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Column: 6 ways to stop arguments getting out of hand

When should you say sorry? Counsellor Lisa O’Hara gives tips on stopping fights before they get out of control.

Image: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ via Flickr

THE WORD ‘CONFLICT’ can arouse instant fear in many of us – and although it isn’t necessarily about being in battle, it can feel that way sometimes, especially if it’s about a long standing issue.

Conflict arises from difference; whether it’s a conflicting need between two parties, clashing beliefs or attitudes, or behaving in a way that may be okay and reasonable for one but undermining and offensive to another. Many people will admit that they hate conflict and in fact, given the opportunity they’d run a mile from it. Who could blame them as it usually has some foundation in fear? The fear itself can be facing an issue and possibly making it worse.

In the context of a more intimate relationship, it might be a genuine concern that could somehow result in a couple breaking up. To avoid this they keep quiet and try to ignore what’s happened. And yet, according to author and psychologist Michael Batshaw “Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, it’s avoiding the conflict that might.”

Long term avoidance of things that really need to be talked about can fill you with resentment, especially if you feel you’re on the back foot and have no power in the relationship. Maybe you’ve tried to air it and been given the brush off or the other person just didn’t ‘get it’ really. However, it’s not uncommon to find that the appearance of resentment over the longer term brings the disappearance of sexual desire which is an important form of communication between many couples.

Communication is such an important factor in resolving conflicts in relationships. It can also be a root or contributory cause of conflict, with 85 per cent of all cases dealt by us in Relationships Ireland reporting issues with communication between partners being a key reason why they came to us for our help.

Conflict is inevitable because no two people are the same and sooner or later their differences will surface. If most conflicts are unresolvable because they are a result of perpetual difference, what will matter to intimacy (closeness) is how it’s dealt with.

1. Listen carefully

Communication is about expressing yourself with a view to being understood. It’s equally about listening to what’s being said. This can be very difficult if you have been defensive with each other and the tendency might be to interrupt whilst the other is speaking to correct them. Let them finish.

Men will often find it easier to talk about difficult topics while they are doing an activity even if it’s just going for a walk (side-by-side), whereas women may be more comfortable sitting at the table talking it out. The simple use of ‘I’ statements (and avoiding the use of the word ‘You’) can soften blame/criticism and give the speaker a chance to say how things really are for them. For example ‘I was hurt when I didn’t get a text back because I felt ignored’ – much easier to hear than ‘You never answer me, you just don’t care’.

2. A perspective other than your own

As you are listening to the other speak, find something in their story that you can relate to (eg ‘I can see how you would be bothered about something like that’). This gives them a message you have heard and identified with them. They are far more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn.

You can deepen your understanding of your partner by trying to identify the underlying feelings. This will be helpful for both of you and is really effective for reducing tension.

3. Time out

Sometimes with the best of efforts between you, feelings can get heightened and no-one is listening. Ask for a 20-minute break to cool down and figure out what happened to you that may have contributed to the argument (forget about what the other one was doing). Did you hear something you didn’t like or that scared you and may have caused you to shut down or get angry?

4. Stay focused on the issue at hand

Don’t bring in other issues. Although you might feel a sense of ‘while we’re at it, I may as well bring up…’, it is pointless because there’s nothing surer than strong emotions to cause confusion. Both of you may well be left with a sense of ‘what’s the point of talking about anything?’

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5. The resolvable issues

For some issues, there is a solution and it’s always worth asking ‘is there middle ground here for us and what can we both do that’ll help?’ There are times when you might feel that you’re the one making all the effort. Ask yourself why is that? Did you somehow make it your job because you were the best person to do it? Or was it circumstances at the time? Or was there an understanding that was either implicit or explicit between you?

6. I’m sorry

Finally, never underestimate the words ‘I’m sorry’ – not to get you out of a tricky situation (usually the other one will know what’s genuine and what isn’t) – but maybe you are sorry that you’re fighting, and maybe you are sorry if feelings get hurt.

Lisa O’Hara is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland.

Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and support services that offer you the opportunity to understand and resolve difficulties in your relationship. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email


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