Marital Conflict: Relationships are a Journey not a Destination

A few weeks ago, I had a really interesting conversation with a security guard at one of my favorite bookstores, Waterstone’s in Gower Street, London (used to be Dillon’s University Bookstore) about conflict in relationships. I thought it might be fun to apply the seven step Creative Conflict Model of this blog directly to the question of marital relationships. And, as I have been with my wife for over 40 years, and she has taught me a lot, I guess I know something about this. This post is in honour of the Waterstone’s security guard, whose name I forgot to ask.

Relationships are a dynamic process. Whereas we often think of them as static, and we think of their content, the things we are arguing about, not the process by which we argue. We don’t step outside the argument and look at it as a process; we just mix it with the other side, in relationships our partner. One way to think of relationships is as a process like the following adaptation of the seven step Creative Conflict Model of this blog, outlined at the head of the Home Page. As I advocate in all my conflict work, it is best if all this is recorded in writing, so you can refer to it in future, can think about it more deeply, and because this slows down knee jerk reactions and over-emotional responses.

1. Getting Real about the Situation

In terms of relationships, this means we should realize first we are in a dynamic process, that relationships inevitably involve conflict, and to be healthy, relationships need ways to handle said conflict. To get started, it would help if we had a clear understanding of the state of our relationship. One way to do this is to ask yourself some searching questions as to how it is going, how good our mutual decision making is, for example, how well are problems surfaced and handled? Before asking your partner the same questions and listening non defensively to the answers. Then you have some chance of having a realistic appreciation of your relationship, its strengths and weaknesses. You could even ask the questions, what do I know about the state of our relationship? What evidence do I have for this view? What don’t I know about the relationship and how could I find out? What don’t I know I know, what haven’t I even noticed? And what is it I don’t even know I don’t know, which in many relationships might be almost everything as we haven’t stopped to consider and just mix it with lots of conflict with no real understanding of what is going on until we find ourselves at war with our partner.

2. Getting Clear about your Interests

You may pretend that your positions: the things you expect to be true are automatically shared by your partner. It may be helpful therefore to figure out what exactly are your interests in the relationship. What you do you want from it? Love, support, understanding, whatever. And in any particular argument over say household chores, work life balance, where to go on vacation, what you think of each others’ friends, or family, it may help to look at your stance and ask why? Why do I want to achieve X and then keep asking why of each answer. I want us to move to California. Why? Because I want to run outside all year. Why is that important? Because running is the most important thing to me. Why…and so on. Then you have a chance of a good discussion with your partner and maybe there are other places/ways to run outside all year other than move to California and your relationship will be stronger if you don’t unilaterally impose: ‘we must move to California’ but realize there are a number of ways to meet your interests.

3. Getting Empathetic about the the other side’s interests

This is simply applying the same process you applied to yourself, to your partner. Figuring out empathetically what their interests are that lie behind their stated position on household chores, work, family, whatever. And of course, even being open to listening to them is a huge step forward in most relationships, if you can do without criticism, or response but first listening, asking good questions, getting real clear on where your partner is coming from. And using maybe the same why technique to probe beneath their position: you must do more house hold chores. Why do you think I don’t do enough? Rather than asserting you are already perfect. 🙂 Consider their case rather than shut it out, flood with anger or close down and walk away. If what they say is emotionally challenging, ask for an adjournment. Say that your are finding hard and maybe you discuss the next day. This is not the same as walking away from the discussion and you need to honor what you have suggested and really get back together as promised.

4.Getting Creative about possible solutions to the conflict

A lot of people find it very challenging to think that when you have a relationship conflict, you might actually sit with your partner and brainstorm on a no commitment basis, the various ways to resolve the conflict. And of course, having this ability helps build the relationship too. Taking our move to California example, brainstorming all the ways you could run outside all year round by moving to somewhere other than California would be one approach. And the very process generates all sorts of alternatives you had not thought of.

5. Getting Stereoscopic: seeing the conflict from both sides

In some very emotional issues, the previous four steps will not do it. Maybe you have had too many conflicts in the past. Maybe that acid of relationships contempt or loss of trust has become part of the problem. Maybe you need an outsider, a relationship counsellor or other outside assistance. Or maybe you can step outside the conflict and see what is going on by trying to see your own and your partner’s side of the conflict stereoscopically. This is tough and the Creative Conflict Model at the top of the Home Page has further insights into this. It does require your accept that not all virtue is on your side of the conflict. 🙂

6. Getting Specific: making a clear agreement

No matter how difficult the conflict and no matter how good the resulting agreement to end the conflict and improve your relationship, it is not much use unless you both clearly understand the outcome in the same way. Otherwise, down the road trust issues and recrimination will result. I always suggest agreements are written down, dated, even signed and before this both sides ask and amend the agreement to avoid any possible misunderstanding. Time deadlines by which actions needed are essential and also some agreement as to how to handle any breakdown in the agreement because circumstances change or it simply does not work should be included.

  • 7. Getting Wise: learning from the conflict to do better in conflict

As in any conflict, I recommend that at the end, you formally and in writing, conduct an After Action Review. What went well about how you handled the conflict, what did not go so well and what should you do differently in any relationship conflict in future. That may seem artificial but if you want to build a robust relationship you need to learn from rocky patches, learn from relationship conflict if you are to do better going forward. And this will also maybe cement the idea for both of you that a relationship is a process, is a journey not a destination that does not need maintenance. I hope this all helps, but love helps too….

Of course you can apply this whole process to a divorce or relationship break up but in my experience, if you can do that successfully, you may not need to divorce. Divorce is the recognition that you have no good process to handle marital conflict. That changes if you get one in many situations.

Footnote: Paul Newman (1925-2008) was married to Joanne Woodward (1930-) for fifty years from 1958 until his death in 2008. I guess they knew a thing or two about good conflict process, living in the volatile Hollywood Industry bubble:


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, Marital and Relationship Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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