How to Resolve Relationship Conflict in a Healthy Way

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" by John Gray. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the best way to approach relationship conflict? What can you do to resolve it in a healthy, constructive way before it escalates into an argument?

In a healthy relationship, conflict is unavoidable. Couples that don’t have conflicts will end up falling out of love because of suppressed emotions. The key to handling relationship conflict is not to allow it to escalate into a full-blown argument, and when it does, discuss it in a constructive manner.

Here is how to handle relationship conflict in a healthy way.

Relationship Conflict is OK, Arguments Aren’t

Just as loving communication saves relationships, hurtful arguments destroy relationships. In order to maintain a successful relationship, you and your partner must learn to avoid arguments when possible. But when you do have an argument you must communicate lovingly.

Instead of fighting over disagreements, discuss the pros and cons of each person’s point of view. During these discussions, remember to speak in a loving, respectful, and approving manner—do your best to fulfill your partner’s primary love needs throughout the conversation.

The closer you are to someone, the greater the potential for hurt feelings. You must remember that your words have incredible power to deeply hurt your partner. And your partner has the power to hurt you deeply, as well. Hurt feelings don’t usually stem from the argument itself, but from how you communicate during the argument. The way you say something means more than what you actually say. 

Most arguments in relationships follow a similar pattern: 

  1. The woman expresses that she is upset about “Topic A.”
  2. The man explains why “Topic A” shouldn’t upset her.
  3. The woman feels invalidated for her upset feelings. Now she is more upset about being invalidated than she ever was about “Topic A.”
  4. The man feels her displeasure and becomes upset. He mistakenly blames his partner for making him upset and expects her to apologize. 
  5. She either apologizes while secretly wondering why she was the one to have to apologize, or she becomes increasingly upset and escalates to a fight. 

In order to avoid arguments and break this pattern:

  • A man must learn not to invalidate his partner’s feelings.
  • A woman must learn not to speak in a disapproving tone. 
  • Both partners must learn the value of the words “I’m sorry.” Not every apology has to be an admission of guilt. Men, especially, should learn to use “I’m sorry” as a way to say “I care about you and your feelings.”

How Men Argue

When a man feels that his partner is challenging him, his first instinct is to prove that he is right. In an effort to prove his adequacy, he often forgets to be loving and respectful. Because he feels unloved (not trusted or approved of), he starts to speak in a disrespectful tone. 

Although the man only means to express information and prove he is right, the way he speaks often feels like an attack to his female partner. Because women speak to convey feelings, she mistakenly assumes that a man’s words express his feelings toward her. He might think that she is resisting his point, but she is really only resisting his disrespectful delivery. Because he misjudges the reason for her reaction, he will continue to explain himself and try to show the merit of his point. To a woman, this feels belittling and invalidating. 

Invalidating a woman’s feelings is the most common way that men unknowingly start arguments. When your female partner expresses feelings of disappointment, frustration, or worry (especially about something you’ve done or said), resist the instinct to offer explanations of your intentions or justifications for your behavior. First, fulfill her primary love needs of reassurance, caring, and understanding by showing that you are listening to her feelings. 

How Women Argue

Women unknowingly start arguments by being indirect when expressing their negative feelings. Women commonly ask rhetorical questions when they are upset, such as “How could you do that?” Women also use their eyes and tone of voice to express their upset. To a man, these indirect forms of communication feel like interrogation and disapproval. 

When a man disappoints his partner or makes a mistake, he feels vulnerable. Remember, men value success, so even a small mistake will make him sensitive to feeling like a failure. This is when a man needs love and approval the most. If you communicate indirectly, it could make your partner defensive and lead to an argument.

Just like women need to feel validated in their feelings, men need to feel approved of in their behavior. Resist the instinct to withdraw your approval from your partner—that’s one of the most painful things you can do to a man. First, fulfill his primary love needs of trust, approval, and encouragement. You can learn to disagree with something your male partner does without making him feel as though you disapprove of who he is. 

How to Avoid Arguments Before They Start

The most important things to remember when you see a relationship conflict coming in are:

  • The easiest way to diffuse an argument is to say “I’m sorry.” Apologizing doesn’t always mean that you were more wrong than your partner in an exchange. It only shows that you care about your partner’s hurt feelings. 
  • It’s okay to pause a conversation, take time to consider your feelings, and start a conversation over if necessary. 
  • Women must do their best to remain accepting of their partner and give him loving approval. 
  • Men must remember to listen to their partner and validate her feelings. 

Communication in Times of Relationship Conflict

You should try to avoid assigning blame to your partner in an effort to communicate with love. However, there will be times in your relationship when you do feel like blaming your partner for something. Times of relationship conflict are the most difficult times to communicate with care, reassurance, approval, and acceptance. Even the most amazing relationships will go through phases of conflict and troubled communication. At times like these, talking might not work. Attempting to talk could escalate into a fight that will damage the relationship in the long run. 

One of the best ways to communicate feelings nonverbally is to write a letter. Writing out your negative feelings is cathartic—it allows you to release some of your upset and make room for positivity. And it’s an effective way to see how critical and unloving you sound when you’re upset. You don’t even need to share your letter with your partner—just writing down your negative feelings is an effective tool for resolving conflict in your relationship. 

The Best Technique For Writing a Letter During a Relationship Conflict

There is a particular technique of letter writing that is most effective in releasing negative emotions and making room for positive feelings—it’s called the Letter of Love. There are four important elements to the technique of writing a Letter of Love (detailed further below):

  • Write a letter that expresses why you feel angry, sad, afraid, regretful, and loving. 
  • Write the ideal response that you would want to hear from your partner. 
  • Share both the Love Letter and your desired response with your partner. 
  • Save your Letters of Love in a file or journal. This way you can come back to them later and view your emotions with objectivity. 

As you get more comfortable with writing and sharing Letters of Love, you might choose to complete different steps in different situations. Sometimes, after completing the letter and the response, you might feel ready to approach your partner for a verbal conversation rather than sharing your letter. Other times, you might want to let your partner read your letter and come to you when he or she is ready to talk.

How to Write A Letter of Love

Every Letter of Love that you write should include expressions of your anger, your sadness, your fears, and your regrets—followed by expressions of love for your partner. 

Following this format will allow you to explore all of your feelings and communicate them to your partner in a clear and loving way. The format also allows you to tell the complete truth of all of your feelings. 

Here are some tips for writing an effective Letter of Love: 

  • Address the letter directly to your partner and pretend that he or she is listening to you empathetically.
  • Include all five emotions in your letter, in the order listed above. 
  • Keep each section to a few simple sentences.
  • Be patient when you arrive at the love section. Take the time to allow your loving feelings to surface. 

Here is a template you can use when writing a Letter of Love to your partner: 

Dear [Partner’s Name],

I am writing you this letter to help you understand my feelings. 

Anger: 

  • It frustrates me when…
  • I don’t like when you…
  • I’m angry that…

Sadness:

  • I’m disappointed because…
  • It made me sad when…
  • I would have liked…

Fear: 

  • It worries me that…
  • I’m scared that…
  • What I don’t want to happen…

Regret:

  • I’m embarrassed that I…
  • I am sorry for…
  • I didn’t mean to…

Love: 

  • I forgive…
  • Thank you for…
  • I love…

Signed, 

[Your Name]

P.S. This is what I would love to hear from you…

Write Your Desired Response

Writing the desired response at the end of a letter can be just as rewarding as writing the Letter of Love itself. By communicating what you need from your partner, you’ll open yourself up to receiving support. 

Some people, especially women, hesitate to write a response at the end of their letter because they want their partner to give the desired response without being told what to say. Remember, your partner speaks a different language than you do. Giving your partner an example response will help him understand your needs. 

The first time you try the Letter of Love technique with your partner, it might feel awkward to give a response that sounds like the desired response your partner wrote down. You might feel as though you sound inauthentic. Your partner might doubt your sincerity. The key is to keep trying and to appreciate your partner for trying with you. 

Here are some phrases to help you include everything you might need to hear from your partner in the desired response section:

  • I appreciate you…
  • You deserve…
  • I apologize for…
  • I understand that…

Share With Your Partner

When you write a Letter of Love, you heal within yourself. When you share a Letter of Love, you open the door to receive intimacy, love, and support. 

Sharing your Letter of Love and desired response with your partner is important because:

  • You give your partner the chance to support you.
  • You give yourself the opportunity to be understood.
  • The letter can act as a motivator for change and renewed intimacy.
  • The letter can reinitiate conversation after a damaging conflict. 
  • Your partner has the chance to hear negative feedback in an unthreatening way. 

Here are five methods for sharing your Letter of Love (this list is written as if a woman wrote a Letter of Love to her male partner. But these methods of sharing work just as well for men):

  1. He reads the Letter of Love and desired response out loud while she listens. Then he gives his own response with a better understanding of what she needs to hear. 
  2. She reads her own Letter of Love and desired response out loud to him. Then he gives his own response with a better understanding of what she needs to hear. 
  3. He reads the desired response out loud to his partner first. Then he reads the Letter of Love. It’s easier for him to hear the negative feedback because he already knows how to respond lovingly. Finally, he holds her hands and gives his own loving response.
  4. She reads the desired response out loud first. Then she reads her Letter of Love out loud. Finally, he holds her hands and gives a loving response informed by what she needs to hear. 
  5. He reads her Letter of Love and desired response privately, on his own time. When he is ready, he thanks her for her letter and gives a loving response informed by what she needs to hear. 

Be aware that you or your partner might not always be able to give a loving response immediately after hearing or reading a Letter of love. If you cannot respond honestly and lovingly at first, take time before responding. Reassure your partner that you will come back and respond when you are able. 

If you feel hurt by something in your partner’s Letter of Love, you can try writing your own. This is a good way to find your loving feelings again before responding to your partner’s letter.

Sharing Must Be Safe 

Above all else, it is important for both you and your partner to feel safe when sharing or receiving a Letter of Love. Both partners should go through this process with loving intentions. 

The person writing and sharing the Letter of Love must be able to honestly say:

  • “I have written this letter in an effort to find positive, loving feelings.”
  • “The negative feelings I’ve written down were holding me back from giving love, and that’s why I’m sharing them with you.”
  • “I need you to understand my feelings so that I can truly let them go.”
  • “I trust that you care about me and I appreciate you for listening.” 

The person hearing or reading the Letter of Love must be able to honestly say: 

  • “I will do my very best to understand your feelings and accept our different opinions.”
  • “I respect your needs as much as my own.”
  • “I appreciate you communicating your love for me.”
  • “I promise I will not deny your feelings and I will not try to correct you for the feelings expressed in this letter.”
  • “I care about you, I love you, and I believe that we can work through this.”

Come to Terms With Negative Feelings Through the Letter of Love 

Writing and sharing a Letter of Love with your partner is beneficial to both of you. Not only does your partner get a better understanding of your feelings, but you might also learn about your own feelings and defense mechanisms. By sitting down and exploring your feelings in total privacy, you’ll be able to dive deeper into your negative emotions than you could in the company of others. 

Many of the negative emotions people feel in times of conflict (like sadness, anger, regret, and fear) are unconscious defense mechanisms. For example: 

  • People who tend to get angry or act offended in times of conflict might do so to avoid feelings of sadness. But once they come to terms with being sad, they can release some anger.
  • People who tend to feel guilty or even indifferent in times of conflict do so because they neglect their anger and hurt feelings. They need to come to terms with those hurt feelings before they know their own self-worth and release their guilt. 

You can not expect your partner to understand and accept your negative emotions until you have come to terms with them yourself. Writing a Letter of Love is a great tool for going through the primary negative emotions and identifying them within yourself. Once you validate and accept your own negative emotions, your partner will be able to understand and validate you, as well. 

How to Resolve Relationship Conflict in a Healthy Way

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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