How To Handle Fights When Your Partner Has No Conflict Resolution Skills

We all have different ways of handling conflict and many of us in relationships can predict how our partner is going to react in an argument. Unfortunately, all too often these reactions escalate into unhelpful and unhealthy ways of communicating and solving problems. If your partner lacks conflict resolution skills they might shut down during an argument, run away, yell, criticize, compete, get defensive, placate, or be apathetic. Arguments are crucial in every relationship, as they allow you to air out grievances, form deeper understandings, and build trust. Conflict is inevitable and normal but if it can't be resolved healthily, it can ultimately doom the relationship.

If you're in a relationship with someone who doesn't know how to fight fairly, it can be extremely hard or impossible for both of you to grow and make progress as a couple. What's more, ineffective communication in an argument may lead to feelings of resentment that go unresolved and conflict avoidance can impact your relationship negatively. Luckily, there are ways to help your partner become a better communicator and change the tone of the argument from a "fight" to a discussion.

Different styles of conflict resolution

Firstly, it's important and helpful for you to ensure compassion in your relationship by trying to understand where your partner is coming from — what is their conflict style and how is it shaped by their background? Psychologists have identified different conflict styles as avoidance, anger, accommodation, compromise, and collaboration. If your partner is avoidant (runs away from conflict or shuts down), is quick to anger in an argument (gets combative, defensive, or competitive), or even is overly accommodating and dissociative (gives in to placate you and lacks interest), there is room for improvement.

A 2022 study of 280 young adults ages 19 to 32 showed that people who were exposed to a significant amount of interparental conflict as children may be at higher risk for relationship problems later in life. They also tended to have an avoidant (they are overwhelmed easily and pull back from commitment) or anxious (they smother their partner due to their own insecurities) attachment style.

It will serve you well to keep in mind that your partner's upbringing may have a role in how they handle conflict, remembering that the relationships of our parental figures and role models have a significant impact on how we handle our own relationships. Conflict-avoidant people, for example, tend to have learned in their youth that conflict is scary and should be avoided, instead of being a normal way to solve problems. If your partner grew up seeing adults fight violently or meanly, it makes sense that they would want to avoid conflict at all costs. Or, conversely, they may think that that is the only way to behave in an argument is to get angry and combative whenever a conflict arises.

What to do when your partner is conflict-avoidant

It can be extremely frustrating when your partner avoids conflict by fleeing an argument, saying things like, "Now is not the time," or completely shutting down and refusing to talk. In fact, it's so frustrating that renowned psychologists and relationship counselors Drs. John and Julie Gottman include this type of behavior, also known as "stonewalling," in their Four Horsemen metaphor used to describe unhealthy communication styles in relationships (along with criticism, contempt, and defensiveness). Stonewalling — essentially building a "wall" and shutting down during an argument — can be a predictor of a doomed relationship since it means there is no resolution in sight.

The silent treatment is a form of stonewalling, according to psychologist Dr. Nicole Le Pera (per news24). "People who engage in the silent treatment have typically learned this from their own parent figures. They struggle to self-regulate or are easily emotionally flooded (overwhelmed). To heal from these patterns, we have to learn to communicate," they advise. Do your best to stay calm and be patient when your partner shuts down; avoid berating them into talking to you since it's likely they will withdraw even further.

Psychiatrist and therapist Elisabeth Gordon, MD (per Fatherly) advises using "I" statements when addressing your partner to avoid assigning blame. For example, you could say, "I see that you are shutting down and refusing to talk to me" and "I feel like we can't work on our relationship when we don't communicate." You can give them a moment to gather themselves, but don't let the argument go unresolved. When they do open up, make sure to listen well to your partner without interrupting and discuss ways to avoid this situation in the future.

When your partner gets combative and competetive

In discussing conflict resolution, psychologists and counselors often refer to people's primitive fight, flight, or freeze urges when sensing danger. For some of us, when we are faced with conflict the limbic system in our brains takes over telling us to fight so we attack, criticize, scream, yell, blame, and make demands while arguing with our partner. If your partner is in "fight mode," it may be because they feel they aren't being heard or appreciated. 

Your partner wants to be heard (although they are going about it the wrong way) so validating their feelings is important. By listening to their side of the argument and genuinely trying to understand where they are coming from hopefully they will do the same for you. According to PsychCentral, Dr. Brian Wind, a licensed clinical psychologist, suggests repeating what your partner says to let them know you are listening and to slow down the pace of the conversation. Taking a time-out can also be an effective way of de-escalating anger, but is only constructive if you are both taking the time to work on what you want to say in a healthy, productive manner — for example, writing things down and using "I" statements — and subsequently resume the discussion.

Dr. John Gottman advises making a repair attempt during a conflict — a statement, a word, a silly gesture, or a physical touch — that defuses the argument. Couples can come up with repair attempts together which could be something as simple as holding the other person's hand or recalling a pleasant trip or moment the two of you shared. 

When too much accommodation is a bad thing

It can be good to "choose your battles," but don't bottle things up to the point of explosion. Accommodating or giving in to an argument isn't always a bad thing; sometimes the best approach to conflict is to wave the white flag, particularly when the argument has turned into a competition to see who's right about an issue of little importance. But if your partner easily gives up in most arguments, sometimes you may be wondering if they even hear you or if they are just placating you to avoid conflict. They may also be bottling up their emotions only to explode later — giving up an argument doesn't mean coming back to it at another time with full force.

Conversely, when you find yourself being overly accommodating to avoid your partner's unhealthy approach to conflict, it could backfire, leading to a power imbalance that creates more tension within the relationship. So, if you or your partner is overly accommodating in your fights, try asking yourselves if the issue has been resolved for both of you or if only one person is walking away satisfied. If more often than not it's only one person feeling happy with the way things ended, you may need to come up with a better solution.

Compromise and collaboration are crucial

If you and your partner can get beyond the avoidance, anger, and habitual accommodation in your conflicts, you will be on your way to the healthiest conflict resolution styles: compromise and collaboration. When both partners in a relationship compromise, it demonstrates respect and concern for one another. While both partners gain a little and lose a little when compromising, collaboration is a conflict resolution style that results in a win for both of you.

When collaborating with your partner, you work towards solving a conflict in the most equal and fair way possible so that neither of you feels you are giving in. In order for this style of conflict resolution to work, couples need to listen intently, communicate their grievances clearly and matter-of-factly, and have a mindset of wanting to find a resolution that makes both of them happy. It can be helpful to recall times when you worked together to solve a problem or complete a project and to remind your partner that this is just a bump in the road that you will figure out together. When you do figure things out, celebrate the growth in your relationship and affirm your partner for their healthy way of handling conflict.

Also, keep in mind that it's a lot easier to see our partner's poor communication and conflict resolution skills than to recognize our own. Next time you find yourself wishing the argument was going better, try thinking of ways you could improve your communication, as well as holding your partner accountable for theirs. Most people could use some help with their conflict-resolution skills and self-reflection is an important initial step.