Health & Wellness

Handling Conflict in a Relationship

You may find yourself in a serious disagreement about a hot-button issue with a friend or family member, but that needn’t doom the relationship

By Caroline Fortin


Whether they’re about political views or positions on issues such as racism, abortion, or vaccination, or even how to raise children or live your life, differences of opinion crop up in most relationships. Sometimes these differences can test or even endanger a friendship. How can you manage them? Here’s an overview.


Blame the Pandemic

For many of us, COVID-19 and the efforts to subdue it—health and safety measures, lockdowns, vaccination—have harmed some of our relationships. That’s what happened to Suzanne, age 76, who’s been friends with Agathe for 45 years. (Suzanne preferred not to give their last names.)

“Just before the pandemic, Agathe’s eldest daughter came back to live with her,” Suzanne says. “Unfortunately, my friend was influenced by her daughter’s conspiracy theories; she ignored all the public health instructions and then refused to get vaccinated. I was shocked. Like so many people, I had made huge sacrifices: I didn’t hug my grandchildren for a year and a half; I was in lockdown at home and could only talk to my children by Skype. Agathe and I call each other from time to time, but we haven’t seen each other since all this happened. This makes me sad, and I wonder if our friendship can go back to what it was before.”

Before deciding that a friendship is over, you need to understand what’s putting it in jeopardy. “There are three main reasons a difference of opinion can hurt us deeply: values, personality, and relationship history,” says Jocelyne Bounader, a clinical psychologist. “The more life experience we have, the better we know ourselves and our values. It’s rare to discover new values in long-time friends—except in situations we’ve never gone through before, when our values may be in opposition. The pandemic is one such situation.

“Next, some personalities are more flexible and open, while others see things in black and white, a tendency that provides fertile ground for conflict. When it comes to the history of the friendship, a single event can cause us to stop talking to someone, but this is rare: it has to be something serious, such as a betrayal. Often, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back—things pile up, we start feeling resentful, and then there’s the last straw.”


Managing Differences of Opinion

We’ve all been through this scenario: the conversation turns to a controversial topic, tensions rise, tempers flare, and then conflict erupts, and it can sometimes leave lasting marks. Here are some tips for better navigating these situations.

Accept that the subject is a delicate one for you.

“The first thing is to be aware that it’s unsettling when we don’t agree on something that’s important to us,” says Gabrielle Desjardins, a counsellor and relationship coach. “That offers some relief: ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not exaggerating; it’s just important to me.’”

Detach from the result.

“Avoid trying to convince the other person,” she advises. “When we get into who’s right and who’s wrong, we’re doing the opposite of building a connection. Instead, we should try to listen to the other from a place of curiosity—to take a step back and listen to the other point of view without feeling that we’re being attacked.” As Bounader puts it: “As soon as one of you wants to be right, you’re no longer a team; you’re adversaries. In the long run, it’s this attitude more than the issue itself that harms the relationship.”

Figure out what’s bothering you.

“Explain sincerely how you’re experiencing the situation, without pointing a finger at the other person,” Bounader suggests. “Say why it’s hard for you to see your friend make this choice or have this opinion. For example, Suzanne could tell her friend that she’s not comfortable seeing her in person because Agathe isn’t vaccinated but without treating her as a selfish person who doesn’t care about the common good.”

Set boundaries.

If this isn’t the first heated discussion on the subject, a solution might be to avoid that subject altogether. “We don’t live in a society in which we’ve learned to put ourselves first, to set boundaries, because it’s seen as selfish,” Desjardins says. “We’re afraid of hurting the other person, of disappointing him or her or being rejected. But we can certainly ask a friend to agree not to get into a certain subject because we can’t see eye to eye. Or, at a family gathering, we can say: ‘I’m not comfortable having this conversation. I’m going to talk to Aunt Jane or go for a walk’ or ‘I’m not feeling that great tonight. Can we talk about something less divisive?’”

Keep your emotions in check.

When we let our emotions do the talking, we might say something that overrides our values and that we’ll regret once we calm down. “Stay aware of how the conversation is unfolding,” Bounader advises. “If you feel your anger rising, take a break and arrange to talk another time, when both of you are able to listen, because that’s the goal.”

Desjardins points out that our emotions often keep us from remaining rational and confident. “I recommend working— either by yourself or supported by a psychologist, a therapist, or a friend—toward being able to see your response as legitimate, placing importance on what matters to you. You’ll feel clearer and stronger, and when you sense emotions becoming intense within you, you’ll be better able to assert your boundaries.”


When Should You Cut the Cord?

First, look inward. Bounader suggests asking yourself certain questions to figure out if the only way out is really to end the friendship. “What can be fixed and what can’t, and why? Do you think it’s fixable because you’re afraid you won’t have any friends if you lose this one? That puts you in a position of being dependent. Or is it fixable because this person was there for you in the toughest times? That puts you in a place of loyalty and trust. It’s important to understand what’s motivating you to continue with the relationship—or not,” she explains.

In Suzanne’s case, she recognizes that Agathe supported her when her husband died, and Suzanne was there when Agathe divorced her husband, who was struggling with a gambling problem. In Bounader’s view, Suzanne has to consider whether Agathe’s refusal to get vaccinated on its own justifies the end of a 45-year friendship or if there are other incompatibilities at play. “She may choose to continue the friendship because she knows she can always count on her friend and stay in touch with her while respecting her own boundaries and not seeing her in person,” Bounader says. “But if a number of frustrations have built up, the friendship may not survive.”

The end

The end of a friendship is as difficult to go through as a romantic breakup. Both involve loss. “Is it harder to be in a struggling friendship than to grieve the loss of that friendship? Is our friendship more important to us than our differences? The person who is going through this is the only one who can answer these questions,” Desjardins says.

We therefore have to look at where this friendship fits in our lives, the quality of the relationship, and how this friend makes us feel; we need to decide if we’re able to live with our opposing values. If we choose to stay, we must keep in mind that the relationship will be easier to rebuild if both parties are willing.

Being open

“There will be more work to do if we spoke without openness, respect, understanding, and empathy and the other person then asked us to give him or her some space,” Desjardins says. “But when both people have the same intention—to rebuild the connection—when they’re both invested, repairing the friendship may be possible. Each person must take responsibility for his or her behaviour during the conflict and for its effects. This means, for example, being able to say ‘I know that you may have felt judged because of the way I spoke to you, and I’m sorry.’ But you have to avoid doing it again, because if you’re always apologizing but you don’t change your behaviour, it damages trust.”

Finally, keep in mind that with differences of opinion often comes a loss that’s good for any relationship: the idea that you’ll agree on everything.


5 Behaviours to Avoid

Avoid these so you don’t add more fuel to the fire.

1. Blaming

2. Attacking

3. Criticizing

4. Condescending

5. Judging

“All of these get in the way of dialogue, cut short the possibility of understanding the other, and put the friendship to the test,” says clinical psychologist Jocelyne Bounader.


Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash