How to navigate conflict while living with your partner

By Lwanele Khasu

While none of us are strangers to conflict in relationships, the added pressure of Covid-19’s lockdown has cast a spotlight on increased tensions. But how do we address this? Clinical psychologist Lwanele Khasu reveals all.

What are the most common causes of conflict in couples?

There are many but some include:

  • Lack of communication

Communication is a two-way channel that involves both expressing your views and listening to your partner’s views. This sounds like an easy task until you involve two or more people and their emotions. Some couples believe they are communicating when they are commanding, directing, not listening, or listening selectively. This can invalidate their partner and cause conflict.

  • Unmet expectations

Everyone enters a relationship with expectations - whether they articulate them or not. When those expectations are not met, it causes conflict because one feels they are not being heard, their needs are not met, or their partner does not care enough for them. Most couples do not articulate expectations because they believe their partners “should know” either from having alluded to it previously or because they have known them for a long time. This is the biggest trap because people forget and are sometimes blind to what is in front of them. Explicit communication is key!

  • Lack of validation

Being validated in a relationship involves being seen, heard, helped, and supported. When this is lacking, the other party may feel they are not loved, and this can erupt into conflict. The partner that validation is being sought from may believe it is too much responsibility to carry someone else’s validation and this, too, may cause conflict.

  • Unresolved insecurities

Unresolved insecurities can manifest in various forms, whether it is the comparison to a former relationship, bringing past hurts and mistrust into current relationships or even seeing oneself as “not good enough” for your partner. These insecurities cause conflict because they cannot be resolved by the people they are directed at. One must be aware of their own insecurities and manage them through therapy or a workshop to help them think of the insecurities they may have.

  • External circumstances: Financial problems, extended family issues, children/parenting issues

These are the most noted causes of conflict because they are tangential and can be visible in the relationship. These issues usually break the unity of the couple. The couple needs foundation philosophies of how they manage them, otherwise they can take over the relationship.

Why does living together over an extended period, especially during Covid-19, often lead to more conflict?

  • Existing problems that were not addressed usually surface and are harder to hide on a day-to-day basis.
  • We fail to see an integrated picture when something is frustrating us. We look at our partners with the lens of what they had failed and forget to integrate the good things they have done and the ways they have made us happy. This is what causes the “always” and “never” phenomenon, where we believe our partners “always” do something or “never” do something, even though they may have done it previously.
  • Staying with someone full-time places them under a lot of scrutiny. We observe more behaviours than we usually would, and this may bring to light the things we may have ignored or missed otherwise.
  • The old saying of “absence make the heart fonder” still applies. When you get to miss someone, you are more likely to relate better and forget the small transgressions you may make.
  • Over lockdown, people’s circles of intimacy and love were condensed. Where before, one would confide in friends and colleagues, usually only the partner is available and the constant demand for affection, validation, and affirmation can cause conflict.

What are the strategies for navigating a couple conflicts?

  • Intention for conflict

When you are in conflict, know why you are having that conflict. What is your partner unhappy about? What are you unhappy about? What are the expectations from both of you? Often, conflicts become a medley of all the things you have done to one another and this is not conducive to finding a solution or better relationship.

Remember you are trying to build with your partner, every time you want to respond, ask yourself “will this build my relationship or break it?”, “What is my intention by this response?” and “Do I want them to understand me or hurt them like they hurt me?”

  • Tackle individual points

Try not to have conflicts about multiple things at the same time. Define the disagreement and focus on it.

  • Know your limits

When you are angry and you know yourself to shout or be mean with words, then ask for a time out to cool off and then resume when calm. Avoid a shouting match!

What will the problem look like when it is resolved?

Always have outcomes in mind. Then conflict will be healthy and have direction.

  • Listen to your partner

Listen to understand and not to respond. If you feel like you do not understand stop them, and ask, “am I right in thinking this is what you are saying”. Let them respond and do not proceed until you are on the same page about what the issue is and why your partner is hurt by you or your actions.

What do I do if my partner isn’t coming to the party?

Understand why they are refusing to cooperate and know that you cannot convince them otherwise. If they do not want to resolve a conflict then you must decide if you are okay with the conflict remaining unresolved or what action you need to take for yourself, including moving out, seeking professional help, or even sharing with them how you feel about their decision to not engage.

Where do I go for help? Does The Space Between Us offer workshops that can help?

  • You can seek couples counselling.
  • You can seek individual counselling to understand what you bring and what you want out of the relationship.
  • Take a workshop at TSBU to learn more about relationships and how to navigate them.
  • Know when it is time to leave.

How do we rebuild our relationships after a period of conflict?

  • Talk to understand why you are having conflicts. Start afresh and communicate your expectations to one another.
  • Build a repair culture.
  • Have rules of how to have conflict, when to stop and when to resume.
  • Have a talking date where you just check how the week was and how you may have hurt one another and what you both appreciated.
  • Acknowledge when you recognise your partner is trying.
  • Keep a friendship between you.
  • Know your partner’s personal history to build an understanding of their present patterns.
  • Build love maps. Researcher and clinician John Gottman notes a love map is “that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life.” Having a detailed love map involves taking a genuine interest in your partner. It means making plenty of mental space to store information about their personal opinions, preferences, quirks, dreams, and fears.
  • Have action plans for what happens after a conflict. For example, who will work on what? How will you provide constructive feedback or, even how much time you want to spend with each other daily?