(1) Some Conflict in Relationships is Inevitable
Marriage and `living together' involves two people being together in a
relationship for up to seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, year in, year
out. There is a great deal of physical closeness as they eat, sleep and share
the same house together.
To make things more complex, they care for each other and have high
expectations of how they wish to be treated by each other. Being human, they may
occasionally let each other down.
This page provides couples with information about relationship issues, to
help couples think about their relationship, to share their thoughts and to
explore ways of making their relationship happier and more fulfilling.
It does not attempt to give answers, because what works well for one couple
may not work well for another. Instead, issues which trouble most couples at
some stage of their relationship are described and possible ways of tackling
these issues are suggested.
(2) Does conflict in relationships serve a useful purpose?
Conflict, most commonly expressed as anger, can indicate that all is not well
for a couple. That some change is needed to keep their relationship healthy.
If conflict has a purpose, then instead of asking "how can we avoid
conflict?" we should ask "how can we manage not to hurt each other or our
relationship when we have a row?" and "how can we learn from the conflict?"
Avoiding conflict could mean avoiding important issues which would be better
faced and sorted out.
Conflict is a symptom. Treating the symptom by patching things up without
finding out what caused the conflict is unwise.
Anger is for many people a "bad" feeling and one that can be frightening
because of its intensity and possible consequences.
There are three ways of responding when we feel angry.
- Expressing our anger;
- Denying our anger; or
- Acknowledging our anger
(3.1) Expressing Anger
Anger could be expressed by attacking the person we are angry with, doing a
lot of shouting and screaming and perhaps using physical force by hitting,
pushing, or punching the other person.
Expressing anger in this way will often leave a wound in the relationship
which is harder to heal than the original cause of the anger. It may make you
feel better temporarily, but can also leave you feeling guilty (because of the
effects of your anger) even if you are convinced you were in the right.
Those who deal with their anger by expressing it often claim that their anger
takes over, and that they can't help their actions.
It may feel as if anger is beyond our control, but in reality everyone can
learn to control their anger.
(3.2) Denying Anger
A second way of dealing with anger is to bottle it up and deny it. This means
pretending that you are not really angry and denying it if your partner suggests
you are angry. Some people become so good at denying their anger that they even
fool themselves and become unaware that they are angry, even though it is
obvious to those around them.
Bottling up anger and refusing to deal with it may solve a problem for a
while, but it will create worse problems in the future. Facing up to conflict,
whilst sometimes painful, can improve a relationship.
Ignoring anger means ignoring the warning signals that all is not right in
the relationship. It also leaves the other person in the conflict feeling
frustrated because they sense that something is wrong, but cannot get things out
into the open and sort them out. It can become like living with an active
volcano, waiting for the eruption!
In extreme cases, denying anger can gradually destroy a relationship. For
example, it is difficult for a couple to be intimate and trusting with each
other if they keep denying or ignoring the anger between them.
(3.3) Acknowledge Anger
This is the most constructive way of handling anger.
First you will need to make a decision that you will not attack your partner
when you get angry. This means that you will not, for example, use anger as the
opportunity to score points about past failings by your partner. You decide that
when there is a conflict between you, you will aim to resolve it as quickly and
as constructively as possible.
When conflict arises and you feel angry with your partner, try to follow
Try using "I" statements such as "I'm feeling absolutely fed up with the way
the kitchen was left last night", rather than "you" statements - "You're so
selfish leaving the kitchen in a mess last night".
"You" statements will inevitably be heard as an attack, and lead to the other
person being defensive. They can make the conflict worse.
Admitting your anger lets your partner know how you are feeling. It helps to
get problems into the open so that both partners can do something about them.
BUT NOTE that admitting your anger is different from expressing it.
You will need to sound as if you really are angry, but that does not mean you
have to shout and swear!
This is essential if either you or your partner feels too angry to talk about
the problem - "I'm too angry now; let's talk about it later".
Ask for "time out" if you need it. Don't leave it to your partner to suggest
it - you are the one who knows how you feel, don't expect your partner to read
Don't use "time out" to avoid issues. It is important that you come back
later and try to sort things out.
There is nearly always another feeling underlying anger like sadness, hurt,
disappointment, or a sense of being let down or taken for granted. Let your
partner know how you feel. The underlying feeling will usually be a clue to the
real issue that you and your partner need to face up to and talk about. For
"You're always off out with your damn mates! I'm fed up to the back teeth
with them - and with you! You're just totally selfish!"
It's unlikely that reducing the amount of time he spends with his mates will
solve anything. Almost certainly the real issue is that she is feeling
unappreciated and left out. Something needs to change so that she feels
When he hears that she wants to spend more time with him because she cares
for him and enjoys his company, he may be more likely to change his behaviour
than if he hears a criticism of his mates.
- Listen to your partners point of view. There may be an angle on the
situation that you haven't considered.
- Be prepared to acknowledge your part in the problem. Saying sorry does not
mean that you are accepting all the responsibility.
- Ask what lessons can be learnt from the conflict. This will improve your
relationship and lessen the chances of a similar conflict happening again.
- Be prepared to forgive and make up. When you are ready, but don't make
your partner wait as a punishment. A row between two people who love each
other is like a "little separation". Reunion after separation can lead to a
deepening of closeness and intimacy in the relationship.
(4) Physical Violence in Relationships
Physical violence in relationships, usually with a the male being violent to
his female partner, has become an increasing cause for concern. Physical
violence is NEVER acceptable as a response to conflict or provocation.
Marriage does not confer the right to physically assault one's partner.
Assault is assault, whether to one's partner or to a stranger in the street.
Once physical violence occurs in a relationship, it easily becomes a pattern. It
happens more and more frequently and becomes more serious. Eventually, it can
lead to serious injury or to death. Violence is a sign that something is wrong.
It should be taken seriously and help should be sought.
For Relationship support for Family Violence Prevention
(5) Learning How to Handle Conflict more Effectively
Couples who are able to communicate effectively are more likely to be able to
handle conflict constructively. A first step, therefore might be to attend a
course or `workshop' on communication skills in marriage such as Getting it
Together a relationship course for couples or Living in a Step-family a course
for couples where one or both partners have a child or children from a previous
If you are having difficulty in resolving conflicts, and especially if there
is violence involved, seek the assistance of a counsellor.
This information is provided by Relationships Australia who are
Australia's leading provider of professional services to support relationships.
It is a not-for profit community based organisation. Our Mission: Relationships
Australia is committed to enhancing the lives of communities, families and
individuals by being the leading professional provider of quality relationship
support services. Our Goals: To work in partnership with others to ensure a
society which supports positive and respectful relationships; To serve a more
diverse range of clients; To provide relevant services that meet the needs of
clients; To adopt business practices that enable the delivery of efficient and
effective services; To ensure a positive work environment that delivers outcomes
for clients; and To be financially robust to achieve our goals.
You can contact the national office of Relationships Australia on 1300 364
277 to find your closest state branch.