3 Conflict Resolution Principles

Help Couples to Have a Healthy Conflict Resolution Mindset


Steve and Emily were in our living room arguing and they couldn’t come to an agreement. Both of them were convinced that they were right and other person was wrong.

The argument started when Emily came home from a meeting at church yesterday. She opened up the refrigerator and found out that the pizza she made before leaving for the meeting was gone. She asked Steve about it and he said that their son was still hungry after dinner and, so, he gave the rest of it to their son.

Emily blew up. Steve defended himself and yelled right back.

They were sitting in our living room going back and forth.

We teach couples keys to managing conflict. The following three principles or thoughts can help couples to approach conflict resolution in a healthy way. We encourage couples to observe three principles to get into a conflict management mindset.

Conflict Mindset 1: The Goal is Connection

We continually communicate to couples that the goal is to build your marriage bond. What builds it up your bond? What tears it down?

Connection is far more important than agreeing. Conflict and disagreements will come. There will be times when you will need to agree to disagree. It’s about maintaining a sense of close connection.

When we talk to couples about connection being the goal, it changes the dialog. This perspective can change the conflict from being a tug of war into a team that tackles the problem together. This turns the dialog away from the specific disagreement and turns it towards the impact of their pattern of conflict.

Emily blew up and criticized Steve. Steve became defensive and then counter-criticized. These behaviors were the ones that were leading to disconnection. The disconnection they were feeling wasn’t about disagreeing over who ate the pizza. It was about neither of them feeling listened to and respected.

Conflict Mindset 2: No One Is Completely Right

We’ve seen many couples go into an argument thinking, “I’m right and I’m going to prove it.” Normally, what happens is that someone wins and someone loses.

It’s very easy to win the battles and lose the war. Often, one person eventually shuts down and gives up. The more aggressive communicator is usually the one that walks away thinking they have won the battle. The less assertive person walks away feeling unheard and hurt.

My wife and I often explain that it helps to go into an argument with the assumption that each of you has a valid reason for their actions. If you have that assumption, then the dialog changes into trying to understand a different perspective.

We want to help couples realize how ‘being right’ may be hurting their connection. We ask, “Do you ever give up just because you are tired of arguing?” “Does that build up resentment?” “Does the issue come up again later?” “What’s that do to your connection?”

In Emily and Steve’s case, they both had valid reasons for their behaviors.

When we understood their disagreement, we reframed it by explaining what we understood.

First, Emily was planning on having a piece of pizza when she got home. Second, she thinks that their son isn’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. If he was still hungry, he could have a salad.

Steve’s perspective was that his son was hungry after dinner and Steve didn’t see the point of leaving left overs. While he knew that Emily thinks their son should eat better, he didn’t see it as a very big deal. He was unaware that she expected him to save her a slice.
Neither of them was completely wrong. Neither of them was completely right. They both had different perspectives.

Conflict Mindset 3: Own Your Own Part

We explain to couples that each of them is responsible for their own part. How do they contribute to the issue?

Someone may not have intended to hurt someone else, but hurt could still be the result. Often, hurt is the result of poor communication and conflict skills. How have your actions hurt your spouse, even if you didn’t intend to hurt them?

We ask, “What’s your part?” “What could you have done differently?” “What is the pattern that’s causing disconnection?” “Are you reacting with criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling?” “Are you dismissing your partner?”

As we talked this through with Steve and Emily, they did own their part. Emily recognized that she blew up at Steve and became very critical. Steve recognized that he jumped to defensiveness and counter-criticism.

They both realized that they didn’t communicate well about this. Emily admitted that she didn’t explain that she was planning on eating the leftover pizza when she got home. Steve admitted that he didn’t really consider her opinion about their son’s diet. They both realized that they weren’t communicating their expectations to each other.

At the end of the session, all of us felt very good about it. Emily and Steve decided to work on strengthening their bond by decreasing their poor behaviors. They also decided they needed to have more discussions about some of their parenting decisions. They might disagree about how much pizza their son should eat, but they agreed that they wanted to be respectful of each other.

I know that they still struggle at times with their conflict resolution. I know that they still disagree, but they have learned more about how to resolve their conflicts in a healthy way.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Explain the principles ahead of time – They often forget, but then you can bring it up when a couple has a disagreement in front of you.
  • Focus on the right principles first – Effective conflict resolution is based on building awareness of the need to build your bond as a first goal. It also builds on healthy communication and recognizing poor behaviors.
  • Don’t get caught up in the issues – Your job as a marriage mentor is to promote healthy communication and conflict management skills, not to tell them how to manage their kid’s diets. It’s easy to get caught up in the specific issues. Focus on the healthy skills.