Tag Archives: conflict-resolution

Babying Our Battles: How Can Kids Inspire Parents to Reduce Relationship Conflict?

I was recently leading a workshop for couples. Our topic was resolving disagreements about household and childcare roles and responsibilities, a subject I’ve posted about more than once (see http://wp.me/pZuta-dh & http://wp.me/pZuta-b5).

Given that parents’ household division of labor is among the Top 3 issues most of us fight about, it’s not surprising there was a lot of heated discussion among workshop participants. Moms were especially vocal about resentment that their husbands didn’t do more around the house, and that their childcare efforts focused on playing with their kids, but not tending to their other needs.

I pride myself on leading workshops that aren’t just helpful but also fun, so the evening included a lot of laughter and a good dose of silliness. But no matter how much we laughed, no matter how playful the mood, parents returned insistently to their feelings of frustration, concern or anxiety.

Until late in the evening, when our hosts’ 2 year-old son, Leo* toddled out of his room, weepy from a bad dream. He climbed into dad’s lap and fell back to sleep.

While our topic never changed, Leo’s arrival altered, indeed softened the Emotional Field (EF) in the room. EF is a Relationship Systems coaching term for the invisible yet discernible energy that always exists among a group of people, regardless of what they’re doing or saying (or not doing or saying).

Once sweet, vulnerable Leo entered our space in search of parental care, the EF shifted dramatically from irritability and frustration to tenderness and empathy. Had Leo been wide-awake and in a boisterous mood, I suspect the change in Emotional Field would have been different, though no less noteworthy.

I interrupted the discussion to note what I’d witnessed and ask participants what they’d noticed. They reported feeling less agitated and more hopeful about the topic than earlier in the evening. They agreed that there was something about Leo’s arrival—both in terms of how he was feeling and what his presence inspired in them—that altered their perspectives on the subject matter.

I joked that it would be great if we could bottle Leo’s energy—specifically, the impact he had on the adults in the room—and pull it out every time we argued with our spouses (or anyone else). I was only half-kidding.

How can we tap into the emotional “softening” and optimism that a small, vulnerable child can inspire in us, even when that child isn’t present, or our kids aren’t small and (obviously) vulnerable?

One option is to imagine conflict as tangible, something you can touch and hold. Think of a challenging issue with your spouse and, in your mind’s eye, consider:

What’s its shape? How large is it? What’s its texture? Temperature?

Now, imagine holding a napping newborn in your arms. Imagine that, as s/he slumbers serenely, this baby’s very being can reach out and reduce the intensity of the conflict, soften it, make it easier to resolve.

How does the conflict appear to you now? How might this newborn-mode inspire you to approach this issue differently going forward?

When my preschooler is upset—and open to being held—I wrap my arms around her and try to keep myself calm, both to support her and prevent my own discomfort from overwhelming either of us.

How might holding conflict itself, as if it were our child, help us better navigate disagreements with our spouses?

For some, imagining conflict as a tangible thing is hard to grasp. If that’s the case, we can shift attention from how a child’s energy can alter a disagreement to how we want to model conflict for our kids.

The desire to parent our children as best we can, as kindly and compassionately as possible, often inspires us to change (or try to change) behaviors and patterns that don’t serve us, or them, well.

We can mobilize this parenting impulse with relationship conflicts. If we imagine our kids—especially young ones—learning how to “do” conflict by watching us work things out with spouses, we’re inspired to become more conscious about the priorities and goals we set for conversations, not to mention our tone of voice and word-choice.

Bottom line: Whether we imagine them as our conflicts, or we think about them softening our disagreements, or we cast them as witnesses to our heated conversations with spouses, we can improve our conflict resolution skills by letting our kids inspire us.

How can your children inspire you to navigate conflict differently?

*Client names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Fight Right: How Can Conflict Enhance Our Relationships and Parenting?

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

Whether we argue a lot with our spouses, or  rarely lock horns, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*

While finding the answer might seem important, when  time and energy are at a premium—meaning, pretty much all of the time for parents—it’s wise for us to shift our emphasis from “why” to:

How do we fight?

I’ve coached couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. Yet conflict-avoidance is  a form of conflict.

Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is conflict a normal part of relationships; it’s a necessary one.

The problem with disagreements isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring their impact on our marriage is productive instead of destructive.

Psychologists like Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman have discovered that our satisfaction with spouses is tied to how well we resolve conflicts and how effectively we manage their negative impact on our relationships and on us.

Why is learning how to better handle conflict crucial to parenting? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction; they’re also about how well we model conflict-resolution for  and with our kids.

Learning to “fight right”  enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and impacts how our kids manage relationship conflict in their own lives.

John Gottman’s work on this topic is really useful.  His  list of 4 primary attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls, “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness offer a blueprint for how most of us currently handle or instigate conflict:

1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive & #1 divorce predictor)
2) Criticism
3) Defensiveness
4) Stonewalling

We’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., Disrespect might be a sarcastic comment or eye-roll; Stonewalling might involve walking out of a room mid-fight or refusing to talk.

Whatever style we prefer, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important first step in learning how to fight well. Why? Because when we’re disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility or refusing to interact, we’re so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.

What’s your favorite conflict-style?

I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer (some of us, myself included, are great at more than one). Share the conflict-style you default to most  with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.

Now, spend a few minutes talking about how, the next time you disagree, you can shift  from your conflict-styles to conflict-resolution .

Some couples I work with have given their Horsemen names. Hint: Do NOT use your in-laws names! Every time “Defensive Dolores” or “Stonewalling Stu” shows up in an argument, one of you can  politely ask them to leave.

A great way to change your dynamic is to invert Gottman’s list:
1) Respect
2) Appreciation
3) Responsibility
4) Connection

If you’re adept at Disrespect, ask: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?

If Criticism is your forte,: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?

If you’re prone to Defensiveness,: What’s my part in this?

And if Stonewalling is your thing, ask: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?

Asking these questions, like owning our favorite conflict-styles, doesn’t magically resolve disagreements or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we fight, the more we’re able to infuse our conflicts with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility and engagement. That’s bound to enhance relationship satisfaction and our parenting skills.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen’s Magnetic Partners.