How do I portray relationship conflict in a healthy way? Do you have any tips for characterizing disagreements and arguments in relationships without going into abusive territory? People usually say not to portray healthy relationships as “bunnies and butterflies” but they’re never specific aside from letting them argue.


Hi Ravencraft,

First, it helps to find realistic and legitimate disagreements so you’re not forcing them to argue when they have nothing to argue about. Competing priorities are often relevant in relationships. Maybe one person works late and the other person wants more time together. Or, one person had an expected errand and ran out to do it, leaving the other person without the only car when they had an appointment. In the context of a fictional story, it’s best if you can make this have to do with something else that’s going on in the plot. For example, have another character in hiding, and the couple disagrees about whether it’s safe to let that person stay with them.

While the partners can vent their feelings when they argue, arguments should still be largely good faith attempts to express grievances and ultimately resolve their disagreement. I’m a big fan of characters who make a proactive effort to communicate and resolve problems. Characters who show some emotional self awareness about what’s bothering them are great too, but you can also have deeper feelings emerge during the conversation for some dramatic flair. If one person is bothered by the other person working late, they may start by reasoning that this other person doesn’t have time for chores. Then, when the late worker addresses that (they are in fact doing chores or with the overtime they can pay someone to do them), their partner may finally realize that the late hours make them feel unimportant and unloved. This will allow the couple to look for ways to address that.

One thing you don’t want in any healthy argument is behavior that’s designed to be punitive rather than constructively address the situation. For instance, your characters may need to separate to cool off and think on their own, but giving the other person the cold shoulder is a way of getting back at or punishing them. Instead, if they need space, they should say that. Similarly, any statements designed to cut the other person down are not healthy. Nor are any types of threats – if you don’t do this, I’ll tell your mother what you did, etc.

I also strongly recommend against privacy invasions, such as snooping on emails or reading diaries. That’s a sign of controlling and jealous behavior.

Personal choices should be largely off limits unless they significantly impact the welfare of both people. For instance, one partner shouldn’t demand the other accept a specific job unless they have a good reason to be concerned that the two won’t have enough money to live on otherwise. Similarly, one partner shouldn’t demand the other disclose private information unless it affects the welfare of both people, such as disclosing an STI. They can express that they feel hurt that they weren’t told something, but the focus should be on feelings and not demands.

I hope that gives you some ideas. Happy writing!


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