Conflict Resolution Strategies: Marital/Relationship Conflict

One of my favorite books on marital conflict is ‘Should I Leave?’ by Peter Kramer. This is Peter:

I don’t want to go into its contents in detail, but it is really a book about relationships, what goes wrong with them and what to do about it. Generally, where there are no children and no abuse, Kramer has found that his patients (he is a psychotherapist) only ask him: ‘should I leave?’ when the relationship is not over. And he generally, in the cases he covers, suggests that people stay to work things through, even if they eventually leave.

Many years ago, two friends of mine read ‘Getting to Yes‘ by Roger Fisher and William Ury (cited often in this blog) on my recommendation, about a year before they decided to divorce. Despite the acrimony surrounding their break up, they managed to use interest- based bargaining, and avoided using lawyers until they had a deal already mapped out. And the deal has lasted nearly 20 years and has been largely successful and in the interests of their two children and the two former partners.

So informally, how might the Conflict Model begin to apply to marital conflict or even divorce? I set out the start of a possible approach that would of course need to be amended to meet the circumstances you face. This is illustrative and is not intended to substitute of expert advice or indeed the services of an attorney as appropriate.

1. Getting Real: is there conflict, who is involved, what is it about and what data exists? In the case of marital conflict, clearly it is very obvious when daily emotionally draining conflict is occurring. The difficulty is actually collecting data about it. This might seem overly mechanistic, but part of the problem may be that there is not even any agreement about what the conflict is about, when it occurs, though of course there may be plenty of data from each side on ‘whose fault it is’. So whatever is going on, it might actually help to step back and get real about what is happening, as far as possible without blame. Just simple descriptions of who said what and so on and maybe some measures of contribution to child care, air time usage, and whatever else seems central to the conflict.

Of course gathering this information (as in other more large scale conflict) can be a tremendous source of conflict in itself and it may be useful for the two partners to collect their information independently and agree to at least look at the differences between the two realities as it is likely that there is where the greatest issue lies: mutually contradictory views of reality.

2. Getting Clear about our real interests: what we really want, rather than our positions: our postures or what we demand. Marital conflict is often hugely positional, and gets more positional the more painful it gets. Divorce almost always is positional: I want that, no I want that etc. It is immensely helpful, if the interest based approach advocated in this blog is used early on or even before there is conflict. Ideally, long term relationships/marriages should early focus on what the couple want out of life. This may change over time of course and needs to be the subject of continuing dialogue. But if you at least know what you both want out of life, it is relatively easier to tease out your interests in any particular conflict, whether it be child care, who cleans the house most, who goes to the Parent Teacher meeting, whose career is more important right now, whatever. Anyway, this stage is for each partner in the relationship to figure out and make explicit to themselves what their interests are in the relationship as a whole or in the part of the relationship that is in conflict. And while this may sound cold blooded, in fact listening to your strong emotions (without venting them at your partner) is part of the process of figuring out what is important to you.

3. Getting Empathetic to understand the other side’s interests while keeping clear about our own. This is the harder bit: if you have done stage #2 reasonably successfully, you now have to use your imagination and later discussion with your partner to figure out what their interests are in the relationship or the part that is in conflict. It may be interesting to compare what you guessed their interests are with what they have discovered them to be. And the same for their view of your interests, versus yours. The aim would be to get a set of interests for each of you that you can discuss and see how many of the interests are common, merely different, or actually directly in conflict. As you may have noticed from elsewhere in this blog, we usually focus on positions and we usually focus on what is in conflict and lose sight of our common or merely different interests (I like lemons, you like oranges, so why not you have all the oranges and I the lemons?)

4. Getting Creative about possible solutions to the conflict. Brainstorming can be very hard when you have been drained by a history of conflict. But if you have done a reasonable job of sorting out your respective interests, you may have at least begun to listen and understand each other a bit better. Knowing what you are in conflict about and what your interests are, this stage is about simply listing privately, then jointly on a flip chart, whatever all the possible ways the conflict could be resolved. The rule is at this stage: no criticism. Clarification: ‘what does this mean?’ is fine, but not ‘I would never accept that! How can you even suggest it!’ You need a nice long list and don’t be afraid to build on, extend or use a suggestion to generate another alternative, again without criticism what has been suggested. This is an AND process.

5. Getting Stereoscopic: in really difficult conflicts, seeing both sides simultaneously to find a breakthrough perspective and solution. If the marital conflict has really gone wrong, it may at some stage be necessary individually or jointly if that is remotely possible to step outside the conflict and try to see it as a third party might see it. Of course, you might get a marriage counselor to provide this, but I am always a little concerned about how hard it is for the latter to be fully even handed in the eyes of both partners. And in a way it is outsourcing the solution to someone else, when in the case of continuing relationship, the solution has to be owned by both sides and it is easier if it is invented by both sides too.

6. Getting Specific about the deal that will settle the conflict so we know what we are agreeing to. This will very much depend on the conflict, but essentially this is the process of taking all the possible ‘what if’ solutions to the conflict and comparing them with both sides interests to see which ‘what if’ or combination of ‘what ifs’ seems most likely to meet both sides’ interests. And obviously in what is hoped to be a continuing relationship (or what could be the preparation for a collaborative interest meeting divorce/separation), the future is important and win/win essential. So both sides should be looking to meet both sides’ interests for a sustainable agreement.

7. Getting Wise: learning from the process: using After Action Reviews to get better each time we are in conflict. This might be something that you might want in your relationship anyway: when you make major decisions or engage in major joint activity (like child rearing) formally or informally you might like to both go through the process of asking, like the US military: what went well (start positive), what not so well, what would we do differently next time? And so you use this process on your approach to the conflict we have handled above: in relation to our conflict handling, what went well, not so well, and what would we do differently with future conflicts.

Anyway this is a loose use of the Conflict Model on a generic relationship conflict.

Let us know what you think? And if people are interested, we will post a more specific example in due course.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, The Conflict Model, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conflict Resolution Strategies: Marital/Relationship Conflict

  1. Wonderful web-site, in which did you found this info in this article? I am glad I discovered it. i’ll be checking out back soon to verify what other posts you possibly can have.

  2. Thanks @Full Movie Downloads.

    The model used in this posting is from my own Creative Conflict Model, which you can read more about by clicking on the Creative Conflict Model for handling your personal conflict at the head of this page. You can measure your own conflict handling using the same model at:

    though we are still developing statistical norms, so it may be a few months before you received feedback. But it will help our research. Thanks.

  3. Lydia says:

    I think you have remarked some very interesting details , regards for the post.

  4. Pingback: Conflict Resolution Strategies: Marital/Relationship (Re-post Top Ten #10) | Creativeconflictwisdom's Blog

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