What is conflict?

Our Domestic Abuse Case Worker, Jane writes about conflict within a relationship and how it can be managed.

The definition of conflict is - a behaviour that negatively impacts another individual or group.


Arguments often start off small and can be trivial – an argument can start from something as simple as not doing the washing up or putting the bins out. On an average day this may not affect somebody in a way that would cause them to feel frustration or anger towards the other person.  However, should you catch somebody on a day when they are not feeling quite themselves, this seemingly trivial lack of thought could potentially have a huge impact on them. Once this trivial argument starts it can go one of two ways; it could become destructive, which then becomes no longer about the task at hand but instead becomes a personal attack on the other person.  Alternatively, it could be a constructive argument with a positive outcome.

Destructive Arguments

During a destructive argument, the individuals involved may start to bring up past incidents or issues and aim to dominate the argument by using aggressive attacking forms of insults that they know will be extremely hurtful to the other person. Destructive arguments rarely are resolved; therefore these can be used again at a later date during another argument.  The effects of these forms of conflict can not only have a negative effect on the individuals involved, but also on other family members such as children. When individuals forgive each other after a destructive argument, they usually do it privately, which means that the learnt behaviour for a child witnessing this form of conflict, is that there has not been a resolution or forgiveness.  This is an unhealthy form of conflict. 

EXAMPLE:  A husband has gone to do the weekly shop and his wife has asked for her favourite brand of teabags.  The husband returns home with a different brand of teabags, because they were cheaper than the ones his wife had requested. The emotional impact felt by the wife was not about the teabags, it was about the lack of consideration and respect the husband had shown towards her simple request. This example illustrates how an issue as small as the husband buying a different brand of teabags can actually cause a full scale destructive argument, in which the wife feels her needs have been ignored. At the time this destructive argument took place, neither party took into consideration the emotional effect their behaviour might have on the child who witnessed the implosion.  All their energy was being put into making their point against the other.  This is a true story, and it is an argument that the child recalls very clearly to this day.

Constructive arguments

Believe it or not, constructive arguments can be seen as healthy within a relationship. When a constructive argument takes place this is usually controlled and kept to the point, and usually quite short. During a constructive argument the individuals involved will try to negotiate the best solution and outcome to resolve the issue.  A child present during this kind of argument would witness a good level of teamwork, respect for other’s viewpoints, compromising and negotiation. The end result of this form of conflict is usually a healthy, and constructive agreement to resolve the issue and positively move on by working together.

EXAMPLE: A husband and Wife both work 40 hours a week and have 2 children. Both get home at alternative times each day throughout the week.  The husband finds that he is always left to prepare dinner every night of the week. He decides to address this with his wife, by suggesting a possible compromise, so that whoever gets home from work first, should start to prepare dinner, so that he isn’t doing it every night. This causes friction, as wife’s favourite TV show is on as soon as she returns home from work. Husbands suggests a further compromise of whoever gets home first, starts dinner, and if it happen to be the wife who is home first, her program is recorded, and they will watch it together after dinner, (and vice versa for anything he wanted to watch).  During this kind of constructive argument, the children would witness their parents discussing and resolving an issue in a positive way that meets the needs, and respects the wishes of both individuals, without any negativity

Common Causes of Conflict

  • Power and control
  • Blame
  • Anger / bitterness
  • Hidden agendas
  • Misunderstanding
  • Poor communication
  • Stress
  • Trust
  • Lack of respect
  • Environment
  • Finances

The list is endless…as it depends on the individual and how they feel.

Once the yelling starts it is hard to stop, it becomes an individual battle to try and get control over our own emotions.  For example, road rage, if somebody pulls out in front of you while driving to work, it is an individual choice as to whether or not we allow that one incident to dominate our feelings for the rest of the day. A strategy that I use with my clients is to identify whether an incident is going to have an emotional effect on you for five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks or five months. This is a good way of deciding what level of your time you need to dedicate to resolving this problem or incident.

How can we avoid conflict?

  • Risk assess
  • Think before you act
  • Avoid retaliating spontaneously
  • Respect the needs of others
  • Understand individual emotions
  • Choose words carefully when incidents occur (saying “you do this” and “you do that” can feel very blaming –just rephrasing slightly can take the heat out of what is said, for example “‘when that happens, this is how I feel).
  • Be aware of your surroundings and who may be listening or witnessing (remember – just because people are not in the same room, does not mean they cannot hear what is happening)

We all experience various types of relationships, whether these are intimate relationships, for example with siblings, friends, or family, professional relationships with work colleagues, or even just a one off interaction with a stranger.  Conflict can arise within any of these relationships. Being able to control your emotions and being mindful of other people’s needs and feelings, is a great way of minimising unnecessary conflict that can potentially have a devastating effect on not only yourself but those around you.

If you are an individual who struggles with any of the above emotions, there is help and support available to provide you with strategies and tools to help improve and manage the way you approach conflicting situations.

Accessing support

If you are an individual who struggles with any of the above emotions, there is help and support available to provide you with strategies and tools to help improve and manage the way you approach conflicting situations.

Click hereto find out more about our Peer Support Service.

Click here to find out more about our Domestic Abuse Service.

Click here to find out more about our Domestic Abuse (Prevention) Service.

Hertfordshire Mind Network provide the following services, for both males and females.

You can also contact the Hertfordshire Domestic Abuse Helpline on 08 088 088 088, open from 9am - 9pm Monday to Friday and 9am - 4pm weekends. For more information click here.