Tag Archives: conflict

Conflict in Marriages and Families

Conflict is a good thing.  It is a necessary part of life, progress, growth and movement.  Conflict is a part of marriages and families that holds great potential for growth and maturity.

In Psychology Today (March 23, 2017) Elizabeth Dorrance Hall observes that there are least three reasons conflict is a good thing in relationships.

  1. Conflict signals a need for change.

The biggest room in anyone’s life is the room for improvement.  Conflict pushes us out of comfort zones and wakes us up to opportunities and challenges that enrich our lives and equip us for bigger challenges.

2. Conflict celebrates our interdependence.

Relationships are fascinating mixtures of independent people trying to work together in mutually beneficial ways. Our unique personal preferences, priorities and goals will conflict with those qualities of another unique individual.  Healthy relationships learn to celebrate the differences that push us to grow beyond ourselves.  They do this by identifying the points of conflict, working to understand each other’s perspective and collaborating to discover new and different ways to compensate for those differences.

3. Conflict is almost never about that which it seems to be on the surface.

In marriage and family therapy we often see conflict as the symptom that is calling attention to the real problem.  Everyone is enriched when we  push past the conflicting symptom to discuss the deeper values and principles that at stake.


Metaphors abound in nature to illustrate the benefits of conflict.

  • Chicks necessarily pecking to exit their eggshells.
  • Germinating seeds that push through the dirt to find the light.
  • Road graders that must push aside the soil for a highway.
  • Students trying to push through assignments before deadlines.
Conflict handled in a mutually beneficial manner holds so much potential for good.  It is unfortunate that many see conflict as more of a threat than an opportunity for growth.
Sometimes we are more interested in making sure our issues are heard and understood than we are in considering the viewpoint of the other person.  It does not take much time or effort to be misunderstood.  Conversely, understanding and being understood takes time and focused attention.


The truth is that there are few ‘simple’ solutions easily applied that readily result in positive outcomes.  At the same time there are some general guidelines that may be helpful.

  1. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. Listening is a skill to be learned and practiced.  It is particularly challenging to practice our listening skills when we strongly disagree with what is being said by the other person.  Conflict is easier to manage when we take the time to listen and reflect so we can respond carefully.
  2. Observe the “STOP” rule to avoid destructive conflict.  When the destructive communication begins to emerge, each person should be given the right to call a ‘time out’.  Follow this immediately with agreeing to meet at a better time and place and try again, applying Guideline 1 (above).
  3. Seek win/win solutions.  Win/lose and lose/lose situations rarely succeed in resolving feelings.  When one person ‘wins’ an argument by intimidation, the ‘loser’ is left to come up with a way to resolve feelings that can be pretty intense .  Lose/lose situations occur when each person compromises, losing something in order to win something else.


Work to achieve solutions where each person feels that they have been heard, understood and respected.  Everyone wins when we spend the time and energy to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to conflict.


IMG_0542Change is one of those love/hate necessities of life that, right now, I don’t like very much.  It really messes with my environmental predictability engineering!

To explain, I switched health clubs a couple of weeks ago because the new one has a lap pool.  From 7th grade through college I have been on swimming teams; so, naturally, I have been excited.

However, the change has meant more than a simple adjustment in wardrobe.  Because they don’t rent lockers I now have to carry all of my gear to the gym every time.  Forget one thing and you have to make a decision about whether to continue on without that one thing or go home.

We dislike change because it means we have to do things differently.  Some of us find adapting easier to do while others will fight and resist to the bitter end.

The key is that, at some point along the way we usually adapt to the change and make it part of our daily routines.  Then life becomes, once again, predictable.  This is nice because it means I won’t be forgetting things as much and that my routines will help me mindlessly stumble through packing my bag and getting dressed at 4:30 in the morningFamilyHomeostatis.

Families go through natural, predictable changes and adaptations over time.  Family life cycle examples include when a couple marries, has children, changes locations or jobs, deals with aging parents and struggles through their own aging and health issues.  At each of those points of adaptation (among so many countless other adaptations we are called upon to make) every person in the family must go through the tension of new situations.  This includes their attempts to deal with them, the attempts of other family members to deal with them, and their final acceptance of the changes that were required.

Some do well with the changes while others struggle with their own attempts to cope…which requires that the rest of the family figure out how to cope with the one who has had trouble coping.  As a result, an open ended, system failure begins to heighten the tension and remove the balance for which everyone is striving.thermostats

In Family Therapy we call that the struggle for homeostasis.  Like a thermostat that turns on the air conditioning when it’s too warm in the house or turns on the heat when it is too cold, so, also, interpersonal relationships go through the same struggle to maintain a ‘normal’ environment.  When people start pressing through the boundaries things can really get uncomfortable, troublesome and terribly dysfunctional.  In families, not only does the one who has started coloring outside of the lines create problems but the family’s attempts to control the family member can lead to problem behaviors as well.

This dynamic is all part of marriage and family systems theory.  While there is value in trying to understand the genesis of a family member’s ‘bad’ behaviors, how they got started, how they maintain themselves, families usually are most interested in making them stop…or change…or adapt so everyone can get on with life.  Marriage and Family Therapists specialize in helping families work through these transitions, overcoming the obstacles that often arise.  The goal, of course, is helping everyone move to the new level of functioning so that predictability can emerge and people can be liberated to reach out for their potential once again.