Dealing with conflict

Phase III Overcoming Conflict

Conflict between spouses before, during, and after your divorce is inevitable. Yet, if conflict continues, you'll never reach an agreement. Over 95% of all divorce cases ultimately settle, so you'll deal with conflict sooner or later.

It's helpful if you can learn to deal with conflict in a way that won't make you crazy. It will also help you learn to get along with your ex-spouse enough so that you can work out your settlement, share your children, and deal with the everyday problems that will arise in the meantime and afterward.

The First Step — Understanding the Other Side's Interests

The first step in understanding how to deal with conflict is that you'll have to understand the other side's interests to resolve it. They may have a POSITION, such as "I want the children on Wednesday nights" or "I want to keep the house," but until you understand WHY they want that, you'll continue to have a conflict.

For example, perhaps the parent wants the children on Wednesday nights because they want to be involved in doing the children's homework. Maybe Wednesday night is not convenient for you or the children, but perhaps there is another way that the parent can continue to be involved in helping with homework.

For the spouse who wants to keep the house, maybe all they want is a secure place to live, or for the children to stay in the same school system. It isn't as much about "Wednesday night" or "the house" as it is about other underlying issues.

To find out the other side's interests, don't get misled by the position they're telling you (Wednesday night, or keep the house). Ask questions instead:

  • Help me understand why that is important to you.
  • Why do you want that?
  • What are you concerned about?
  • What are your goals for the future?
  • What could I do to make my proposal acceptable to you?
  • If you could have what you're asking, what would that accomplish for you?
  • What's the real problem?
  • What would be wrong with...?
  • Why not do it the way I've suggested?

Listen, listen, listen to the responses, and then ask more questions. Repeat what the person has said to make sure you understand. They are giving you information — clues as to how to resolve your conflict. You don't have to agree with what they say, and you don't have to give in to their demands. You're not being "nice"; you're being strategic.

Remember, to have an agreement, both sides must agree. You won't agree if your needs aren't met, and they won't agree if their needs aren't met. Understanding their needs is the first step to resolving the conflict and working toward an agreement. When you ask questions to find out what the other person's interests are instead of focusing on their position, you begin to reduce conflict.

The Next Step — Taking Responsibility for Your Role in Conflict

When you're in conflict, it's tempting to think that the other person is completely at fault, and that you are totally blameless. Yet who among us is a complete angel, 100% of the time? Resolving conflict is not about figuring out who is right or assigning blame to the guilty party. Resolving conflict is about moving forward and learning a new way to deal with each other in the future.

Part of your ability to move on depends on your ability to recognize that it takes two to fight. When you understand your role in the conflict, you can start to avoid the old behaviors that got you into past arguments.

As family law mediators, often the first agreement we help couples reach is that the old way is not working; and that they'll need to try a new way of communicating and dealing with each other in the future. But change is not easy, and doing things a different way feels risky sometimes. People are naturally resistant to change. However, if you want to stay out of future conflicts, it's essential to identify your behaviors that contributed to past conflicts.

Think about your past conflicts—or current conflicts—and ask yourself:

  • What did I do to contribute to making this conflict happen?
  • How could I have handled this situation better?
  • Have I suffered because of my own actions?
  • Have others suffered? Have my children suffered because of my actions?
  • What is the most important lesson I've learned from this conflict?
  • Is there a way this conflict could improve my life?
  • What's humorous about my role in this conflict?
  • What would it take for me to let go of this conflict completely?
  • What would happen if I did let go of it completely?
  • Has the way I've communicated helped the other person to understand?
  • What could I do to improve the way I communicate?
  • What skills could I develop in handling conflict?
  • What skills could I develop in responding to the other person's negative behavior?

You cannot control other people. Ex-spouses are particularly difficult to control! You can only control yourself and how you deal with your ex-spouse or others with whom you have conflict. You alone can control how you react to disagreements and how you'll respond better next time.

We'd all like other people to read the questions above and to have them respond. It's more difficult to do it yourself and take responsibility for your part in an unpleasant situation. You are the key person in changing your relationship with your ex-spouse and how you deal with your inevitable disagreements. When you change your behavior, you also change the reaction that you get from your ex-spouse. That's a key step in learning to deal with conflict differently.

Dealing with Conflict Through Mediation

Mediation is a great way to work through your differences, and is typically much less expensive than court. When people have input into resolving their problems — and come to an agreement — there's a much higher compliance rate with those agreements than when a judge makes an order. Agreements made in mediation are both less expensive and more comprehensive than court orders, and they're more likely to be followed as well.

Many people choose to resolve their divorces and their post-divorce issues with the help of a Family Law Mediator. At Peace Talks, we offer comprehensive family law mediation services that can help you reach a sensible, mutual resolution on most issues, including divorce, custody, premarital and post-marital agreements, and more. Call us at [phone number] or contact us [LINK] here to learn more.

If you are interested in connecting with a mediator through other means, most courts have mediators available free of charge. You can also get a referral to a private mediator through the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR), at or by calling (202) 667-9700 or Email: