Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How We Handle Conflict Determines Relationship Survival

How we handle conflict in our relationships determines whether the dating relationship or marriage will survive. Back in Kenya, I knew pastors who would not marry a couple unless they had fought once or more in their courtship. They were determined to establish that couples knew how to handle inevitable conflict that would arise in the relationship. Fighting is normal and a healthy part of relationships - how we fight however, makes the difference.

When I was dating my husband back in the 90's, I mistakenly believed if he loved me his opinions would mirror mine on issues. If we fought about anything, I expected him to immediately agree with my point of view without realizing he was a separate being with separate thoughts and opinions. I studied alot of relationship books on communication and began to see the error of my methods but old habits die hard. We dated for four years and it wasn't until our second year of marriage that I got the hang of fighting fair and learned to respect his opinion in the fight.

In my premarital education work, the couples who show extremely low scores on conflict resolution tend to have the toughest time adjusting to marriage, struggle with abuse issues and/or dissolve the marriage. I have become even more committed to asking couples to postpone their wedding ceremony if they want to save their future marriage. If there are unresolved issues causing conflict during dating, the same issues will be magnified in marriage with stronger consequences. Don't ignore warning signs - they are similar to yellow lights turning red on your relationship.

Name calling, yelling, belittling and threatening do not solve conflicts. We've all yelled at some point, the problem is what words we yell because we can't take them back. Yelling is sometimes equating to blowing off steam but is hardly ever constructive. I can't recall who taught my husband and I to use our pet names for each other while fighting but its worked over the years. Its hard for me to attack his character and the essence of his being while yelling "honey - you are such a bla bla bla". Oh, we do fight - trust me on that one. We both have strong opinions and believe in expressing them when necessary but we have fighting rules that keep us in check so we don't destroy each other with careless nuclear words.

Our fighting rules run along lines of: stick to the issue at hand, do not drudge up old fights, identify on a scale how vital the issue is to both of you, 1 - not a big deal to 10 - over my dead body. I love Dr. Les & Leslie Parrot's conflict card and have used it in our marriage and with couples. Avoid name calling and nuclear words (maximizes emotional damage), do not threaten break-up/divorce - it only makes the situation worse, introduces the bailout option and unless you mean it becomes an empty threat. Feel free to call a time-out and postpone the fight if its unproductive and not solving the original issue causing conflict. Agree to bring up the issue for example on Saturday morning when you jog together because you will be less emotional, more logical and open to seeing it through the other's eyes. It sounds impossible but it works, my husband or I will say "lets talk about this another time/Friday" etc or "I can't talk about this right now" which is a code word meaning we will not have a productive end to our fight.

Agree on a code word to indicate when the fight is escalating beyond repair - when one of you uses it, its time to take a step back, walk out of the room/house or shut yourself in a room to cool off. The time-out concept only works if you are both committed to discussing the issue at an agreed future date - otherwise it becomes a cop-out. Do not use physical force on each other - a small shove can easily escalate into violence. When all else fails, involve a third party - seek professional help if the issue you are trying to resolve remains unsolved, is causing considerable tension in your relationship and is threatening your marriage. Avoid trying to shame your partner by describing the issue in lurid details to close friends and family who you hope will put pressure on him/her. True friends will try to be objective and call you out on mistakes. When you make up with your partner, you want him/her to be able to face your friends and family. Think ahead and remember you love this person, you are not trying to destroy them.

If you are reading this portion and you are in a physically abusive relationship please call the national domestic violence hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Your situation requires professional help - your safety and that of your children is of utmost importance. They will do crisis intervention and connect you to local domestic violence shelters in your community.

Some great resources on conflict resolution that I personally use or refer to my couples are Real Relationships (great video clips), Family Life, Marriage Builders and the classes I offer for premarital education and marriage enrichment. Happy fighting to you and may you achieve productive results!


  1. Fighting is totally part of any relationship. And so much of it arises, I think, out of misunderstanding who the other person is -- not to mention maybe misunderstanding your own personality and hot buttons! I so agree with your thought about not understanding your husband was a separate being with separate thoughts! The Missing Link isn't ONLY about couples and conflict, but it sure can help. It talks about understanding our behavior (from a Biblical perspective) and that we are all different and God has a different plan for us all as individuals. If you can understand that, and then each other, conflicts can be eased, because of the understanding. You learn how to meet your own needs, and those of others, in Godly ways.

  2. Great post. I find the difficulties and choices made by couples in how they resolve disputes to be fascinating. Learning "how" to fight is an important skill for any couple. I'd love to read more on this topic.

    Here's a recent article I particularly enjoyed on couples' fighting fair:

    I'd love to see more post like this. Thanks!


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