Conflict and disagreement are an inevitable part of any relationship. Two people with different backgrounds, personalities, perspectives, beliefs, experiences, and tastes can lead from minor everyday annoyances to serious relationship-crushing conflict.

Disagreements, struggles and heated debates can be very stressful and become harmful when you feel that you are under attack and need to continuously defend yourself instead of focusing on solving the issue.

WATCH: Having difficult conversations

Common conflict stressors include:

  • insecurity
  • resentment
  • financial and family responsibilities
  • emotional stonewalling
  • power and control
  • selfishness
  • criticism
  • unreasonable expectations
  • infidelity
  • loss of passion
  • an inability to regulate one’s own emotions (think about a difficult day at work and how you handle and carry that emotion with you by the time you get home).

Very often, the conflict situation would include any number of the above stressors making it difficult to find the root of the disagreement.

 The role of conflict

Conflict per se is not inherently negative. It is a natural expression of individuality within a relationship and if managed correctly, can foster stronger, more intimate relationships.

“Happy relationships aren’t relationships where there is no fighting. They are relationships where repairs are made after regrettable incidents happen – and where a couple connects with each other day to day.” John Gottman

Conflict can be a means to “clear the air”, surfacing issues that need discussion and constructive resolution. When it is healthy and productive, relationship conflict presents an opportunity for understanding and personal (and relationship) growth, and encourages open and honest communication, allowing partners to express their thoughts, concerns, and desires.

However, if prolonged or managed poorly, conflict can damage your relationship irrevocably and affect your health and overall well-being.

Conflict can lead to:

  • unsurmountable stress
  • resentment
  • destructive behaviour
  • disengagement
  • emotional distress
  • physical withdrawal
  • erosion of the emotional bond
  • breaks trust and intimacy
  • affects your mental health and can cause depression, anxiety and eating disorders
  • impacts your functioning and work and in social settings.

READ: Quietly quitting on your relationship

 Avoid widening the rift

If there is conflict in a relationship, it’s not too late. Conflict means the relationship is still alive and that there is energy from both parties to better the situation and ultimately, the bond.

There are two common threads in a conflict situation. It’s important that you recognise which pattern of behaviour you naturally following.

Negative strategies

  • Compete or fight – the classic win/lose situation where the strength and power of one person’s words or argument always wins
  • Denial or avoidance – pretending that there is no problem
  • Smoothing over the problem –maintaining harmony on the surface, but do not resolve the conflict

Positive strategies

  • Compromise or negotiation – both give something up to create a middle ground. However, as both of you have given something up, neither of you would likely be completely happy with the outcome, which may lead to revisiting the discussion repeatedly, or build-up to resentment.
  • Collaboration – working together to create a shared outcome (first prize!)

Poor communication is however the main culprit as we listen to respond not listen to understand. We answer with our hurt and anger, and instead of finding a solution to the problem, and then, we end up fighting the person.

Focus inwardly and try your best to engage with your partner by means of the following:

  • Always remain calm and respectful. Never name call, swear or ridicule which is emotional abuse and should never be inflicted on anyone.
  • Practice active listening to create an environment of respect and understanding.
  • Choose the right time and place. If you are angry and feeling emotionally overwhelmed, rather ask for time out and agree on a time and place later that day (such as 9pm in the kitchen). This will allow both parties to be calmer and more composed. Never try to discuss difficult issues when you are tired, hungry, or have an audience.
  • Address the issue, not the person with personal attacks. Use “I” statements, instead of “you”.
  • Be willing to agree to disagree, to compromise, change perspectives, and to apologise.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff! Winning a battle, but losing the war is not worthwhile.
  • Have realistic expectations. Never expect or demand perfection.
  • This is not a competition. There are no winners in a relationship, but rather a healthy, supportive and safe union.

When approached with respect and empathy, conflict can improve communication skills and foster a deeper connection. When managed effectively, it can stimulate creative problem-solving and navigate challenges, leading to innovative ideas and improved relationship dynamics.


NOTE: Relationship conflict is not the same as abuse. If your partner is physically or emotionally abusive, contact the Gender Based Violence Helpline 0800 150 150, the SAPS Emergency Services 10111, or send a “Please call me” text to *120*7867# (free) for counselling and other services, including shelter.