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Fall 2022 Edition

Marriage & Relationships

How To Manage Relationship Conflict… And Stay Together

Periods of conflict, frustration or anger are an inevitable part of every marriage or long-term relationship simply because they are in the fabric of all human relationships. Why are some couples able to work through their disagreements or frustrations and survive and thrive, while others end up in a vicious cycle of negative feelings, emotional distancing and deterioration that leads to divorce?

Staying together

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how much you love each other that will best determine the future of your relationship, but how you handle conflicts and disagreements. Couples that stay together disagree about just as many things and the same things - money, housework, sex, priorities, the kids, etc. - as couples that divorce. The difference is that those in successful marriages know how to manage conflict in a constructive and positive way.

Researchers studying relationships have found that the likelihood of divorce can be predicted by studying how couples handle conflict. Disagreement isn’t predictive of divorce. Fighting isn’t predictive of divorce. Criticizing, stubbornness, withdrawal and arguing that includes put-downs, accusations and rejections is predictive of divorce.

Over time, these negative patterns of dealing with conflict steadily erode all of the good things in the relationship, ultimately leading to a relationship overwhelmed by negative feelings.

The 5 to 1 positivity ratio

Researchers at the University of Washington report that stable couples don’t allow their relationship to be overrun by negative feelings. In fact, they say, successful couples maintain a healthy balance between their positive and negative encounters with each other. They don’t avoid disagreements. They don’t avoid arguing. But they do balance out any negative interactions with positive feelings and actions like showing interest, being affectionate, showing they care, being appreciative, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, showing concern, etc.

Interestingly, a very specific ratio exists between the amount of positivity and negativity in a successful relationship. That ratio is 5 to 1. In other words, stable couples have at least five times as many positive interactions in their relationship as negative ones.

How to resolve conflicts constructively

By learning to resolve conflicts and manage disagreements constructively, you can limit negative encounters with your partner and strengthen the positive side of your relationship. Follow these guidelines:

1. Eliminate negative communication styles

Are you or your partner guilty of any of the communication styles below?

  • criticizing your partner’s opinions, feelings or desires
  • putting down the thoughts, feelings, actions or worth of your partner
  • name calling
  • insensitivity
  • stonewalling
  • making accusations
  • avoiding disagreements or important discussions
  • disregarding
  • withdrawing from conflicts
  • bringing up past hurts

These negative ways of interacting sabotage any attempts at constructive communication, erode positive feelings and are devastating to a relationship.

2. Learn how to listen

Constructive and positive communication begins with genuinely attempting to understand the other person’s point of view, needs or feelings. First, listening to understand focuses attention on the issue at hand, not on individual personalities. Second, caring to listen to what your partner thinks and feels is a way of showing that you care about him/her. For more effective listening you should:

  • Listen for understanding - Give your partner an opportunity to communicate his/her thoughts, feelings, needs or desires regarding the issue at hand. Listen for understanding, rather than spending time preparing for what you’re going to say next.
  • Ask questions – Guard against assuming that you know what your partner meant or felt by asking questions to assure your understanding. Ask questions such as, “Do I hear you correctly?” or “Is this what you are saying?”
  • Summarize - When your partner is finished speaking, repeat what he/she said - in your own words - to confirm with your partner that you understand.

3. Learn to speak without attacking

By learning to speak without attacking your partner’s thoughts, feelings, actions or worth, you can keep disagreements from escalating into full-blown and nasty arguments. To improve your talking skills you should:

  • Make “I” statements – Avoid starting a sentence with “you.” It sounds like an accusation accusation or an invitation to fight (which it usually is). Instead, put yourself on the line by sharing how it is for you. Say, “I think...” or “I want...” or “I feel...” No cheating by saying, “I think that you...”
  • Use “Feeling” words - It’s not fair to expect your partner to guess or “figure out” what you are feeling, as in, “If he loved me, he’d know!” Quit playing the guessing game and say it straight. Be sure to use feeling words like “sad,” “happy,” “excited,” “angry,” “worried,” etc. Remember to start the sentence with an “I” as in, “I was upset when you forgot about our date.”
  • Focus on issues, not personalities - Deal with specific issues on which decisions and compromise action can be worked out. Be specific when you introduce a complaint. Confine yourself to one issue at a time.
  • By talking with “I” statements and focusing on specific issues, you eliminate the possibility altogether of using unproductive and destructive communication styles like accusations, put-downs, or criticizing.
  • By avoiding negative communication styles and improving your listening and talking skills, you can learn to resolve differences without negative consequences and, in fact, grow stronger and closer by solving them together.

Getting professional help

Sometimes our problems are too hard to solve on our own. If you are concerned about a particularly difficult marital or relationship issue, or if physical abuse, substance abuse or depression are involved, contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counseling, referrals or information. All EAP services are FREE and strictly CONFIDENTIAL. If you need help, why not call an EAP counselor today? We’re here to help you.


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Disclaimer: This newsletter is not intended to provide medical advice on personal wellness matters. Please consult your physician for medical advice.