What is conflict?
Disagreements between partners are common and natural. Sometimes you can sort them out quickly. At other times, it can be hard to work out solutions. This is when there might be some conflict in your relationship.
Conflict can range from disagreements that you can’t sort out to strong verbal arguments to physical fights. Conflict can also be uncomfortable silence, anger and hostility.
Conflict happens in relationships. The important thing is how you handle it.
Family violence is not OK. If you’re in a relationship that involves family violence, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Why conflict management is important for families
Constructive conflict management is good for you, your relationship and your children.
Good for you and your relationship
When you and your partner talk through your differences and come up with solutions you can both live with, you’re both likely to feel more positive, happy and supported. Your relationship is likely to be stronger too.
Good for your children
Conflict is a part of life. When your children see you working together on resolving your conflict, it helps them learn valuable life skills like how to negotiate and solve problems effectively. It can also be comforting for your children to see you being optimistic about working out your differences.
By working on conflict management and resolution, you also protect your children from the negative effects of frequent, ongoing, angry or violent conflict.
Managing and resolving conflict with your partner
Managing and resolving conflict constructively is all about talking and listening in polite and respectful ways. These tips can help you do this:
- Try to rephrase what your partner has said in your own words to check that you understand. For example, ‘It sounds like you’re upset that I’ve been late four times this week and you’ve had to do the evening routine’.
- Try to understand your partner’s feelings or perspective. You don’t have to agree, but you can try to understand where your partner is coming from. For example, you could say ‘You seem frustrated by my comment – is that right?’
- Use ‘I’ statements to explain how you feel, without blaming your partner. For example, ‘I feel invisible when you’re messaging on your phone while we’re having dinner’.
- Avoid generalisations and words like ‘never’ or ’always’. For example, ‘You never help with household chores’ or ‘You’re always watching TV’.
A problem-solving approach can also help you sort out conflict. If you try a problem-solving approach to conflict, it’s important to start by assuming that your partner wants to work things out as much as you do. Then there are a few key steps:
- Focus on just one problem at a time.
- Brainstorm plenty of solutions to the problem, then decide which ones are most likely to work.
- Decide on a solution to try, and put it into action. Give it time to work.
When you’re problem-solving with your partner, look for humour in the situation, but avoid laughing at your partner or their ideas.
Things can get heated when you’re trying to resolve conflict. If this happens, it’s important to call ‘time-out’. This gives you time to consider each other’s perspective and control angry feelings. But agree on another time soon to discuss the issue – no more than one or two days after the conflict first comes up.
Protecting children when you’re resolving conflict
To protect children from the negative effects of conflict, it’s important to keep conflict to yourselves if you can.
You can do this by making time to discuss problems when children aren’t with you – for example, after children’s bedtime, or when they’re at school or visiting grandparents.
It’s also best to avoid:
- arguing in front of your children
- asking your children to carry hostile messages to your partner
- asking your children upsetting questions about your partner
- asking your children to hide information
- making your children feel like they have to hide positive feelings about each of you from the other
- criticising your partner in front of your children.
It’s also important to let children know they’re not the problem. You can do this by:
- making sure children know that the argument isn’t about them – it’s between you and your partner
- telling your children that you’re working on a solution to the problem
- reminding yourself that some problems are for adults to sort out – children don’t always need to know what the problem is and it’s OK not to tell them.
And even if there’s some conflict with your partner that you need to sort out, you can still focus on positive relationships with your children by:
- making time for enjoyable activities with your children
- giving your children positive attention, including praise and encouragement when they behave in ways that you like
- giving your children cuddles and telling them you love them
- stopping what you’re doing so you can listen and talk with your children about what they’re doing and feeling
- encouraging your partner to spend happy, positive time with your children.
Getting help with conflict management
If you’re having trouble working through conflict or you’ve thought about separation, it’s a good idea for you and your partner to get help together.
Relationship counsellors can help you and your partner identify what’s causing conflict between you and help you come up with practical solutions. You could try the following options:
- Call Relationships Australia in your state or territory on 1300 364 277.
- Call Family Relationships Online on 1800 050 321.
- See your GP to talk things through and get a referral to a psychologist or relationship or family counselling service.
- Find a psychologist or counselling service through the Australian Psychology Society, Australian Counselling Association or Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.
If your partner doesn’t want to go to counselling with you, it’s still worth seeking help by yourself.
If you’re experiencing mental health problems, you might be able to get a mental health treatment plan through your GP. This can help with the costs of seeing a mental health professional for up to 10 sessions.
How children are affected by parental conflict
Conflict between parents can affect children. Children can experience sadness, depression, worry, stress, lack of confidence and behaviour changes.
For example, younger children might respond to conflict by throwing tantrums or behaving in difficult ways. School-age children are more likely to be disobedient and might have problems at school. Older children might experience problems like staying away from home, missing school, getting into fights or arguments, stealing or trying alcohol or other drugs.
These problems and behaviours are more likely when parents fight a lot and don’t resolve their differences, or when the conflict involves physical or verbal abuse, threats or arguments in front of children.
If you’re worried about your child, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP. The GP might refer your child to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Children over the age of five years can also talk to a confidential counsellor by calling Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Kids Helpline also offers webchat counselling and email counselling services.