Health & wellbeing

Managing conflict in relationships

26 May 2023 | Written by By Mary Gorman

Retired relationships therapist and member of The Joy Club Mary Gorman shares some of her wisdom on how to manage conflict in relationships…

Readying myself for some writing time, I take a few moments to glance into my garden at the tulips swaying in the breeze with the white clouds drifting above and think to myself how different would it be if our human relationships were more attuned like nature.

Managing conflicts within our human relationships is at the heart of so many problems. We begin our journey in this life following the way our family communicates and later on, as we move into adulthood, we learn from our peers. It wasn’t until I began my training as a relationship therapist I realised that the conflict in our lives comes from poor communication. It depends on what is said, what is heard and the interpretation of it.  

A wonderful example I used to share with my clients was that my first husband – an Irishman – used to say to me “Shift your bloody shoes from the bottom of the stairs; somebody is going to trip over them”.  My reply would have been “sod off, if they are bothering you then move them”. This of course led to a barrage of abuse between us and no speaking for the rest of the day. Peace would be restored eventually but we never went back to understand why it all kicked off.

Fourteen years later I met and married a reserved English gentleman. I still kicked my shoes off, leaving them at the bottom of the stairs. One day he said, “Darling, do you think it might be a good idea if you moved your shoes as someone could trip over them”. That taught me more than all my training about the importance of how it is said and what was heard. He invited me to see what could happen with a suggestion of avoiding it. His words and the tone in his voice were invitational and not critical. My defences didn’t rise and I was able to see the clarity of the situation and respond with “you are so right”

We, as parents, are the first teachers of our children in how to communicate. Our parents gave us the tools to communicate with. It was only when I started to work with young people I realised that those are the key years to help develop the skills of communication. I remember a lovely young boy aged eleven coming to see me. His mum had said that she thought he was struggling with the pressure of the end of term assessments. 

After several sessions the young person shared that he was being bullied in school and the bully was the son of his mum’s best friend. Often the mums would get together at weekends and evenings so he had no escape. He had tried telling his mum, but she didn’t listen. We spent some sessions exploring ways of thinking of what he might say that could help his mum to understand the difficulties. 

He was amazing as he identified the physical reaction and then named the feelings. I learnt a lot from this young lad in understanding that young people are much wiser than we think. They like to be listened to and understood. I then suggested inviting his mum in to hear from her son. Mum was initially so taken aback and she tried to say no that you can’t feel that way. I encouraged her to listen and suggested to her that she might ask him what he thought she could do to help him. His reply was “Sometimes, mum, I don’t need a solution I just want you to listen to me”.  The outcome was amazing. Mum broke down, hugged him and shared that she had no idea. They continued the session working together to see how they could resolve the situation. 

Now, I am not criticising any parent as I believe it is one of the hardest tasks we take on. Indeed I, as a parent, have made every mistake in the book but just illustrating the importance of listening and sharing effectively is the beginning of managing conflict in relationships.

I saw a young couple a few years ago and, in the opening session, when asked what was happening the lady said “I want him down the road”. One of the strong connections in this relationship was that, despite the discord, they came across as loving parents to their two little boys. I remarked that they were wonderful parents to their children. She turned to me with tears in her eyes and said “Mary, how can I love two when there should be three”. We had uncovered the pain that was destroying this relationship. Over the next few sessions, both spoke about the agony of losing their first child and it was obvious neither had understood that their partner was struggling as well. The suffering was too great. 

We spent some sessions allowing the couple the space to share their feelings. On the last session, at their request, we had a naming ceremony as they had decided it was a little girl. It was very moving and they called her Rose as he had planted a rose in their garden that week in her memory. 

Conflicts cannot always be resolved but clear communication can help with the understanding. 

If you have any of expertise you would like to share with The Joy Club, please do get in touch on submissions@thejoyclub.com, for a chance to be featured on our site! 

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