There Are 4 Ways to Resolve Relationship Conflicts, and 3 Are Toxic

How to solve a spat.

There’s more than one way to end an argument. In fact, according to a new paper in Modern Psychological Studies, there are four—and while three of them were linked to psychological distress, one wasn’t.

In the paper, lead author Julie Petersen, now a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, recruited almost 700 respondents—all in relationships—online to answer questions about psychological distress, conflict resolution and other mental health and relationship factors.

The trio of resolution strategies that were linked to increased psychological distress may sound familiar to anyone who’s participated in romantic tension: withdrawal, where you pull away from your partner, possibly offering up the silent treatment; compliance, where you just give up, give in and do what they say; and what’s gently called “conflict engagement,” which consists of yelling, bringing up other problems in the relationship or other aggressive acts.

The one strategy that didn’t have a link to psychological distress was “productive problem solving”—negotiation, compromise and their diplomatic peers.

“In general, conflict is associated with distress and lower well being,” Petersen tells Thrive Global. “Productive problem solving, as a resolution strategy, is not associated with distress, which could imply that it neutralizes the distress that comes with conflict.” This goes against what she’d previously thought: that as a standard, all forms of conflict would create distress. But not so with productive problem solving. Clinical psychologists say that this kind of problem-solving requires “emotional fluency,” or seeing where your partner is coming from, and phrasing your words in a way they can really be heard.

Just learning about these different styles of conflict can be helpful to people in their romantic lives, Petersen says. If you notice that you tend to be very compliant, then you might want to acknowledge that and make a point to make more compromise, negotiate instead of give in and even refuse to engage. This is what Cambridge personality psychologist Brian Little calls a “free trait”: even if you’re a sunny, agreeable person by nature, you can learn to consciously act more assertively about things that are important to you.

The hard truth is that arguments are going to happen in relationships, and they’re remarkably consistent. One powerful study tracked a thousand couples over 20 years and found that the frequency of conflict stayed stable over those two decades. So if you’re going to be getting into arguments anyway, you might as well learn the right way to do it. 

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