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Ten ways to avoid a conflict becoming a real crisis in relationships

Discussions and debates are part of life and relationships but, when those become full-blown arguments, the effects can be quite destructive. Dr Maeve Hurley explains how to moderate these disputes.

Conflict is an inevitable and sometimes necessary part of life, and all close relationships will encounter it at some point. It is often unpleasant, but there are ways to ensure it is not destructive, especially when it comes to its impact on children. Below are 10 ways for couples to manage conflict.

1. Remember, conflict is normal

Conflict is a normal part of relationships - at home, at work, in families and with close friends. It's how we manage it that matters, both for our own mental and physical health, and that of others who may be affected by our conflict, such as our children.

2. Be aware of your conflict style

We react to conflict situations in different ways. The first step towards managing conflict is recognising our own pattern of reaction and how we behave when we feel under threat. How do you behave when there is a conflict? Do you fight, take flight or freeze? A fight response would be to shout. Taking flight may involve leaving and walking out. Freezing may involve withdrawing and being silent or sulking. This pattern is often predictable and can lead to a "dance of distress" where the conflict escalates and it's difficult to exit. Think about your conflict style and how it might affect others. Do you fly off the handle and say hurtful things in the heat of the moment? Do you become defensive or sarcastic? Do you bottle things up and then eventually explode? Talk to your partner about how you both handle conflict and how you react to each other's conflict pattern.

3 Recognise your argument patterns

Some 69% of argument subjects are repetitive. The top five things that couples argue about are: housework, sex, money, balance of power (ie, who gets to make decisions) and friends/family. Recognising that there are areas that will keep coming up and lead to conflict can be either reassuring or disheartening. The key is in how we manage these. Don't be afraid to lighten the mood with humour or affection.

4. Choose your time and explain your position

When we're stressed and wound up, we are more likely to misinterpret what others are saying and read into things negatively. If an issue needs to be addressed with your partner, pick a time to do it where you will both be relatively calm, not overly tired, and free from distractions. Start by explaining how you feel, without blaming or criticising. Avoid starting sentences with "you" or "you always".

5. Check the response and ask for their view

Be aware of how the other person is reacting to the issues you have raised. Are they becoming defensive? If they are, reassure them you're not attacking them or unreservedly criticising them; rather, something is bothering you and you want to sort it out. Use open-ended questions and give them time to respond. Ask how they feel about what you said, and try to avoid using yes/no questions.

6. Listen - properly

Let your partner speak and listen to them properly - without thinking about what you're going to say next. Do your best to stop, remain calm, and listen with an open mind and an open heart. Check that you have understood their point of view by repeating it back to them in your own words.

7. Say what you agree about

Finding common ground can be very useful as it helps pinpoint exactly where the difference of opinion lies. Start by talking about what you agree on and take it from there, moving onto the areas of disagreement. It does not have to be about who is right and wrong. Try and keep the conversation positive by working out a solution you're both happy with.

8. Know when to stop and take the spotlight off conflict

There may be elements of an argument where the best thing to do is agree to disagree, or there may be a point at which you realise you can't agree. In these circumstances, or if the discussion is becoming heated, it can be better to leave it for the time being.

9. Be kind

Kindness and empathy towards your partner goes a very long way. Communicate in a positive and respectful way. Share humour and show interest in each other's day. Tell them what you appreciate about them.

10. Think how conflicts affect others; forgive each other

Children can become very distressed when exposed to destructive conflict, such as verbal or physical aggression, silent treatment, or intense arguments about them. They are also at risk of poorer physical and mental health. None of us are perfect. A culture of forgiveness allows people to learn from their mistakes, and strive to do better. Forgiving means that all parties can move on with freedom and a lack of resentment.

  • Dr Maeve Hurley worked as a GP in the UK and Ireland for 16 years and now supports frontline workers in the health and education industries in their communications and interactions with clients and patients

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