Resolving Conflict in Marriage–A Case Study

Couple experiencing conflict in their marriage walking on a city street

In a previous article, I introduced a four-phase process for resolving conflict in marriage and other relationships. Here is a quick review of those phases. The first phase is preparation in which you put yourself in the mental state to step up to conflict in a helpful way. Phase two is invitation in which you lay the ground work and make it safe for another person to enter into dialogue with you. The third phase is exploration in which you build a pool of shared understanding by getting all points of view out on the table before you attempt to resolve your differences. And finally is collaboration in which you work together to come up with solutions which all of us can support.

Learning how to resolve conflict in marriage is a critical skill to achieve a happy and stable relationship. My purpose in this article is to give you an example of a couple using this process to work through a conflict.

The Situation

George is tired and irritable when he comes home from work on a Friday evening. His wife, Ellen, works retail on weekends and some evenings and has been home with the children for most of the day. She is hoping to talk to her husband about her frustration with demanding young children, when he pronounces in a disgusted voice, “Some mother! You can’t even control your six-year-old kid,” and stomps out of the room.

Ellen has a number of choices. She can trail him out of the room blaring sarcasm and criticism at his disappearing back. She can personalize his message and get down on herself for not being a better mother. Or, she can retreat into tears and give him the silent treatment for the rest of the evening. Another option would be for her to ignore the comment, pretending he didn’t mean it, yet feel a nagging disappointment and increasing distance in their relationship. Whatever Ellen does is likely to be part of an ongoing dance, familiar to her and George.

Instead, Ellen recognizes the consequences of their habitual patterns of acting and reacting and she decides to address this key moment in a more helpful way.

Phase I-Preparing to Resolve a Conflict in Marriage 

Ellen takes some time, later in the evening and once the kids are in bed, to identify her feelings, thoughts, and usual actions when George shouts at her. (See article and process Stop-Look-Listen-Choose.)

She allows herself some space to be present with her feelings rather than ignore or run from them. Slowly, they begin to dissipate in intensity. She considers her needs underneath her feelings—to feel confident as a mother and feel the respect and support of her husband.

She identifies some of her thoughts and challenges them. “He thinks I’m a horrible mother,” becomes “He knows I love our children but that I go through good times and bad times, like anyone else.” Her thought, “He never supports me,” becomes, “He really does care about me but is exhausted after a hard day.” Her thought that “He’s mean and uncaring,” becomes, “He feels pretty frustrated and powerless when he walks into a house with a screaming child. He’s honestly not sure what to do. He may feel at a loss as to how to help me.”

She thinks about what she wants in the long run—a good relationship with George. This is more important than the payoffs she’s been getting out of feeling sorry for herself. She clarifies her desire to build more trust and goodwill with her husband and commits to talking to him in a respectful and clear way.

Phase II–Invitation to Resolve a Conflict

After doing some personal preparation, Ellen approaches George and makes a leveling statement. “Hey George, I’m wondering if we could take a few minutes to talk about our spat when you came home tonight. It must have been pretty stressful for you to walk into a house with a frustrated wife and screaming kids and I want to understand your point of view. I don’t want what happened to create distance between us and wonder if we can talk about it so we both feel better.”

George: “Look, it’s late and I don’t want to get into an argument. Can’t we just forget it?”

Ellen: “We could forget it. But it seems like that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not getting better. Understand that my intent isn’t to blame you or start an argument. I know I have a big part in what’s happening. I simply want to help make our evenings more pleasant.”

George may be ready to talk and jump right into explaining his point of view. In that case, they’re moving into the exploration phase and Ellen will start by listening.

On the other hand, maybe George is not ready to talk tonight. He may need a little more emotional space. Ellen may say, “I understand if tonight isn’t good timing. It’s been stressful already. Could you be thinking about it and let’s find some time to talk in the next day or two?”

Notice how Ellen is using a few of the invitation skills to not only open up a conversation but make it safe for her husband to join her. And notice how her work during the preparation phase gives her the emotional strength to persist in pressing for a conversation while trying to make it a win for her husband as well.

 Phase III–Exploring the Conflict 

Ellen approaches George, after a few days, to continue their conversation and work out their marital conflict. “Hey, can we get back to talking about what it’s like when you come home from work? I’d still like to figure out how we can make this a better transition. I really want to hear what it’s like for you.”

(Ellen made a modified leveling statement by inviting George back into the conversation. She’s also transitioning to exploration by inviting him to talk about his experience.)

George opens up. “Sometimes, coming home is really hard. I’ve been working all day, had a lot of stress at work. In fact, I learned on Friday that I’d lost a big client I’d been counting on and I was really disappointed. And then I walked into a house which seemed like a disaster zone with messes everywhere and the kids whining and crying. It really got to me.”

(How easy for Ellen to react to George’s accusation. But she is clear that she wants to facilitate a productive discussion.)

“I wasn’t aware that you’d lost a big client. Do you need to talk about that?” asks Ellen.

George pauses, “Yeah I do. But not right now. Let’s figure this homecoming out.”

Ellen shows empathy. “So, between the disappointment of work and chaos of the house, last Friday night was really hard for you.”

“Yes,” says George. “I was really stressed and couldn’t handle it. I just needed space.”

“Okay,” replies Ellen. “It was pretty chaotic about the time you got home.”

George: “That’s right. It seems like it shouldn’t be so hard to have the house picked up and kids a little more pleasant since you were at home all day.”

(Again, it would be easy for Ellen to hear George’s comment as an accusation and either retreat or throw a counterpunch. But her goal is to have an honest conversation. Although his last statement didn’t feel good, she recognized it as an honest perception on his part.)

Ellen pauses, briefly, and then continues, “And I want to make your homecoming and our evenings better, less frustrating for both of us.” She goes on. “Can I share what it’s like for me about the time you come home?”

“Okay.” (George is softening. Ellen has been willing to listen and not provoke him to battle.)

“Late afternoon is the hardest time of the day for me and the kids. We’ve been together all day and I’m feeling pretty worn out and the kids are getting hungry and on edge. Sometimes when you walk in the door, I want to throw my hands up and say, ‘Your turn. I need a break.’”

“I get that. Have you thought of structuring your day so you aren’t so tired by the time I come home?”

(It’s common for someone to jump to solutions or offer “quick fixes” during exploration. They usually come too soon, before we have all the data in the pool of shared understanding before moving to this phase. This is a judgment call by Ellen, since she is guiding the conversation.)

“You know, I’m sure there are some things I could do differently and I want to explore that. But, first, I need to get something else in the open. Can I share with you the hardest part of Friday night for me?”


“You made some kind of comment like, ‘I’m not a good enough mother because I can’t control my kids.’ I felt really hurt and unappreciated. I wanted to shut down and not talk to you the rest of the night. It was hard for me to be around you.”

“Oh yeah. I forgot I said something. Sorry. I guess it was my frustration speaking.”

“Well, it hurt. I don’t want to hold onto it, but need you to know that it really bothered me.”

The dialogue may continue as Ellen and George build a pool of shared understanding by gaining insights into one another’s perspectives and feelings. Such conversations may take lots of twists and turns depending on the history, depth of feelings, and perceptions of both parties. On the other hand, they may be ready to enter into collaboration, the final phase of conflict resolution.

Phase IV—Collaborating to Reach a Resolution to a Conflict in Marriage

George and Ellen have a much better understanding of one another’s point of view and are now ready to search for actions that can help make their evenings, particularly transition home for George, go more smoothly.

George identifies his needs: knowledge of evening schedule; some quiet time before interacting with family; orderly house; fun, not stress, with kids; More structure with kids during evenings and dinner.

Ellen identifies her needs: Compassion, not judgment; a warm greeting; help with kids; time for us to connect and talk; time away from family, excluding work.

They then brainstorm various options to meet these needs:

  • Talk at beginning of day about schedule and plan for evening
  • Have a consistent dinner time
  • Both help with dinner
  • Who doesn’t help get dinner, if not both, does cleanup
  • 10-minutes to clean up clutter before George comes home
  • Spouse not getting dinner will interact with kids
  • Ellen to get some time away one night a week
  • 15 minutes of quiet time after arriving home
  • 15 minutes of quiet time after dinner
  • Connection time later in evening
  • Speak respectfully even when frustrated
  • Get more training in parenting to create a more peaceful home

Finally, Ellen and George review their list of options and select those that they can both support:

  • Talk at beginning of day (or preceding night) about schedule and plan for evening
  • Have a consistent dinner time—6:30 pm most days
  • Spouse who doesn’t get dinner does cleanup
  • George gets 15 minutes of quiet time after arriving home
  • Ellen gets some time away one night a week
  • Ten minutes of talk-time later in evening
  • Read book on parenting together and agree on structure/expectations during dinner

Once they had listened to one another and built a pool of shared understanding, George and Ellen were ready to decide on actions to resolve their conflict.  They did so by making what was important to each of them explicit, brainstorming options, and coming up with actions they could both support. Certainly, their final plan was different than either would have come up with on their own; different but also better since they made the plan together. The final part of collaboration is to talk about how it’s going periodically, and make adjustments as necessary.

A Final Word about Conflict in Marriage

Of course, resolving conflict in marriage happens much more easily when each partner shows goodwill and a desire to work together. Problems arise when you attempt to impose your solutions on others. But when you take time to listen and allow everyone to talk about their needs or what is most important to them, the unity in a relationship and buy-in to solutions is very high.

Stepping up to conflict in marriage is not easy. So many people opt to avoid it altogether or to treat the other party as an enemy that must be defeated. In truth it takes humility, responsibility, courage, goodwill, and emotional maturity to work through conflicts to a productive end. May you be willing to face and work through the conflicts of your life.


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