Few people enjoy conflict (unless they’re Larry David or Miranda Priestley), and because most don’t want to make waves or upset their partner, some couples just won’t address issues in their relationship. With this in mind, I asked two relationship experts to share the most most common conflicts couples ignore, but shouldn't.
While there are five specific topics that show up again and again, some couples avoid any disagreements. This sounds peaceful in theory, but can actually be damaging to a relationship.
“Perhaps the biggest conflict avoided of all is conflict itself,” Steve Kane, author of F*** It. Get A Divorce: The Guide For Optimists, tells Romper. “Many relationships falter or even fail because one or both partners simply recoil at the idea of resolving conflicts. It almost doesn't matter what the specifics of the conflict are — we can't resolve whether to turn the air conditioning on or off if we shrink at the idea that we may have to openly air a difference and engage in proactive conflict resolution.”
It can feel easier to let issues slide without addressing them in a proactive way but this avoidance can grow, “to the point where your relationship ends up feeling like an emotional minefield,” relationship coach Chuck Rockey tells Romper. “Regularly discussing issues can bring you and your partner closer and make being together feel like a safer, more enjoyable place to be.”
Read on for five common conflicts couples tend to avoid, and tips for talking about these issues constructively to ultimately strengthen your relationship.
Money may not be able to buy happiness but it can definitely cause issues.
"One money issue that goes unresolved is what the other person spends on day-to-day," Rockey tells Romper. "Large purchases can get attention while the smaller ones are often an undiscussed source of friction." You and your partner don't have to spend the exact same amount of money every month, of course, but it's helpful to be as transparent as possible about what you're spending if you do share money, and to listen to their financial concerns without getting defensive (easier said than done, I know).
If you feel attacked or cornered (and money can be very triggering) take a few breaths before you respond. "Use a brief pause to naturally slow things down a little," Kane says. "Then blow your partners' mind by saying something like, 'You know what? I agree. We do have some issues about money and spending. I don't love the way you said what you just said, but I acknowledge how important this is, so if we can be calm, let's air this out together.'"
2. Social Media
Social media and phone usage seems like a pretty benign conflict, but anyone who's ever tried to talk while their partner texts, watches Instagram stories, or refresh sports stats knows how annoying and hurtful it can be.
"Often when one person checks their phone in the other person’s presence, it signals, for that moment, that what’s on their phone is more important than their partner," Rockey says. "It also makes that person temporarily unavailable. This makes their partner feel left out or ignored."
It's easy to make a snide comment or to retreat into your own phone, but that doesn't help long-term. Knowing, for example, that your partner feels rejected when you answer them without looking up from your phone "can help you avoid unconsciously pushing your partner away," Rockey tells Romper. You can learn to correct your behavior before your partner feels isolated.
A deeper issue may be at play if there's tension over how frequently to post pictures of your kids (or each other) publically or if someone feels uncomfortable with time the other spends communicating with someone on social media. These types of conflicts require candid conversations and "seeing a coach or therapist is also a great way to work through issues that might otherwise continue to fester," Rockey says.
3. Lack Of Intimacy
A lack of physical intimacy can creep up slowly on a couple; maybe the kids are always in the bed, the couple's tired or busy, or "they don’t feel sexy for some reason, often due to negative body image or low self-esteem," Rockey says. A lack of emotional intimacy happens when one member of the couple "doesn't feel like they get fully heard or that their partner is not interested in connecting at the end of the day," he adds.
Both of these issues are tough to talk about; it can be embarrassing to admit you don't feel good in your body, or that you're not getting the support you need from your partner, but the longer the lack of intimacy goes, the easier it is for the pattern to become the new normal.
"Almost no one tells people exactly what they want. Instead we overthink and overanalyze and rely on some hope that other people can read our minds and know what we really are thinking and wanting and needing," Kane says. It's always better to tell your partner how you feel or what you need to thrive than to let the lack of intimacy grow until it's almost impossible to fix.
Even couples who are totally in sync when it comes to parenting styles can face conflicts surrounding their kids. Maybe one half of the couple feels like they do more work, for example, or are never given the chance to be the "fun parent." Maybe there are different ideas about what age it's appropriate to give a kid a phone or let them spend the night at a friend's house. Whatever it may be, it's always best to address the issue privately (away from the kids) and to speak frankly, but kindly.
"We humans are a very compassionate and empathetic species. We have a very basic, almost DNA-level urge to make people we care about happy," Kane says. It can be hard to say to your partner that you need them to handle school pick-up more often, or that you'd really appreciate some one-on-one time with your kiddo, because you don't want to hurt their feelings or make them feel inadequate. But it works both ways, and you partner will likely appreciate being privy to your feelings. "Knowing what [your partner] is struggling with in the moment can increase empathy and allow you to better support them in whatever they're going through," Rockey says.
5. Work-Related Issues
Work can creep into a relationship easily, especially if a couple has very different hours or one's in a very stressful job. "Often one person’s work hours intrude on what their partner hopes would be together time. This can be caused by a high workload, perfectionism, different expectations or values when it comes to work," Rockey says.
While you can't expect your partner to totally change their work schedule or ignore their responsibilities, you can have a fair conversation about how to maximize the time you do spend together.
Try to take the 'I'm-right-you're-wrong' tone out of the discussion. "Whether it’s in a silly, small conflict discussion or some earth-shattering huge issue, try to always frame the dialogue as being about 'we' and 'us.' If it’s at all possible, add a layer of humor. By maintaining humility and a sense of humor, you immediately show love and start the conflict discussion with a mellower tone. You de-escalate before anything has escalated," Kane says.
It’s unrealistic, and possibly even unhealthy, to think that a couple will never argue, so try not to feel like there's anything wrong with your relationship just because you hit a bump in the road.
“No two humans are so perfectly suited to each other that there are no conflicts,” Kane tells Romper. And whether the conflict is small and momentary, like who has to drive the carpool, or big and life-changing, like whether or not to have children at all, “every couple should know that disagreements can be peacefully and respectfully aired and eventually resolved maybe by pillow talk, maybe by shouting," Kane says. "Different couples have different dynamics!”
Chuck Rockey, Relationship Coach