How to manage conflict in relationships

In this article I aim to look at reasons conflict can occur, what to do and what not to do during conflict and what can happen during conflict. I will also explore steps toward collaborative conflict resolution and look at how therapy can be used to assist you in understanding managing conflict and how you react to it.

Why does conflict occur in relationships?

Within all relationships, whether with a partner, family member or friend, there will inevitably be conflict at some stage. Conflict can be difficult to manage, understand and resolve. It can be difficult to know how to express our thoughts and feelings in a constructive and meaningful way that will be heard, valued and understood by the other party.

Conflict can begin with a look or a word and can very quickly escalate, become stirred and quickly descend into a situation of hostility and anger. In these situations, it can be very difficult for us to see with clarity, hear what our partner has to say, or be willing to change our opinions. We feel under attack, threatened, accused or hard done by. If we are unsure what to make of the situation, we can very quickly revert to older thinking patterns, and make assumptions about the other person. This often in conflict leads to what can be referred to as ‘mud slinging’, the process of bringing up old incidents and using them in the present almost as ammunition against the other person.

We often can attribute blame to other people, make false accusations and go through an internal process that leaves us certain that the other person is in the wrong. The problem is, that nearly all of the time these thoughts and processes are unhelpful and faulty. In these situations we are forced to attack, which usually always ends in discourse and hurt feelings on both or one side.

What to do and what not to do during conflict

What not to do

  • Escalate the situation further by either attacking or blaming your partner.
  • Fuel the argument by either defending your position, or explaining numerous times.
  • Avoid the situation by walking away or shutting down from what is happening.
  • Use your voice or physicality to pacify the other person.

What to do

  • Be open to hearing your partners opinion.
  • Resist the urge to respond immediately.
  • Disengage in a caring way that shows you need time out.
  • Show curiosity to how the other person is feeling.
  • Respond in a genuine manner.
  • Give space and time for your partner to speak, even if it takes time.
  • Use a calm, caring and non-threatening tone of voice.

What can happen during conflict

During conflict we have different options available, and we will all react differently. Some of us may react strongly becoming defensive or aggressive, others may avoid conflict and react in a passive nature. The responses listed below illustrate the nature of conflict and demonstrate how it can lead to ill will within relationships.


In a situation where a fight occurs both parties, or sometimes one individual will become hostile, shout, scream and argue about whose way will win, be more meaningful or matter the most. It can be the case that one individual within the relationship can often come out feeling as though they have ‘won’ because they have been louder, more prominent or simply argued the other person into submission.


Here, one person or possibly both will avoid a potentially painful, damaging and difficult argument by submitting and often the disagreement will be ended, but the by-product of submission can be one person feeling hard done by, angry at the other and potentially low and depressed.

Flight or escape

Here, one individual or maybe both, will choose to flee the situation by self-distraction or escaping. They may engage in other activities such as cleaning or washing dishes. In this scenario, the argument is not discussed, which can lead to feelings of resentment occurring or the argument being continued at a later date, or not mentioned at all.


Here, a combination of fear, anxiety or tension, or all three can immobilize people. This happens because an individual or both parties are aware of the situation and argument, but consciously choose not to address it or attempt to find a way through. Again, as above, this can lead to unspoken feelings of resentment or a resurfacing of the anger and argument at a later date.

Steps to collaborative conflict resolution

In conflict resolution, the term shared problem solving is used. The emphasis being on the term ‘shared’ which implies there is a collaborative effort taking place or a vested interest for both parties to solve the conflict for mutual benefit. For this process to work, there must be a sense that both parties are sitting together facing the problem with the same view, not squabbling over the issue or being oppositional.

If we are able to talk with one another, we can bring a disagreement out into the open in a friendly and non-hostile or threatening manner. This will enable each individual to understand the needs of the other and value their concerns, worries or annoyances. This is the optimal result within conflict resolution, and will have a positive impact upon both parties. Below I have listed some basic steps involved in collaborative conflict resolution.

Step 1 - Recognise that there is a problem that needs to be solved and moved on from.

Step 2 - Exploration of the underlying concerns, worries or anxieties.

Step 3 - The creation of a mutually beneficial solution to this difficulty.

How therapy can help

A qualified and experienced therapist can help you to explore at depth your history of conflict in past relationships or current ones in a safe and non-judgemental space. They will be able to help you to identify and think about why it is you react the way you do to conflict, and offer you the chance to work on strategies to better manage conflict.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua's an experienced integrative therapist with an individual approach. He's worked with people to understand conflict and develop more appropriate responses to conflict, as well as explore possible underlying reasons behind conflict. He's helped people become more aware of conflict in their relationships and change patterns in their lives.

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