6 Ways to Embrace Conflict and Keep Your Relationship Strong

Two people at odds, one sitting in chair, one facing away out windowAs a couples counselor, few things worry me more than a couple whose hot conflict has cooled to a long and icy silent treatment. Barring any kind of violence, this is one of the four signals the relationship is coming to an end (Gottman, 1994). A lot of couples are surprised to learn this, because they somehow believe that unspoken resentment is better than conflict. While neither is ideal, if I had to choose one, I would choose a (respectful yet) hot conflict over icy cold resentment any day.

Why? Conflict is a signal the couple still cares. Partners are still open to sharing their viewpoints. They are still engaged and trying, albeit in less-than-effective ways. They haven’t shut each other out entirely. We can work with that!

A couple in cold-shoulder territory may have more work to do to reengage emotionally in the relationship. It’s likely they have made some negative, internal resolutions about each other and about the relationship that will need to be overcome. It’s a bit more of an uphill battle if one of the parties clings tightly to those beliefs. However, when both partners are engaged in the process of healing, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about the relationship’s future.

The reality is that even the most compatible couples can experience ongoing conflict. In fact, research shows that more than two-thirds of the problems in a relationship will be enduring ones (Gottman, 1994). That’s right: two-thirds of relationship issues will never be fully resolved, even in happy, stable relationships.

So how do happy couples deal with inevitable conflict? They make an active effort to stay emotionally connected while they manage it. Relationship research suggests that couples who keep trying, collaborate, and discuss their conflicts fare better than those who avoid conflict, “turn away” from their partner (as John Gottman calls it), and turn to the silent treatment.

Forgetting (or choosing not) to turn toward a partner for that emotional connection might tempt either or both partners to turn outwardly—to other people, activities, or even substances to fill that emotional void. This is a wide-open space for infidelity or self-defeating behaviors to emerge that only further harm the relationship.

Partners who employ silent treatment tactics are skipping opportunities for emotional connectedness. Emotional connection can often be the glue that holds a relationship together. Think of the urge for emotional connection this way: it’s like feeling hunger pangs, but instead of doing the work to prepare a meal, you decide to skip it altogether. Like hunger, you can probably ignore your emotional needs for a short time before you start sensing cues that something is missing. That missing connection will continue to beckon until you act on it. Eventually, the urge will become irresistible.

Forgetting (or choosing not) to turn toward a partner for that emotional connection might tempt either or both partners to turn outwardly—to other people, activities, or even substances to fill that emotional void. This is a wide-open space for infidelity or self-defeating behaviors to emerge that only further harm the relationship.

So instead of avoiding the next conflict, embrace it. Resist the urge to see conflict as a sign the relationship is “bad” or “doomed.” Instead, realize conflict is a normal part of being in a relationship. Think of conflict as a sign the two of you have decided your relationship is more important than your differences.

Tips for Embracing Conflict in Your Relationship

  1. Consider ways to turn problems into shared dilemmas the two of you can tackle together.
  2. Hold a curious and nonjudgmental posture toward each other that enables you to share ideas openly.
  3. Envision yourselves as a team, working together on a shared goal.
  4. Resist the urge to blame, criticize, disrespect each other, or feel defensive.
  5. Remember that the problem may never fully go away, but working together on it can lessen its impact, and staying “on the same team” in approaching it may even make you feel closer than ever.
  6. Accept that solid marriages require ongoing maintenance. It’s not always easy, but if the relationship matters to you, it will be worth it.


Gottman, J. (1994). What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jessica Wade, LPCC, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ariel

    June 28th, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    Once the two of you settle into the thought that not talking about it is better than arguing about it, then you know that eventually it is going to rear its ugly head all over again at some point. The problem is not knowing when it is going to come back up and not knowing just how bad that it will eventually get.

  • Mel

    June 28th, 2016 at 11:34 AM

    I must admit that there have been certain times where all I could do was to embrace the conflict because without it we would have had no relationship at all!

  • Walt

    June 28th, 2016 at 4:10 PM

    Letting it all play out and knowing that you guys are on the same team, you can’t say enough about being able to work on things like that. It isn’t always the easiest thing to do, I get it, but you have to be team players, not opponents in order for your relationship to grow and thrive. Working against each other will pretty much land you either in hostile territory or worse, divorce court.

  • bryan

    June 29th, 2016 at 5:17 AM

    Haven’t we all at some point been pretty envious of those couples who seem so perfect, who never seem to have any conflict with each other?
    Well their lives are not any more perfect than ours probably are, but they keep it all so well hidden that when it does eventually come up to the surface and boil over, it’s probably going to be pretty messy. My thoughts are that when you have something that you need to say then get it out and say it. Then you can work on it and be over it, unlike these other relationships which are always festering just beneath the surface and can go south pretty quickly.

  • danielle A

    June 30th, 2016 at 4:36 AM

    Only serving up the blame but being unwilling to accept any of of it for yourself, well that is never going to help bring the two of you close. If you want to drive a wedge between the two of you and quickly, start with always pointing out the major flaws of the other person and showing how you are always the one being wronged.
    Yeah, that’s not going to go over too well for anyone I would assume.

  • Samuel

    July 2nd, 2016 at 8:26 AM

    Luckily I have learned from past mistakes. I will not say that it always easy to back down from an argument but I have learned that my goal should not be about “winning” an argument but rather just resolving an issue. And if I am wrong then I have to be man enough to stand up and admit that.

  • Lindall

    July 4th, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    Believe me, a little conflict is so much better than nothing at all..When there is nothing to say between the two of you because you are just trying to keep things respectful, there is nothing there at all. I at least want to feel like someone is hearing what I am saying. No conflict means that the person that I am with is pretty much ignoring me. Or that’s what it feels like anyway.

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