Conflict with a Partner

It is hardly surprising that many people experience conflict with their partners from time to time. When the practical realities of daily life are taken into consideration, some conflict is almost inevitable. Most people feel sad, hurt, afraid guilty or inadequate when their romantic relationship has problems. Such intense emotions are entirely normal and understandable. On occasions the emotional pain can be overwhelming. Finding positives and genuine hope for the future seems almost impossible. The aim of this short article is to help you understand the complex nature of relationships and how this complexity leads to conflict. Important issues will be discussed. We will discover that considerable insight, assistance, support and healing is available. There are legitimate opportunities to make a real difference. Life really can get better and happier! Resolving conflict in a relationship requires strength, commitment and understanding. I hope that this article gives you the comfort and hope that you deserve at this time.

Why We Fight With Our Partners

Even single people sometimes have bad days! Irrespective of our involvement in any long-term relationship, everyday life can be difficult. Having a partner brings many joys and benefits. Intense personal relationships also require responsibility, compromises and sometimes conflict. Finding an acceptable balance between individual needs and those of our partner is frequently difficult. The complex interplay between different personalities in an intense personal relationship has fascinated lovers and philosophers since the dawn of civilisation. During those chaotic and passionate days of a new relationship, many of our partner's negative traits are completely overlooked. The disadvantageous impacts of our partner's entrenched traits, attitudes and behaviors become increasingly apparent as our relationship develops. At the start of our relationship, annoying behaviors are either accepted or dismissed as 'cute' or 'funny'. Months or years later such behavior can lead to relationship stress or conflict. The behavior is no longer 'cute' of 'funny'. It makes us feel angry or frustrated. It is not just differences in personality, which create problems.

A significant difference often exists between our personal values and those of our partner. For instance, many people fall in love with individuals from another country or cultural group. When partners meet for the first time, they may not even speak the same language. Differences may exist in personal values that are irreconcilable. Other factors such as age difference or socioeconomic background may play a role. Our partner's past experiences or actions may have lasting consequences that cannot be ignored. Each individual also brings a unique set of personal skills to the relationship. Some people cope better with problems than other individuals. Significant problems may be inevitable from day one if the fundamentals of our relationship are shaky. Fortunately, most of these problems can be overcome if there is a willingness to address the key issues.

The background and personality of each partner in a relationship is only one aspect of relationship conflict. Another important consideration is that circumstances change over time. People often change over time. Their appearance changes and their behavior may also change. New people come into our lives who may have impacts on our relationship.  Opportunities become available. Significant challenges may also arise which seriously threaten the stability of the partnership. One of the most essential characteristics of an enduring relationship is the ability to adapt to a change of circumstances. Flexibility is vital. A large and diverse range of personal challenges may need to confronted in any long-term relationship. Some of the more common issues are listed below.

This list is certainly not complete. Each relationship has a unique set of critical issues and challenges. If you are serious experiencing difficulties in your personal relationship there is absolutely no justification to feel inadequate or guilty. Do not believe that you have failed. It is genuinely difficult to maintain a passionate, loving relationship in the face of constant challenges and threats. Despite all these potential problems, there exists reason for genuine hope. There is good news. Healing, renewal and personal growth is possible and achievable. Many relationships recover and rebuild. Some are better than ever before. Genuinely committed partners have overcome extraordinary obstacles and regenerated relationships. Reconciliations do occur. You may not always succeed in your efforts to heal your relationship conflict however enough people triumph to make a serious effort worthwhile. Be realistic but positive in your efforts to heal your relationship conflict.

Let's talk about the big issues

Common Goals

Researchers who have studied conflict in relationships have often noted the importance of relationship goals. Do you have a shared vision? It is remarkable how often partners lose a sense of shared vision. At the commencement of a relationship the common vision is strongly focused. Time and circumstances may distort or remove shared objectives. One of the indirect effects of many therapies is to restore this common vision. If partners are working towards a common goal conflict is minimised and teamwork is enhanced. You actually have a logical reason to be together and make things work again! Talk about your vision with your partner. Attempt to build and nurture a common vision.

Fear and Insecurity

Many people form relationships in the first place because of the feeling of security they provide. When something happens to threaten that security conflict often arises. Security goes to the core of many relationship problems. It partially explains reactions to threats such as infidelity, dishonesty and life-changing events. A need for security and stability varies greatly between individuals. Some people resent change and feel constantly under threat. Other people crave excitement and novelty and get bored easily. They are always seeking to live on the edge of danger. A potential for conflict arises when one partner feels insecure, or alternately, bored. Feelings about this major issue need to be ventilated and resolved. Empathy is essential. A counselor might help here.


Despite what we might think, our life partners are not mind readers. Some people have a natural gift for anticipating the needs of partners. Other people have no idea whatsoever. A functional relationship normally requires ongoing communication and understanding. Breakdowns in communication are common and have profound consequences. Wearing a metaphorical blindfold and earmuffs is unhelpful. Our relationship is greatly enhanced when there is clear communication and understanding of needs, fears and goals. An effort needs to be made to communicate in an honest and sensitive way. It can be quite difficult to find time in a busy schedule to talk things through but often prevents problems and it helps build trust and a common vision. 


Some relationships just do not work out. Well-intentioned partners work hard to defy the odds and often succeed for a period of time. In many cases, a point is reached where the relationship ceases to meet the needs of one or both partners. This does not reflect badly on either individual. Some people just are not designed to be compatible. It's that simple. Separation is probable or perhaps even desirable. It is a desperately sad situation. Some common examples of possible incompatibilities are listed below.

An honest assessment of compatibility is sometimes required. Are you trying to make the water run uphill in your relationship?

Physical side of the relationship

It all looks so easy in the movies! On the newsstands, magazine articles tell us that we must be receiving endless physical pleasure and satisfy our partner on every occasion. Meeting these lofty standards when we are tired, stressed, growing older, ill or when the kids are screaming is not easy. It's impossible. Even adult movie stars have bad days on occasions. Viagra usage is rampant in the adult business apparently!

Sexual problems are an understandably common cause of relationship conflict. A detailed discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this article or even this site. A couple of important points can however be made. Talking about sexual problems feels awkward or even embarrassing for many couples. Solving problems does inevitably require discussion in a sensitive and non-judgmental fashion.

1. Becoming a skilled lover is not rocket science but experience helps. Persevere.
2. Learn as much as you can about making love from reputable sources.
3. Sensitive communication is a must.
4. Sex is only one aspect of a relationship. Its importance varies greatly.
5. It is not a competition where medals are awarded. Do not take it too seriously.
6. Some days are better than others. Set aside specific time to make love on a regular            basis. Switch off the phone and occupy the kids.
7. Tell your partner that they are loved and appreciated.
8. Surprise your partner occasionally.
9. Praise your partner and boost their self-esteem.
10. Explore fantasies.

Considerable assistance and advice is now available regarding sexual problems. There are many excellent books in print and helpful websites. Counseling has improved and is more available. Awareness and treatment of sexual problems is improving on a daily basis. A great deal of hope exists for couples experiencing sexual problems. Don't be shy. Help may be closer than you think!


Unfaithfulness is one of the greatest threats to a relationship. Often it is indicative of a serious problem which requires urgent attention. Do not trivialise or ignore it. Frequently, the intense hurt caused by an unfaithful partner leads to the end of the relationship. It's that personal. Infidelity does not however always mean the end of a relationship. If both partners are genuine in their efforts to identify underlying issues and act appropriately then healing is achievable. Many otherwise good relationships recover from an episode of infidelity. It requires determined effort but it can be done. Your relationship might just be worth saving after all. The following points can reasonably be made.

Illness and disability

Many relationships are exposed to difficult challenges from changing circumstances. A common challenge is development of a chronic illness or disability. Significant illness or disability may mean many things. There are often new responsibilities, restrictions in activities and practical problems. On some occasions there may be considerable financial hardship. The affected individual may lose self-confidence or suffer from altered body image. A significant effort is often required to emotionally support an unwell or recently disabled partner. A large number of secondary impacts may occur.

If the relationship is fundamentally sound, then many of these problems are solvable. The legitimate needs of both partners must be considered and managed. Fears and hopes should be communicated. Understanding, patience and commitment are important. Many people who have illness or disability maintain highly rewarding and fulfilling long-term relationships! In some cases the emotional bond between the partners is enhanced by the challenge that is faced. A large number of loving relationships rise to the challenge. If difficulties arise then help is frequently available. Learn more about the specific illness or disability and the management of important issues. Joining a local support group might be useful for both partners. Such groups often provide considerable insight and useful contacts. Carers need support too! The help of expert psychologists, or counselors is needed in some cases.


Addictive behavior is a major threat to any long-term relationship. In the modern world, there are multiple forms of addiction which are easily accessible. For example, many gamblers now lose significant amounts of money on the internet. Addictions cause damage through their many practical impacts on a relationship.

Addictive behavior must be eliminated. Often there are issues which have contributed to the addiction in the first place. It is sometimes worthwhile exploring the underlying cause of the addiction. If causes are identified and managed, then relapse is less likely. Treat the addiction or risk losing the relationship. It's that simple. Many other areas of this website offer useful information regarding addictions. There is an entire category of our useful links devoted to the issue of addictive behavior. There is also a recovery plan that discusses overcoming addictions.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence in a relationship is completely unacceptable in all situations and at all times. It should be neither tolerated nor ignored. Never hide it or accept it. Act now. Do not be afraid. Your local telephone guide will almost certainly contain numbers for support services in your area. Our useful links section contains specific information in the in 'Surviving Abuse or Violence'. Confronting domestic violence requires both strength and courage. Frequently, there are other problems associated with the violence which need action. The sooner you start to fix the problems, the easier it will be. If you do not act, then domestic violence tends to become a habit. It happens more often and becomes increasingly severe. Get your life back today!

Sexual assault

The experience of a sexual assault is another major threat to a relationship. Sometimes the assault can occur within the relationship. Just like domestic violence, this cannot be tolerated. One of the partners can sometimes be the victim of a rape or sexual assault by another person. Such a situation requires considerable support and understanding. It can take considerable time to overcome the trauma of a rape or sexual assault. Assistance and support must be sought at an individual level in your local region. Try searching for rape crisis services in your local area. Our useful links on 'Surviving Abuse or Violence' will guide you towards support in many areas of the world. Do not suffer in silence. Get help today!


In the modern world, there is an increasing interchange of cultures. This presents many opportunities and challenges. One of the impacts of increased travel and migration is the large number of relationships between people of different cultural backgrounds and races. This diversity may add intrigue to a relationship. Frequently, however it presents significant problems. There can be significant clashes of attitudes and personal values. Conflict can be triggered in certain situations. There are often profound differences in the behavior between different cultures. Some concepts and emotions can be difficult to articulate to a person from a different cultural background. Philosophical differences in the approach to bringing up children can prove a flashpoint. Communication, acceptance and understanding are the key. Solutions to problems are much more effective if they are culturally appropriate.

Dollars and cents

Money problems are one of the most common triggers for disputes within a long-term relationship. Financial issues permeate many areas of life. Our financial situation impacts on the day to day choices we make. Many people also fight about the control of money. A solution involves around finding common ground and having realistic expectations. A good step is to agree on a budget or a long-term financial goal. Do not compare yourselves unfavorably with other people. There is no obligation to 'keep up with the Jones's'. Seeking independent advice can really help. Remember that many wealthy people are profoundly unhappy. Money helps but it does not bring happiness alone!

Individual freedom

Within a relationship there needs to be some room for individual growth and self-expression. Many excellent relationships are ruined needlessly by possessiveness, envy and perceived loss of freedom. Do not let this happen to you. There must be a balance of needs of the individuals. It builds trust and respect. If both partners are contented on an individual level, the relationship will also be happy and rewarding. Communicate with your partner about the level of freedom in your relationship. Share activities that you both enjoy but also develop independent activities. Achieve some sense of freedom and personal space.

Accepting change

Change is constant and unavoidable. We all grow older, have children, change jobs, move residence and sometimes fall ill. Relationships are constantly exposed to change from within or as a result in a change of circumstances. See change as a challenge and an opportunity for personal growth. Change throughout life provides learning, experience and enlightenment. Redefine goals and communicate about your hopes and fears. Given sufficient will, people can adapt to a surprising variety of changing circumstances. Learn to anticipate the future and plan ahead.


Many people have expectations about their personal relationships that are unrealistic. Without doubt, we should maintain high standards. Our expectations however need to be in touch with the real world. Other people need to treat us courteously and honestly so that trust and loyalty are developed. We can reasonably expect to be treated with respect and commitment. Many people have ridiculous expectations of their partners. After all we are only human! Everyone makes occasional mistakes. Not everyone is the perfect parent or housekeeper. People get tired or ill or have a bad day. Their lovemaking may not match the perfect standards of the mass circulation magazines. They may not always agree with our opinions. There may be clearly different preferences or personal values. A functional, committed long-term relationship allows for understanding of imperfection. The idiosyncrasies of a partner, however annoying, can become endearing. There is some acceptance, flexibility and good humour about the issue not simply judgment, constant comparison or frustration.


Time stays still for no man, or no woman. Aging is inevitable and has many impacts upon life in general. Most certainly, growing older has impacts upon our relationships. There is no escape from the physical effects of aging. Growing older has other effects. Our emotional needs change throughout life and this places pressures on relationships. When we meet a partner and form a relationship, few people would consider challenges such as retirement, menopause or a so-called 'mid-life crisis'. Few people would consider what might happen if our partner became chronically ill. Most of these challenges can be accepted and managed. They increase our understanding of the rich fabric of life. A little communication, understanding and support normally permits negotiation of the issues associated with aging. Learn about the important issues and honestly discuss your hopes and fears with your partner. Aging need not be a source of anxiety, insecurity or conflict. Sharing these challenges with a partner is one of the rewards of a long-term relationship.

Finding positives

It has often been said that love is blind. When a relationship is experiencing a difficult period there is an almost irresistible temptation to focus on negatives. Without doubt legitimate issues need to be properly addressed but do not drown in a sea of negativity. Many people lose sight of the good things that provided attraction in the first place. There is a tendency to unfavorably compare with other people who are 'luckier', 'wealthier' or 'happier' than we think we are. Our vision is often filtered or distorted. Healing a hurt relationship means developing shared goals and enjoying all the positive aspects of the relationship. We need to learn to have fun again! Sometimes we may need professional assistance with evaluating our relationship and appreciating its positive aspects. Do not be afraid to praise your partner when they do something good. It builds trust, enhances self-esteem and can make a world of difference.


Do not be too proud to ask for expert assistance. Relationship counselors are more available and more skilled than ever before. Counseling can often make a significant difference. There are many misconceptions about the role of a relationship counselor. Counselors do not just wave a magic wand. They perform many important functions, some of which are listed below.

Skilled counselors should make a real difference. Often they help but not always. Have realistic expectations. If you are serious about healing a relationship conflict, consider employing a counselor. It is never too late to try. Do professional counselors really make a difference to the outcome of relationship conflicts? The current evidence appears to be that they do. In a recent scientific review in the Annual Review of Psychology, the authors concluded that "The most basic question that can be asked about couple therapy is whether it helps. The scientific literature has addressed this question by comparing couple therapy with no treatment at all. The result of dozens of these comparisons indicates unequivocably that couple therapy increases satisfaction more than does no treatment".

A few key points need to be made about relationship therapy. There are several different types of therapy. Different couples and different problems require particular approaches. Cost can be an issue for some couples and different options need to be explored. Results depend upon the effort that each partner contributes to the process. The greater the effort, the greater the chance of a satisfactory result. Sometimes counselors tell us things that we do not wish to hear. We may need to change our own behavior or make compromises. The availability of counselors varies from place to place. Ask your family doctor or look in the local telephone book. Our useful links category 'Relationships' contains contacts of counseling organisations in many countries. Check the links page of this site.

Families, friends and relatives

It has been said many times that we can choose our friends but not our ancestors. Our families can make significant contributions to our personal relationships. In certain cases they can wreak absolute havoc. Conflicting personal agendas often require us to confront dilemmas or make painful decisions in our personal relationships. Family conflicts have a bad habit of becoming acrimonious if left to fester. Try to nip these problems in the bud. Friends can also be a help or hindrance. Sometimes we must be strong, assertive decisive and set strict rules. Honesty and communication are always important and solve many problems. We may need to seek advice and mediation in difficult cases.


The arrival of children adds many new dimensions to any relationship. There is joy, wonder and love. Kids can have a strong uniting influence. There is also hard work and responsibility as well as added pressure. The media is filled with constant images of so-called 'perfect parents'. Living up to these lofty expectations can be almost impossible. The needs of children are constantly changing as they grow and learn about the outside world. Most parents find the teenage years especially challenging. In the modern world there are many possibilities for adolescents to run off the rails. Frequently there are differences of opinion about how children should be brought up. Another common area of dispute is the sharing of responsibilities in the household. On occasions when serious disputes arise, mediation may be required. However, in many family situations a few general comments can be made:


Commitment represents the cornerstone of most long-term relationships. It is the one ingredient that often keeps things on the straight and narrow when the chips are really down. Commitment must be constantly nurtured and reinforced. One of the first signs of trouble in a relationship is the wavering of our commitment. Commitment can be built in many ways. Perhaps one of the most powerful ways is by having shared goals. Priorities need to be right. Communicating is also critical.

Forgiveness and acceptance

Each partner in a relationship makes mistakes from time to time. It is inevitable. The consequences and importance of these mistakes varies greatly. A dirty kitchen might be acceptable, unfaithfulness almost certainly is not. When mistakes are made, apologies need to be offered. Almost always, there should be the opportunity of a second chance and a fresh start. Patience should not however be unlimited in the face of repeated serious transgressions. Forgiveness and moving on is needed too. A truly loving relationship also involves some reasonable acceptance of our partners legitimate flaws and imperfections.


In a long-term relationship we simply cannot have absolutely everything we want on every occasion. In the real world it just does not happen. Keeping a committed long-term relationship requires negotiated compromise from time to time. A fair balance should be developed. Our legitimate needs and values must be respected. There are times when we simply have to be assertive if our needs are being overlooked.

Summary of the facts about resolving relationship conflict

Each relationship is absolutely unique. The individual personalities and life histories of the partners are almost infinite in their variety. Specific individual circumstances and family relationships add further complexity. What does this mean? The implication is that solutions to conflict need to focus on the specific needs and issues of that relationship. A different approach is needed for each individual relationship. The partners are different and the situation is unique. Certain generalisations can however be made. Many of these generalisations are simply commonsense. Some pieces of wisdom have been proven from generation to generation in history. Others have been tested by well-constructed scientific studies. Some of the more useful pieces of wisdom about relationship conflict are listed below.

1. Even the best long-term relationships have low points.
2. Conflict in a relationship is common. What matters is how conflicts are resolved.
3. Expert help is available and often makes a real difference.
4. People and circumstances change over time. Be flexible.
5. Aim high in your personal relationships but have realistic expectations. In the real
    world, perfection is rarely achieved.
6. Healing often take time and effort. Patience is often required.
7. Domestic violence is never acceptable.
8. Forgiveness, acceptance and compromise are often required to solve problems.
9. Addictive behavior requires decisive action. It cannot be overlooked. A relationship
    is unlikely to survive ongoing addiction.
10. Do not be too proud to accept genuine help. Do not suffer in silence.
11. Honestly express feelings. Problems not discussed are not addressed.
12. Develop a shared vision. It is critical.
13. Look for positives in your partner. Negatives provide no satisfaction.
14. Build trust.
15. If both partners are strongly committed to healing, success is more likely.
16. Communicate with your partner. Do not assume you know what they are thinking.
17. Keep reinforcing progress.
18. Do not just talk about problems. Have fun together. Remember what attracted you in
     the first place!
19. The past cannot be changed. We can however learn to live more comfortably with it.
20. Different issues manifest at different times in our life. An important issue when we
     are aged 25 may not prove significant when we reach 55 years of age! Some issues
     have a natural expiry date however new ones arise.

Assistance and information

Many people who are experiencing difficulty with personal relationships feel a sense of helplessness. The issues often feel difficult, highly personal and painful. It can be hard to know where to turn for support and advice. Many people just suffer in painful silence. Help is often more available than you think. Many excellent books are available and can be found in reputable bookstores and libraries. Your family doctor may be able to guide you towards resources in the area that you live. Skilled psychologists and counselors are available. There have been several significant advances in relationship therapy in recent years. You might be pleasantly surprised! Considerable assistance and advice about relationships is also available on the internet. The links page of this website contains a comprehensive set of links to counseling and advisory services in many countries. Look in the 'Relationships' category. Other important issues have links as well. Where possible it is preferable to seek individual advice and support at a local level together with your partner.

Finally if you have tried and failed

Do not despair. At least you have had the courage to try. Despite the intense hurt of a broken heart most people are able to recover and move on. A failed relationship proves nothing. It does not make you a loser or a failure or make you inadequate. Most certainly it does not mean that you will not be loved again. Most people do eventually find new partners. Often they are even better than the previous one! Take some time to come to terms with your loss. Do the following things.

Wishing you lasting love from all at!

By Dr Andrew Rylatt (Medical Doctor)
11th May 2004

   Christensen, A., and Heavey, C.L., Interventions for Couples, Annual Review of                    Psychology, Vol 50, 1999, 165-90

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