Dealing with Conflict to Make
Relationships Work

In relationships, both partners have needs and they can conflict. This is when problems arise. You want your partner to do x. Your partner wants you to do y. You both feel unhappy. This is a needs conflict.

Unfortunately, both partners’ needs can’t always be met at once, and sometimes one person’s may take precedence.

So the question is - How does each partner get her or his needs met while helping the other do the exact same thing?

It’s hard to know, but the Three Evidence-Based Skills – Insight, Mutuality, and Emotion regulation – can help you:

  • Understand
  • Communicate
  • Regulate

… and doing so allows you to better negotiate conflicting needs, which allows you to create a healthy relationship and increase the likelihood that your relationship will work.




Identify what the needs conflict is



Come to a mutually workable resolution of the needs conflict

emotion regulation


Calm your emotions and let them help you make good decisions


Here’s an example of how the skills can work to negotiate conflicting needs.

The conflict: You’ve been really busy at work and things are just starting to ease up, so you start doing the things you’ve been neglecting, like talking with close friends, and catching up on personal projects. Unbeknownst to you, your partner is also feeling neglected. Your partner comes home one night and wants you to stop in the middle of something you’re doing to talk. When you say, “Wait a minute, I’m just in the middle of this” your partner gets angry and says, “You don’t care about me at all”.

How do you respond?

It would be very tempting to respond back with anger, to quickly defend yourself and your choices, to tell your partner that he or she is being unreasonable. After all, you’ve been working so hard and you just need some personal time now. Who is your partner to accuse you of not caring?!

However, this response would not be skillful. It would likely lead to a heated and unresolved argument, leaving both of you feeling angry and not cared for.

The skills would call for the following:



“Oh, I see what’s happening here… he needs… he’s feeling…, now I get it…”


“Wow, we both have legitimate needs here… let’s see how I can give him what he needs and how I can still get my needs met too…”

emotion regulation

“Okay, let me calm down and not impulsively say anything that might make things worse…”


If you use the skills, your response (and your partner’s) would be something more like this:

You (thinking to yourself): That is such crap. It is so not true. I care about him/her so much! Wait, don’t say that. What’s going on? He/she usually doesn’t say stuff like that…

You (saying calmly): What’s going on? I’ve never heard you say something like that to me before. What have I done to upset you?

Partner: You’re busy all the time and the minute you get free time, you spend it with other people and doing other things. You can’t even pay attention to me for a minute.

You (thinking to yourself): Jeez, gimme a break… Okay, he/she’s feeling neglected. I guess I didn’t realize how much so.

You (saying calmly and warmly): I’m really sorry. I didn’t realize you were feeling so neglected. I want to spend time with you. You’re so important to me. I guess I’ve just also been needing to catch up with people and take care of some stuff I’ve been putting off. What do you need from me?

Partner: I want to spend some time with you when I come home from work. I want to catch up on our day. And maybe take a weekend away.

You (thinking to yourself): I really don’t want him/her to feel bad and not cared about. I wouldn’t want to feel that way if the situation was the other way around.

You (saying genuinely): Okay, I want that too. Let’s definitely do that.

Partner: Really? You always seem to be doing other things.

You (saying genuinely): Yes, I know, but now that I know it upsets you I’m going to change that.

Partner: Okay…

You (thinking to yourself): He/she doesn’t believe me. I need to reassure him/her.

You (saying calmly and lovingly): I mean it. You’re important to me.

Partner: You’re important to me too.

You (saying clearly): I know, and I know that’s why you’re upset. I want to spend more time with you. I want to make sure I protect our time together. I also need to catch up on this other stuff. How do you think we can go about this so that you don’t feel bad?

Partner: If we make time each day after work for a little while and also put a weekend on the calendar, I’ll feel better…

Although using the skills doesn’t guarantee a positive response from your partner, it definitely increases the likelihood of one. Research clearly shows that partners reciprocate one another’s behavior. So if you treat your partner and his/her needs with respect and in an emotionally calm and warm way, your partner is more likely to respond in kind. And using the skills in this way builds a healthy relationship.

Our book, The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love, provides step-by-step instructions for using the skills to navigate conflicts. We provide specific strategies that you can use to stop needs conflicts from becoming relationship damaging fights and instead turn them into opportunities for good communication that can increase intimacy, respect, security, and positive feelings – the very things that make for a healthy relationship.