Over the course of our lifetimes, we develop hundreds of professional and personal relationships. Paradoxically, it’s often the people we consider closest to us—such as our partners, parents, children, colleagues, or friends—with whom we have the most conflict. For many people, this type of interrelational discord is a major source of stress. Professional help can be a necessary catalyst for improving relationships. Couples’ or individual therapy can be instrumental in this regard.
But we are capable of affecting positive change in our relationships, too. To do this, we need to identify some underlying sources of interpersonal conflict and develop tools that will help us resolve these issues. As with anything meaningful, improving a relationship can take a lot of hard work. But the potential reward for our efforts—healthier relationships with people we care about—is far worth the challenge.
Where does conflict in a relationship come from?
Usually, conflict within a relationship originates from some kind of verbal and/or non-verbal miscommunication. When two people miscommunicate, they often experience heightened emotions including frustration, resentment, or anger. This can lead to subtle or outright relational conflict.
What causes people to miscommunicate in the first place? Here are a few reasons:
Failure to understand the other person’s perspective. We all see the world differently. Our perspectives are completely unique thanks to a host of individual factors including gender, age, culture, past experience, and mental health. Consider an example of a married couple undergoing financial hardship. One partner may perceive it as a sign of doom because a previous marriage ended over money issues. The other partner may perceive it as an opportunity to simplify their lifestyle. If these partners fail to understand each other’s unique perspective then they could miscommunicate and experience conflict as a result.
Failure to express love in a way that the person prefers. Painful conflict arises when one or both people in a relationship feel under-valued or ignored. This is usually due to a lack of awareness about how a person prefers to be shown love or appreciation. Buying a nice gift for his wife may be a husband’s way of saying “I care,” but if the wife feels the most loved by spending quality time together, she may not recognize his gift as an expression of his love. Then, when she says, “I feel like you don’t love me anymore,” the husband won’t understand why and may become frustrated by her lack of receptivity or gratitude. (This information was influenced by the work of Dr. Gary Chapman. For more information on the different ways people prefer to give and receive love, refer to his book “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.”)
Failure to truly listen. Instead of a dialogue, many arguments simply become serial monologues. While one person speaks her mind, the other person is only waiting for his turn to speak. If someone does listen, she or he is often just judging what the person is saying instead of being empathetic or considering the other’s unique perspective. Judgment involves labeling the other person (“She’s lazy,” “He’s selfish,” “She’s emotional”) and making assumptions about what the other person means or how they’re feeling (“She’s obviously mad at me,” “He doesn’t think I’m good enough,” “He doesn’t respect me”).
What are some specific ways to improve communication and resolve conflict in relationships?
Improving communication skills with specific tools and strategies can drastically improve our relationships. Here are some suggestions:
Avoid labels and assumptions. Listen to and observe what the person says instead of immediately evaluating it. To then clarify what the person means and how they’re feeling, use the person’s own words. “You mentioned that you feel like I’m ignoring you all the time. Can you tell me what’s making you feel that way?” Even if the person responds hostilely, avoid judgment. If your emotions are clouding your ability to objectively consider the other person’s perspective, reflect back on the conversation later.
Use appropriate body language. During a disagreement or argument, use helpful non-verbal communication. This includes remaining quiet while the other person speaks (no interrputions or interjections like “right” or “uh huh”) and maintaining non-threatening body language (such relaxing your arms by your side and nodding, or just keeping your head still). Examples of threatening body language include rolling your eyes, shaking your head, crossing your arms, and pointing your finger.
Be the first one. If you feel that there is conflict between you and another person and you would like to resolve it, be the first one to open up a dialogue. Ask how the person is feeling, what their needs are, and how you can support them. You can mentally prepare yourself beforehand to set the tone for a constructive and non-judgmental discussion. Oftentimes our egos and our need to be right prevents us from approaching a person with whom we have unresolved conflict. If the end result of you initiating a conversation with a loved one results in conflict resolution and an improved relationship, then why bother waiting for the other person to make the first move?
Miscommunication is the main cause of conflict in relationships. Because so many of us are never explicitly taught how to actively listen, how to recognize and appreciate other people’s perspectives, and how to communicate our needs in an effective way, miscommunication can happen frequently. But by recognizing why it occurs, we are better equipped to utilize strategies that improve our communication and in turn prevent or resolve conflict. With time, this leads to healthier relationships with the people we care about the most.