the entire problem, they would have 100% of the responsibility to change and make the relationship work. This is never true and, for the sake of improving a relationship, an unhelpful viewpoint.

Often in conflict, we stand face-to-face, pointing forward and yelling “there’s the problem”.

When what would be more useful is standing side-by-side, so we can work together in solving the problem (e.g., poor communication, negative expectations of each other). But to do this, we have to be able to identify what “the problem” is and ensure it is separate to who our partner is.

So, where do you start? You have already identified that something is not right in the relationship. Perhaps you can already tell that your current romantic relationship fits within issues of fire or ice. But now what?

Let us start by asking some questions of yourself and then we will move on to questions that both of you should discuss.

Questions for me

  1. What do I see as the problem in the relationship?
  2. In what way is part of the problem my fault or responsibility?
  3. In what was is part of the problem my partner’s fault or responsibility?
  4. Do I have the resources to resolve or work on the problem with my partner?
  5. Do I have the motivation or desire to try and work on the problem?

Questions for us

  1. If our main problems were solved, in what way would our lives be different? What would we be doing differently? What would be the evidence other people could see to show that you are doing well?
  2. What are the concrete barriers that impeded our ability to do the things from the above question?
  3. What are specific and concrete actions that each of us can take to help resolve our problems?
  4. If either of us notice that the other person is doing something unhelpful to achieve our shared goals (of resolving our problems), what would be an appropriate thing to say to the other person?
  5. How often should we both meet to explicitly discuss our progress towards resolving our problems?

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