A Guide to Resolving Conflicts in Romantic Relationships

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What follows summarizes a recent paper by Sasaki and Overall that discusses conflict resolution in romantic relationships.

Conflicts and responsiveness in romantic relationships

Relationship conflict (for example, differing desires or goals) can cause significant stress and anxiety. This is especially true when partners react to conflict by getting angry, defensive, and distant; as opposed to behaving responsively—listening attentively, expressing affection, and being validating.

To understand the power of responsiveness during conflict discussions, consider the effects of hurtful and destructive behavior, such as guilting, shaming, insults, name-calling, and making threats.

As damaging as one person’s destructive behavior can be, it is only when the behavior is reciprocated that a vicious cycle of destruction may result.

What if the partner chooses to show responsiveness rather than reciprocate? For example, by expressing love and compassion, or by gently bringing the focus back on finding a solution to the original conflict?

This encourages the other person to act constructively as well, sometimes even giving rise to a virtuous circle of responsiveness that resolves the conflict in addition to enhancing trust, commitment, and relationship satisfaction over time.

Responsiveness and personal vulnerabilities

A variety of behaviors may be labeled responsive; in particular, being emotionally supportive, validating, understanding, encouraging, caring, kind, and loving. Nevertheless, whether one perceives their partner’s behavior as responsive depends on that person’s immediate needs. Receiving emotional support when one needs practical support, for example, is perceived as unhelpful.

During conflict resolution, sometimes the person who needs support the most does things that significantly interfere with receiving it. There are different reasons for this. Aside from stress, a major reason involves personal vulnerabilities.

Here are four of the most common personal vulnerabilities and what responsiveness would look like in each case:

Attachment anxiety: Refers to attachment insecurity characterized by concerns about the availability of attachment figures (for example, husband or wife), and fears of rejection, abandonment, and being unlovable. It is associated with maladaptive behavior (for example, guilt-induction) aimed at obtaining attention, reassurance, or intimacy. Responsive behavior: Reminding the partner of one’s commitment. How? By expressing unconditional positive regard, love, and physical affection.

Attachment avoidance: Describes attachment insecurity associated with self-reliance, need for autonomy, view of attachment figures as disappointing or unreliable; and discomfort with intimacy, closeness, and dependence. Avoidant people often view their partner as controlling, which can motivate anger or withdrawal. Responsive behavior: Expressing recognition and respect for the partner’s views, beliefs, and choices.

Low self-esteem: Refers to negative self-evaluation, whether overall or with regard to specific domains (for example, , intelligence, competence, beauty). People with low self-esteem expect rejection, especially during conflicts. They try to protect themselves by becoming emotionally distant or by attacking and belittling their partner. Responsive behavior: Providing self-esteem support, including giving genuine compliments and showing confidence in the partner’s values and abilities.

Depression: Characterized by negative mood, loss of pleasure, and a rigid style of thinking. Because depressed people tend to interpret ambiguous acts as hostile, they often behave in ways that escalate conflict. Or, feeling overwhelmed by their negative emotions, they become emotionally distant. Responsive behavior: Recognizing signs of distress in the partner, intervening as needed, and communicating positive emotions like love, care, and optimism.

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Characteristics that facilitate constructive conflict resolution

Given these vulnerabilities, providing appropriate support in a timely way can be challenging. What may help is developing the right motivation, abilities, and skills:

The ability to self-regulate: Requires greater self-control, an accepting attitude toward emotions, and the use of cognitive emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal—reframing conflict in a way that changes its emotional effect (for example, seeing the glass half full).

The ability to notice and understand the partner’s needs: Requires mindfulness, high-quality listening, perspective-taking, and empathic accuracy, a competency that refers to correctly inferring another person’s thoughts and feelings.

The motivation to be responsive: Requires the willingness to make a true commitment to the relationship, provide unconditional support, and feel empathic concern (that is, sensitivity, warmth, compassion).


How can you work through relationship conflict in a way that promotes not only effective conflict resolution but also personal and relationship well-being?

Here are suggestions on ways to deal with conflict constructively:

  1. Be self-aware. If you feel tired or stressed, wait before discussing the conflict. Or return to it later. Regulating another person’s negative emotions and destructive behavior can be difficult if you have trouble regulating your own emotions, which is more likely when feeling stressed or tired.
  2. Learn high-quality listening skills and adaptive emotion-regulation strategies, including perspective-taking.
  3. Focus on your commitment to the relationship and the love you feel for your partner or spouse.
  4. To facilitate conflict discussions, take the time to identify and clearly express your needs.
  5. Accept and appreciate your partner’s attempt to address your needs. Doing so can make you feel cared for and loved even if he or she does not address your needs exactly as desired.
  6. To promote mutual responsiveness, reciprocate your significant other’s supportive behavior. Note, that a partner who is always relied on to manage the other’s vulnerabilities may become resentful and less satisfied with the relationship over time.

Simply put, to facilitate conflict resolution in a way that promotes personal and relationship well-being, it is necessary to regulate your own emotions, identify your partner’s needs, and importantly, find the motivation to behave responsively.

After all, expressing understanding, care, validation, and other responsive behaviors requires not just ability and skills but also motivation.

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