Communication and Conflict

What are you really arguing about?

The most common things couples argue about are money, sex, work, children and housework – roughly in that order.

Most rows start because of differences of opinion, but with patience and basic communication skills you should be able to negotiate a compromise.

Violence or threats of violence are never acceptable in a relationship. If arguments are always aggressive, or you avoid conflict because you’re scared things may get out of control, you need support. You can contact the Women’s Aid helpline free on 0808 200 0247. You can also get further information about domestic violence from our Hitting Home site.

If you find the same old issues come up over and over again, or as soon as one issue’s resolved another crops up, then there’s more going on than meets the eye. Below are some common reasons.

Sometimes people find they’re fighting battles that have far more to do with the past than the present. Feelings of rejection or betrayal in childhood can create hot buttons that partners press without realising.

For example, a partner who’s parent left suddenly in childhood may find themselves overreacting to a hastily arranged business trip. Or a partner who was always forced to do gardening as a punishment when a child may become irrationally angry when asked to mow the lawn.

If there are taboo subjects in your relationship that always cause a storm, you need to mention them more often. If you don’t, they can become time bombs.

Taboo subjects can include things such as a forgotten birthday or a time when you felt your partner wasn’t there for you. Often it’s something that represents a serious breach of trust such as an affair or a breaking of confidence. Burying old relationship problems is OK, but you have to make sure they’re dead first.

Ways to make peace

It’s important to accept that arguments are a normal part of relationships. We’re all different and where there’s difference, there will be disagreement. But when arguing seems to be a way of life and leaves you feeling exhausted, hurt or wondering if you want to stay in the relationship, it’s time to call a truce and sort things out.

The first step towards doing this is to understand what you’re really arguing about and get an insight into your conflict style. After you’ve looked at both these areas, you can use some of the techniques below to help you sort things out. Some can be done alone; others need your partner’s cooperation.

Violence or threats of violence are never acceptable in a relationship. If arguments are always aggressive, or you avoid conflict because you’re scared things may get out of control, you need support. You can contact the Women’s Aid helpline free on 0808 200 0247.

Self-awareness and self-responsibility are the first steps in sorting out and avoiding conflict. It’s impossible to make your partner change, but if you change your behaviour they’ll almost certainly react differently.

Assume the best – unless you have evidence to the contrary, always give your partner the benefit of the doubt.

Check your conscience – are you arguing because there’s something you’re avoiding, such as apologising, compromising or forgiving? Make sure you’re not fighting to protect your pride.

Think about whether you’re being affected by something else – don’t underestimate the power of external circumstances. Are you stressed, tired, hormonal or angry about something else?

Be adult – do you tend to slip into behaving like a child, sulking, blaming or being obstinate? Or do you become like a critical parent, condescending, criticising or punishing? An adult is calm and focused, and listens and negotiates.

Own your feelings – your partner can’t make you feel something. Your feelings are under your own control. If you’re angry, say “I’m angry because…”, not “You made me angry.”

Good communication is vital to making peace. Often arguments go on and on, just because one or both parties feel they haven’t been heard.

The tips below will improve your chances of being heard and help you show your partner that you’re listening to them.

Listen – this is the most important part of good communication. Listen to your partner, without judging or making assumptions. See Talk and listen for more information.

Explore – ask questions to make sure you really understand what your partner is saying. Be willing to look at every angle.

Explain – this is the other side of exploring. Be ready to give as much information as your partner needs to understand your point of view. Don’t expect them to read your mind.

Empathise – put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Feel what they’re feeling and let them know you’ve taken notice, eg “I understand that you’re feeling upset.”

Express – say what you mean and mean what you say. Be clear and to the point.

Laugh – this may seem a strange thing to put in an argument, but sensitive use of humour can be a powerful way to diffuse an argument. If there’s a lighter side, use it

When there’s violence

Domestic violence is not just physical abuse. It can also be psychological or emotional bullying. If you’re worried you may be in an abusive relationship, have a look at the links below:

  • Assess your relationship with our quick test
  • Warning Signs
  • Common things abusers say
  • Common abusive behaviours

If after reading this section you decide that you are, or might be, in an abusive relationship, there’s a lot of information on the rest of this site that will help you to think through your options.

Effects on children

  • Should I talk to my children about the violence?
  • How might the violence be affecting my child?
  • Should I tell my child’s teacher about the violence at home?
  • My son is worried that he’ll be violent because his dad was…
  • Do girls with violent fathers grow up to attract violent partners?

Pregnancy and new baby

  • My partner started being violent towards me when I became pregnant.

Children and your legal rights

  • I want to leave. Can I take my children with me?
  • If I go into a refuge without my children, will I be able to get them back?
  • Will social services take my children if they find out my partner hits me?
  • My ex-partner wants to see the kids but I’m afraid he won’t bring them back.
  • My ex-partner wants to see the kids but they don’t want to see him.
  • I’m planning to leave. What if anything should I tell my kids?
  • I’m in a refuge with my kids and they want to see their dad

Sources of support

  • What services are there for children in refuges?
  • What can the health visitor do to help?
  • What can social services do to help?
  • What can the GP do to help?
  • Since leaving I can’t control my kids. Who can help me?
  • What is the Children Act and how could it affect me and my children?
  • What could ChildLine and other agencies do for my child?
  • CBBCand Onion Street

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.