When I am invited to a family member’s or a friend’s wedding, I often give a Galway Crystal “Make Up Bell” to the couple as a wedding shower gift. The Irish tradition is that you ring the bell after reciting your marriage vows. Then, when you and your spouse have a serious conflict or disagreement in real life, one spouse rings the bell to end the quarrel, and both remind themselves of their wedding vows. Conflict resolution for couples is one of the most important skills a couple needs to maintain a healthy, vibrant, fun, nourishing marriage.
The first question we need to ask today is, “Why am I searching for help with conflict resolution for couples?
- Do we want resolution in a specific area of conflict in our marriage?
- Do we need to learn conflict resolution techniques for couples in general?
- Do we want to end the conflict in our marriage and stop our divorce?
- Do we want a specific divorce conflict to be addressed?
- Do we want help in conflict resolution during the divorce process?
- Do we want to end the conflict with our ex-spouse and move on?
- Are we willing to stop our divorce and try to work things out?
Regardless of what area of help we are looking for, there are certain things that will help with conflict resolution in general regardless of where we are in the separation or divorce process. We have to clarify if we’re separated and hoping for reconciliation, or if we’re already divorced and need to learn how to communicate about divorce related situations, or somewhere in between.
In marriages, and especially during separation or divorce, we have a lot to say! A lot to get off our chest. Hopefully, we manage to stay in control, but many times we don’t. And sometimes we are in “crazy-out-of-control-throwing-plates-of-spaghetti mode! (Oh? You’ve been there, too?) In divorce where infidelity, lying and cheating are involved, our emotions are intense, erratic and scary! It’s hard to calm ourselves down enough so that we are willing to really hear what our partner is feeling and saying, too.
Usually by the time we get to a mediator or therapist to talk about conflict resolution, we have a problem that we haven’t been able to solve on our own. Especially during long marriages, we’ve often been over the particular territory before, and we talk past each other. Our point of view has been expressed numerous times, but maybe never has really been heard. We’re so busy getting our own point across, again, that we aren’t listening to each other. In conflict resolution, that must change.
When we don’t agree, both sides of the couple need to improve their listening skills:
A few basics:
- Take five deep breaths to center yourself before you start talking.
- Pretend you’re in a business meeting trying to resolve a problem.
- Tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.
- Do not interrupt.
- Listen with total concentration.
- Take notes if you need to.
- Do not think about your response when the other person is talking.
- Listen like there is going to be a test after the conversation.
Family of Origin Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution techniques almost always develop from “family of origin” dynamics.
Here are some “family of origin” characteristics that we learn in our family growing up.
- Self-Worth – How did you feel about yourself in your primary family?
- Were You Heard? Did you feel free to express your opinion? Was it valued?
- Communication – How did family members communicate in general?
- Family Systems – What were your systems: Authoritarian? Permissive? Supportive? Distant? Inclusive?
- External Family Connections – Strong extended family? Neighborhood? Friends? Spiritual Community?
In most couples, the “conversation” dynamic has already been put into place early in the marriage. One part of the couple may minimize or put down what the other person is trying to express. One partner may be an assertive type personality, and the other may have trouble expressing his or her real feelings.
Women tend to be more emotional, and it’s hard to be assertive when you’re trying not to cry. Again, pretend it’s a business conversation. Speak honestly and with authority.
In an editorial response of mine that was published in The Harvard Business Review (Oct – 2013), I commented that … “I am encouraging the women in a divorce support group I’m facilitating to use the poses described in this article. Projecting both warmth and strength is essential to healing and to redefining the future. The (power) poses are a useful tool not only in business but also in one’s personal life.” The article “Connect, Then Lead: To exert influence, you must balance competence with warmth.” The article suggested we visualize SuperMan or WonderWoman and adopt these ‘power postures’ for two minutes before having hard conversations. This role-playing calms you and increases testosterone and lessons anxiety. How you carry yourself demonstrates strong non-verbal signals of confidence and surety.
How to Project Strength:
- Feel in command
- Stand (or sit) up straight
- Get ahold of yourself (keep your body in control. No fidgeting.)
How to Project Warmth:
- Create Vocal Warmth (as well as Competence)
- Validate feelings
- Be forthcoming and open
Especially In conflict resolution for divorcing couples, each person must understand that when either partner speaks, his or her opinions have equal value. When conflict is unresolved, the couple may need a non-biased mediator who will make sure both partners’ ideas are fully expressed and understood.
Verbalize Needs And Feelings
Each person in a marriage usually has different communication styles. Sometimes women are made to feel that their needs and feelings are less important than their spouse’s. Some religions foster that feeling.
But feeling free to verbalize clearly our needs and feelings is important in every relationship. We need to encourage our children to be able to confidently say what they are thinking and feeling as well, especially during the divorce process. Our kids learn from how we talk about our wants and needs. Very important life lessons.
Acknowledge and Name The Problem
As we mentioned at the beginning, we must each be clear about what kind of resolution we need. Do we need resolution on big issues that are affecting our relationship? Do we need help with a specific relationship problem? Do we need formal divorce mediation strategies. Do we need divorce dispute resolution on one specific part of our divorce agreement?
The problem may be that we don’t have an effective way of dealing with conflict in our marriage. We need a “Conflict Resolution Skills for Couples” handbook. “Conflict Resolution for Divorcing Dummies!” would be even better. Once we learn how to express our opinion, listen to our partner’s opinion and start suggesting resolutions to our problems, we can apply what we learn to both general and specific issues.
Work Towards A Resolution
When conflict arises in a marriage, the goal should be a positive outcome for both partners. There must be “rules for the road” for arguments and disagreements. There must also be safeguards in place to keep the conflict from spiraling out of control and damaging the relationship. We need to learn to compromise.
Conflict resolution is necessary for every relationship. In good relationships, we are each on equal footing. No one should always have “the upper hand.” We must find ways to come to some kind of acceptable agreement for both of us.
If you’re reading this blog, it’s too late now, but conflict resolution should be a necessary part of pre-marital counselling for every couple. (And, again, your children are learning conflict resolution skills from watching you. Think about what your kids are learning!)
It’s impossible for any two people to agree on everything. The old idea that children should never see their parents’ fight is a disservice to our children. They grow up thinking that marriage means we never disagree. Nothing could be farther from the truth!! Instead, our children need to see healthy conflict resolution skills at work every day.
Recognize That It Won’t Work
All too often, when infidelity is involved and couples go to mediation or counseling or therapy, the unfaithful partner does NOT tell the truth. They either lie or insinuate in the session that the affair never happened; or if it did happen, it wasn’t serious or now it’s over. Just this morning I talked with a furious woman who said her husband absolutely lied about the affair in their mediation meeting! Nothing will be resolved until both parties are speaking the truth, “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!”
If we get to a point in a relationship where conflict resolution is not working and when either partner is not willing to work honestly to fix the relationship, divorce is often the inevitable result. In my own conflict resolution sessions with my then-husband, I kept thinking those conversations would bring us back together. They didn’t.
Many of us go to conflict resolution meetings in good faith, while an unfaithful spouse may never really come clean about his or her cheating. Instead they often suggest that their bad choices are our fault. We all have to hear what needs of theirs were not being met, but we should not take responsibility for their choices. We all could have done better in our relationships. We all make mistakes, but one person does not “cause” his or her partner to break the marriage vows.
If both partners aren’t completely honest, conflict resolution will never work!
The goal of conflict resolution in divorce is listening and learning, and then repairing the problems in our marriage. Sometimes, we end up saying, “This will never work,” and we decide the obstacles are too large and no amount of “fixing” is enough to save our marriage.
Hopefully, if you have learned some conflict resolution skills, even as you decide your marriage is not going to make it, you will be more willing to listen and work together to make your divorce as amiable as possible. That’s a good thing for each of you and for your children. It also helps set the stage for moving on with more grace and less animosity. A good thing for everyone.