relationship conflicts

Turning relationship conflicts into growth in these difficult times

Learn to fight fairly and to support one another during times of crisis

Dr. JessJess O’Reilly is a sought-after speaker, author and sexologist (www.SexWithDrJess.com).


How you engage in conflict can affect every facet of your relationship, from how you support one another during times of crisis to how you feel when you slide into bed at night. Now, more than ever, couples are dealing with relationship conflicts.

In many cases, both partners are working from home and spending every hour of the day together. In other cases, one member could be working on the front lines, requiring a great deal of support from their partner when they return home each day. Whether we are in a time of crisis or not, I receive questions about fighting almost daily. Here are a few from your neighbours along with my insights below.

Queenie from the Beach asks, “How do we stop having the same fight over and over again?”

It happens to the best of us. Oftentimes we fight to relieve tension, jockey for power or prove a point. Rather than trying to win or be right, ask yourself these three questions: What am I hoping to get out of this argument? What am I willing to do to produce the desired outcome? What can my partner do to help?

Focus on the second question before you even consider moving on to the third. If you are seeking a specific resolution, chances are you are the one who can bring it to fruition. We have a tendency to focus on what we want from others rather than ways we can change our own attitudes and behaviours.

Begin the conversation by expressing your desired outcome and your commitment to change, and your partner will be more likely to listen and follow suit. Try writing down your answers in advance, and you’ll likely see the tension dissipate and the frequency of conflict decline.

Neema from Little Italy asks, “How do I deal with my boyfriend’s inclination to walk away every time I try to discuss contentious or difficult topics?”

If your partner tends to withdraw when difficult topics arise, be sensitive to his history and triggers. Conflict avoidance comes in many forms, and sometimes it is related to past experiences of trauma, abandonment, loss or anxiety. Others avoid conflict because they don’t have the tools to manage and respond to difficult emotions. Be mindful of the fact that withdrawal is not necessarily an indication of a lack of care or vested interest.

Begin by clarifying why you want to have a specific discussion (e.g., to better understand him or to strengthen your relationship). Let him know you want to engage and give him the option to do so at another (specific) time and/or location. Consider what you can do to support his physical comfort knowing that his emotional comfort may be strained.

Ask him why he doesn’t want to address a particular topic. Be straightforward and ask what you can do to make the conversation easier.

Acknowledge missteps and apologize if you have made the conversation difficult in the past.

If he absolutely refuses to engage, I suggest you see a therapist or counsellor on your own (or together, if he’s up for it). Many of these professionals are offering virtual sessions during the pandemic. Don’t let his refusal to seek help be an excuse for your refusal to do the same. That’s on you.

You can’t control the way your partner responds, but you can control the manner in which you respond to his response. If you find yourself blaming him (exclusively), you likely need to step back and consider your role in his response. If you spoke differently, chose different words, approached in another way or waited for a more appropriate time, you might elicit a different — perhaps more favourable — response.

Mohammed from Yorkville asks, “How can we cut back on the daily bickering that weighs down our relationship?”

Sometimes smaller fights help stave off larger conflicts, but sometimes, we use them as a distraction to avoid having the tough conversations.

Consider whether there are underlying issues you’ve been avoiding. Have you been sidestepping conversations about finances, in-laws or sex by bickering about smaller issues instead? Identify the issues of contention and write down your concerns and fears before discussing them with your partner.

Alternatively, you might seek the support of a therapist — on your own or together — to help guide you through the difficult conversations.

If you can’t identify any underlying issues of which bickering might be a symptom, I suggest you use the “99 Rule” to stave off daily bickering: Before you engage, ask yourself, “If I’m lucky enough to live to be 99 years old, will this still matter?” Chances are it won’t, so consider letting it go unless it represents a core value or essential issue.

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