How to Manage Relationship Conflicts:
The 6 Best Ways According to Science

See also: Conflict Resolution

Relationship conflicts are unavoidable, especially as relationships age.

What’s important, however, is how these conflicts are managed; effective conflict management will make relationships healthier while poor conflict management only makes relationships a ticking time bomb.

Backed by science and research, this article shares the six best ways to manage conflict in relationships.

1. Work on Your Communication Style

Communication is by far the most important thing to work on when trying to manage relationship conflicts, and it is also the first thing to pay attention to when you realize relationship conflicts are persisting.

According to a survey of mental health professionals by YourTango, poor communication is the number one reason why marriages break down and lead to divorce. Communication issues alone are responsible for a whopping 65 percent of divorces.

For men, the major communication issue lies with their partner nagging/complaining. For women, the major communication issue lies with their partner not validating their opinions and feelings.

To ensure proper conflict management and prevent eventual relationship breakdown, you might want to work on your communication style.

According to psychologists, people generally practice the following four communication styles:

  1. Passive communication: A form of communication in which you don’t express yourself and let others always express themselves regardless of what you feel. This can lead to anger or resentment gradually building up.

  2. Aggressive communication: A form of communication in which you always violently express yourself without regards for the other person’s feelings.

  3. Passive-aggressive communication: A mix of both passive and aggressive communication. Communication is passive on the surface and leads to reacting in silently aggressive ways (giving the silent treatment, for example).

  4. Assertive communication: A form of communication in which you confidently express yourself without being overbearing and ignoring other people's needs. This also means you constantly validate the other party and make them feel secure to express themselves.

To ensure the best result in your relationship, it is important to always use the assertive communication style; you should be able to confidently and properly express yourself while making your partner feel secure in expressing themselves.

2. Don’t Stonewall

Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

American psychologist and researcher Dr. John Gottman developed a model for predicting the chances that any couple will divorce by identifying certain behavior patterns. Dr. Gottman's predictions over a series of studies was so accurate that it predicted eventual divorce by up to 94 percent. One of the key behavior patterns Dr. Gottman's study identified as a key predictor of divorce is "stonewalling."

In essence, stonewalling occurs when you refuse to communicate or cooperate with your partner. While most people would be annoyed if you communicate harshly with them, it doesn’t hurt as much when compared to completely failing to communicate or just outrightly ignoring them; it's not rocket science to figure out that pretty much any relationship -- no matter how apparently strong at the moment -- will eventually collapse under the force of persistent stonewalling.

No matter how annoyed or disappointed you are in your partner, don’t stonewall. Yes, it might be difficult to communicate at times, but persistent stonewalling will only bring your relationship to an end you don’t want.

3. Don’t Criticise Your Partner

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People one of Dale Carnegie’s most famous quotes is, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do.”

It isn’t surprising, then, that constant criticism is one of the major reasons why many relationships collapse.

Your partner does something you don’t like and, suddenly, you feel like telling him or her that he/she always does things like that, or that he/she always gets things wrong. Don’t. Resist that temptation, because that is in essence no longer feedback but a personal attack on your partner’s person that will yield the wrong results; either it hurts your partner’s feelings and takes focus away from the actual thing you are giving feedback on, or it negatively impacts your partner’s confidence. In the long run, none of these things are beneficial for your relationship.

4. Be Willing to Apologize

Being willing to apologize isn’t a sign of weakness. Instead, it shows strength and how important your relationship is to you.

Science has shown that conciliatory gestures not only promote forgiveness but that they can also reduce anger in people.

Failing to apologize even though you know you are wrong isn’t manly. It is foolish and signals that your relationship means little to you. There’s a right way to apologize, however:

  1. Don’t simply say “I’m sorry”; be specific about what you are apologizing for and show that you genuinely mean the apology. You could even later buy each other little gifts such as a friendship rings as tokens of the importance of your relationship.

  2. Don’t just apologize casually; apologizing casually and at every moment weakens the value of your apology and lessens its significance when it truly matters. Apologize when you really have to.

  3. Only apologize for your behavior and what you said/did; don’t apologize for how your message/behavior was perceived and interpreted by others.

5. Take a Break

Taking a break is a scientifically-proven way to manage conflict and prevent an issue from going out of hand; there are some issues that are just too hot to address in the heat of the moment and the only way to address them is by taking a break and revisiting them when cooler heads can prevail.

Don’t assume that every one of your relationship issues have to be completely addressed as soon as they erupt; sometimes it's better to wait things out and address them later once you’re both calmer. Develop a rule (mutually with your partner, if possible) to take a break when contentious issues arise that seem to be going out of hand.

6. Pay Careful Attention to the Timing of Your Conflict Resolutions

Psychologists have found that things tend to be very tense and emotions tend to escalate when saying hellos and farewells.

As such, it is best to avoid resolving conflicts during these periods since it could result in the opposite effect of things going out of hand and becoming difficult to address.

Guide to Personal and Romantic Relationships

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide Personal and Romantic Relationships

Personal and romantic relationships can be difficult to navigate.

Even those who are highly skilled at personal interactions at work can struggle to translate these skills to their home environment. This book is designed to help you do just that: to take your existing interpersonal skills, understand them better, and use them effectively in your personal relationships.

About the Author

Segun Onibalusi is a freelance writer and web consultant who has been featured in leading publications that include TheNextWeb and The Huffington Post.