Healthy Conflict Resolution at Home

Everyone feels angry from time to time.  We’re human and conflict is part of life.  How we express it — or not, is what makes our family functional or dysfunctional.

I’m keenly interested in the subject of conflict resolution because I think it’s truly at the heart of everything that matters in our communities, our businesses, our governments, really our world — and we’ve all heard the adage a million times:  world peace starts at home.

How we model conflict management as husband and wife will very likely be how our children work things out (or not) with each other and their friends. And the more young people in this life that learn how to communicate and work through issues where each person feels honored and heard — the better our world will be in the future.

Because truly — who and how we are when we’re first dating, flush with cash, time, libido and baby-free freedom is fabulous and fun and is the juice that led us all down the isle.  But how we are when things aren’t easy breezy — this is when it really counts. This is what can strengthen or damage our bond. And this is what ultimately impacts children deeply.

What happens when Mom and Dad disagree or when one is making a request of the other?  What happens when Mom or Dad is frustrated about something I’m doing?  What can I do when I feel angry?  Do I have to stuff it to fit into the family?  Or can I cry and scream if I want to as long as I don’t hurt myself or others?

Do you all remember that beautiful poem by Oriah called “The Invitation”?  So powerful in addressing what really matters in marriage.

...I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the center of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.I think that fire includes the fire between us. Can we stand up to what’s hard within our relationship — the foundation for our home and our family — and not shrink back?  Can we always seek compassion and tenderness when every button in our body has been pushed and our cups are empty? 

Of course the first order of business to avoid major break-downs between us and with our children is to constantly prioritize keeping everyone’s cup full — daily.  Are we each getting enough rest, eating our daily greens and superfoods, are we hydrated, exercising, meditating and feeling loved, appreciated and heard by each other?  (I wish!)

This is an ideal that we’ve been holding ever since our girls were born and have consistently fallen flat on — especially over the last year when our stress levels skyrocketed, sleep-deprivation became a way of life and self-care became a joke. We’ve been running on empty cups for a loooong time.  We know it’s no good on multiple fronts. And we’re in the process of prioritizing recharging ourselves and relearning conflict communication.

Here’s something we learned recently from Imago therapy and have set the intention to put into practice.  It’s called “Intentional Dialogue.” This form of conscious communication is based on the best-selling book “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix, PhD.

When things are heated — it’s best to recognize the feelings coming up and exit the room, house, or 15 mile radius if necessary before the verbal darts start flying.  Exercise or breathe it out and wait to talk about the problem until the charge is gone.  It’s recommended that all conflict be discussed within 24 hours so that nothing is left unresolved or lingering indefinitely in your family.  Repressed anger leads to depression. No fun!

In an intentional dialogue, one person invites the other to “have a dialogue”.  Cue for, “Can we talk about something you’re doing that’s getting to me?” — but producing less of an instant defensive posture.   The other can decline if he or she isn’t up for it, but must offer another time within 24 hours that they would be willing to talk.

Then the steps go like this:

1)  MIRROR what the other person is saying using their words.  Check in to find out if you’ve got it right — and if you didn’t, keep trying until you do.

2) VALIDATE the other person’s reality by saying, “I understand that because I…” or “That makes sense to me because….”

3) EMPATHIZE.  “I imagine you might be feeling about that….”  (Choose any number of words to describe what you guess they’re feeling:  abandoned, afraid, anxious, depressed, disrespected, hopeless, ignored, misunderstood, shamed, smothered, trapped, unimportant…..)


“I hear you saying you are really upset that I’m always telling you what to do and not letting you make decisions on your own.  That makes sense to me because I don’t like it when someone tells me what to do and I imagine you might be feeling controlled, dominated and devalued.”

“You’re tired of always doing all the work around the house, especially when I come home and go straight to my computer.  That makes sense to me because I don’t do much work around here and imagine you might be feeling exhausted, resentful, unappreciated and lonely.”

The trick with the empathizing step is to not fall into the tempting tit for tat.  You want to avoid saying, “That makes sense to me because I hate it when you do the exact same thing to me.”  You want to always use generic terms.

Anyone out there consider themselves an expert at conflict resolution and feel proud of the way you and your partner and/or you and your children express frustration or anger and work through issues that come up in your home?  I’d love to interview you for Attachment Mama.   Please drop me a line!

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7 Responses to “Healthy Conflict Resolution at Home”

  1. Reggie says:

    Thank you, needed this. Wish I could say we were one of those families; but, like you, with the sress of the past year and sleep deprivation and being away from family and friends and our usual environment, we have fallen short. We do better some days and try and be as much of a unit for our daughter, but it is hard – thanks for the words of wisdom.

  2. amy says:

    ha. you won’t be interviewing me anytime soon….but i love this post. there were explosions at my house last night. it’s rare that this happens luckily….but it is avoidable just the same.

    i keep thinking that if i just continue to simplify my life, the frustrations will get smaller…but really…life just keeps presenting more “complications”…so i either learn to accept and navigate them, or get burned.

  3. McClain says:

    I agree—this is a tough one. The things I’ve found helpful are a) not talk when I’m angry and feeling amped up and b) be honest about my fears, insecurities instead of instantly blaming the other person. It is hard to take responsibility for my own feelings but it does seem to help foster less defensiveness.

    It has also helped so much for Bill and I to talk—just us—after kids are asleep for 15 minutes. Most of the time we don’t want to do it–we want to zone out. But, it has had amazing results. It keeps anger away for some reason. Just talking about anything lighthearted. go figure.

    • Mc – these are great conflict coping skill! Not talking when feeling amped up with anger and being honest about fears — we could both benefit from doing more of that. AND, isn’t it amazing how you can share a life and a home and children with someone and going days without really having a conversation?? You’re talking all day long about the house, the bills, 100 things about the kids, dinner, your jobs, social calendar and by the time you get the kids to bed it’s so natural to want to tune out. Those 15 minutes/night would do me wonders for sure.

  4. Dawn says:

    We have found one solution (that I can actually print) – loud loud ROCK. Vann is starting drum lessons tonight. What better way for a teenager to get out his frustrations? (Hard on mama but worth it.) Reagan is starting guitar lessons. The harder they rock, the better they sleep. Ironically, peace follows.

    As for John and I… rock isn’t always the answer but we’ve found our ways. 🙂

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