Arguments and disagreements occur within all close relationships, and are a normal part of dealing with differences in ideas, beliefs, and perspectives.
However, chronic relationship conflict and stress is a serious issue. It has been linked to poorer mental and physical health and can affect other areas of life such as relationships with family and friends, and work colleagues. Children also suffer when exposed to high levels of conflict at home, and are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, and poorer health.
Learning effective and respectful ways to communicate differences is an important step in building a healthy, fulfilling relationship, and which can benefit our overall wellbeing and those around us.
What causes relationship problems?
There is no one, single cause for relationship problems, but a number of factors can play a part.
A person’s family and upbringing can play an important role in his or her future relationships. People whose parents divorced are more likely to experience relationship breakdowns than those whose parents remained together and seeing high levels of conflict during childhood and adolescence or experiencing abuse in the early years has been linked to relationship problems later in life.
Life transitions and stress
Life transitions, such as moving from living together to being married, having a baby, children leaving home, and moving into retirement can put strain on a relationship, and the couple can start feeling less ‘connected’ to one another.
Personal stress can also place strain on the relationship. When people are stressed, they find it more difficult to be positive or to be forgiving with their partner, which can increase their sense of dissatisfaction in the relationship. Work problems or financial difficulties, difficulties with in-laws or extended family, or balancing the needs of aging parents with the needs of caring for one’s own children can spill over into the relationship and increase stress between couples.
How people think
The way people think about themselves, their partner and their relationship is an important factor in relationship outcomes. Couples experiencing problems can start to blame each other and see each other as the cause of arguments and difficulties, viewing their partner’s behaviour as selfish and intentional. Seeing the relationship or the other person through a negative ‘lens’ can lead to placing more weight on negative events than on the positives, when they occur. This pattern can lead to more conflict or withdrawal.
Particular patterns of behaviour can be important signs that a relationship is at risk. Interactions that include disrespect, defensiveness, criticism, or ‘stonewalling’ (putting up a barrier to communication) are signs that a relationship is in crisis. A ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction has been suggested as a good indicator that a relationship is functioning well.
10 ways to improve your relationship
Work on lowering stress in your life, which might be putting strain on your relationship.
Take time to talk with your partner about life stresses and how to manage these together. Seek to support each other in times of difficulty.
Focus on making the positive interactions in your relationship outweigh the negative, by five to one. Remember to show appreciation, gratitude, and care.
Be open to sharing your views, ideas and emotions - this builds closeness and understanding. Work on expressing frustration, disappointment and anger openly and constructively.
Be open to your partner’s point of view and, rather than jumping to conclusions, seek to understand how your partner thinks and feels, or why he or she might be acting in a certain way.
Establish that you do indeed share the same values, expectations and standards for your relationship, and work to live by the values important to you.
When there is conflict make sure to remain respectful of each other. Take time to calm yourselves if needed and return to the discussion later. Make sure you both work to repair any hurt caused.
Develop a sense of shared meaning in your relationship, by appreciating each other’s roles in the relationship, the goals that link you, and the ways each of you contribute to and influence each other and your shared life.
Encourage your partner in his or her work, friendships, and activities. Celebrate successes.
Keep your sense of playfulness, affection and positive humour alive in your relationship.