Conflict in Relationships: Do You Own Your Responsibility?

Two older adults sit on sofa at small table facing away from each other with arms crossedConflict in relationships is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be destructive. Many partners struggle to find ways to avoid hurt feelings without avoiding discussion altogether. You might feel unable to control your actions at times, especially when you feel attacked or shamed. You and your partner may get locked into dynamics that feel inevitable, and you might begin to respond to each other based on the repetition of those patterns rather than what is happening in the present moment.

Self-awareness and empathy can allow you to define your patterns and become aware of what triggers you and your partner to feel the emotions that lead to defensive and contemptuous behaviors.

Often, understanding the patterns of your arguments is enough to de-escalate or even prevent harmful interactions. There are times, however, that this information leads partners to look at each other and say: “You know what triggers me. So when you stop, I’ll be able to stop, too.”

Who has the responsibility here? The one who has grown more aware of her partner’s sensitivity to a certain tone, or the one who learns he is sensitive to tones that remind him of earlier, painful experiences? Both, of course! Partners need to be attentive to both their own behaviors and how they react to each other. But what happens when your partner isn’t being skillful enough to alter his or her behavior? Do you jump right in and engage in your old pattern?

Here is the moment where you make an important choice. What would happen if you didn’t need your partner to change first, so that you can change in response? What would it be like to take ownership of your own development and create change simply because you understand its importance?

You can ask your partner to be mindful of your sensitivities, approach you differently, and refrain from certain language or tones. But you cannot allow yourself to place your self-control and your accountability in the hands of another. It is unfair to ask your partner to manage both of you, especially when emotions are high. It also disempowers you. It reinforces the inaccurate belief you are being carried away by forces external to your influence.

Think about what would happen if you recognized the pattern and stopped it in its tracks. Imagine being the one who chooses not to perpetuate the cycle just this one time. What would you feel knowing you had reduced the opportunity for pain and disconnection between you and your partner? And in that stillness—that moment where the dynamic breaks down—so many options emerge. What other behaviors could you choose that might lead to connection, hope, and love?

It is unfair to ask your partner to manage both of you, especially when emotions are high. It also disempowers you. It reinforces the inaccurate belief you are being carried away by forces external to your influence.

Remember: postponing or altering your reaction does not mean you condone disrespect or abuse. But if you know you and your partner are committed to a healthier relationship, then re-commit during the conflict. Slow down long enough to determine what you want to do next. Rather than feel compelled by adrenaline, anger, or inaccurate interpretations, become curious! Be curious about your own needs, feelings, and experience. Perhaps a deep breath or a walk around the block could calm your nerves long enough so you can reengage with your partner in a more loving way. Maybe you just need to clarify that you heard your partner correctly. Or perhaps you might describe how the current interaction feels to you and ask for a new beginning. Ask for as many new beginnings as you need to get it right.

What your partner does in response to any of this is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to promote interactions that align with the kind of relationship you want. As long as you come from love, compassion, and understanding, you will see your partner more clearly because your misconceptions and pain will no longer cloud your vision. Once you really see your partner, you can decide if you still want to invest your time and energy into the relationship. If your partner also longs for a new dynamic, he or she will appreciate your effort and most likely want to reciprocate by joining you in a fresh start.

Ultimately, you must begin with yourself. Take a risk and make the first move. Even a small change can dramatically alter the path you’re on and bring you closer to the relationship you desire.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, Young Adult Issues Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • chau

    October 27th, 2015 at 7:32 AM

    It’s bad and I know it but admitting to something even when I know is my fault? It kills me

  • Serena

    October 28th, 2015 at 5:20 AM

    It can be a whole lot easier to do this when you feel like you have a partner who s in it with you and who is also willing to own up to it when they make their own mistakes. Look, I know it is hard for any of us to admit when we are in the wrong. But most of the time I am more concerned about righting my wrongs than I am in proving that I am right about something.

  • harry

    October 29th, 2015 at 9:26 AM

    The most destructive element is when one partner will never admit to any culpability. There always seems to be that one person who has to be right all of the time. That would frustrate the you know what out of me. Just because you do not want to accept the blame for something does not mean that you can shirk the fact that you may have added to the conflict itself. Yes it is hard to say you are sorry but it could be even harder to lose the relationship over your failure to admit that you are wrong.

  • DW

    October 29th, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    I am in sort of the opposite situation, like I feel like I am always forced to take the blame because that is the only way to keep some semblance of peace in the house.

    I will say that I was wrong or that it was my fault just to end the fight and hope to move on.

  • Melody

    October 30th, 2015 at 11:04 AM

    DW_ you don’t have to take responsibility for everything! You know that there are times when something is not your fault so you do not need to always carry all of that guilt around with you. This can be a hint that the person you are with MAY not be contributing to the most healthy relationship for the two of you.

  • Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S

    October 30th, 2015 at 3:09 PM

    It’s true that you can’t be the only one in the relationship willing to take responsibility. You might have to make the first move, but hopefully your partner follows your lead. What if your partner continues down a destructive path, does not share your goals for a healthy relationship, or fundamentally doesn’t respect you? There are no easy answers here. But at least you will know you acted according to your values and can empower yourself to make the decision that is right for you.

  • peyton

    October 31st, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    There are going to always be those times when you have to decide do you want to be right? Or do you want to compromise and stay together?

  • Pam

    November 13th, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    I own up to my mistakes and change when I know something isn’t working or is hurting my husband or me, but my he won’t. He blames me for every problem we have every time there is one and he’s mean as a snake about it too. According to him I’m supposed to leave him alone when he’s angry, which is a good plan as a way to diffuse anger and benefit communication later. Then I’m to wait until he tells me he isn’t angry, say nothing then because its over…if I do have anything to say he says I’m picking on him and starting the argument back up. In other words, his plan for us is that he gets to say what he wants however he wants then I get to say nothing and wait for him to calm down then I get to say nothing at that point either.

    I’ve told him how unfair this is and how much it hurts me but it goes right over his head. When I tell him that, no matter how kindly and careful of his feelings I say it, he interprets it as me starting a fight. And he yells and tells me I said mean things to him that I absolutely and very, very carefully did not say…an example is that he says I told him he was wrong, as in “you are wrong,”..and that I don’t remember saying it. It’s not true and I’m pretty sure he knows he’s manipulating and hurting me on purpose. He gaslights me like this whenever it suits his purpose to make me the guilty party instead of him. He has destroyed my love for him. I tried, hard, to see his side of things and to be loving even when he was not but after several years of this it’s obvious he doesn’t love me enough to be honest about his behavior or his responsibility to me as his wife, or even to himself.

    It’s plainly over but even that he’s not honest about. I’m not in a good position to leave and don’t want to…I’ve worked hard under hard circumstances to make our home and don’t want to have done so only to lose it. We are not young and I’m tired. We are both disabled and have a lot of physical pain. I’m at my wits end with him.

  • Pam

    November 13th, 2015 at 2:02 PM

    This is a good article and one of the best I’ve seen about personal responsibility in a relationship.

  • Dr. Ken Newberger

    December 19th, 2015 at 4:47 AM

    Good article. Just keep in mind, the best outcomes are predicated on both parties being willing to not only improve their marriages but make personal changes in that direction. Techniques, without one’s partner expressing a desire to actually become closer can be very frustrating, and lead to a sense of hopelessness. Making a mutual commitment in the beginning transforms the work into a team effort from a solitary one.
    Dr. Ken Newberger

  • Mary

    May 26th, 2020 at 2:43 AM

    If one must ” do it all” for it to work, why not do it all alone? Why carry the burden of another person when they wouldnt consider carrying yours for even a moment?

  • Amanda

    August 21st, 2021 at 9:59 PM

    I really took the advice in this article. I wrote it all down and basically studied it because I’m going through the “let’s work this out or let’s let it go” trial in my relationship. Implementing this perspective could totally change my relationship so thank you!

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