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I Love You; Let's Fight

How Constructive Conflict Can Improve Family Relationships

By Don MacDonald | Photo by Chris Tobin / Getty Images

Man and woman butting heads

Want to improve your marriage and parent-child relationships? Then I recommend that you learn to fight better.

In my nearly 40 years of professional work as a psychotherapist, I find that most of us, including me, are conflictual klutzes. We have learned unhelpful and even destructive habits from our society, peers, and families. Happily, it is possible to learn more helpful, constructive ways to fight. And spare me the nonsense that Christians do not or should not fight, and therefore it is unnecessary to be prepared. Conflict is as inevitable as breathing and hunger. Done right, it is a natural experience and, paradoxically, a way to help a relationship grow.

First, we need to adjust our attitudes and beliefs about fighting. A huge killer of relationships is trying to win the conflict so that the other person loses. Competing to win is fine for athletic contests, but it's not fine for family relationships or friendships. Focusing on the win encourages people to try methods that are hurtful to others and themselves. Those wounds can go unhealed for a long time. Striving to win also becomes an end in itself, separate from the point of the conflict.

Instead, our priority must be to preserve and enhance the relationship. When the fighting parties make their relationship a priority, regardless of the outcome of a decision, everyone wins. God establishes relationships as the indispensable glue of creation, models them in the holy Trinity, and reaches out to each of us in love and grace. While I fall woefully short of what God establishes, I try to follow that divine example.

Second, we need to develop skills to help us fight better. Many of us are unskilled at fighting or rely on unhelpful skills. This is a situation where ignorance is not bliss; it is pain. Blaming, humiliating, intimidating (physically and/or emotionally), embarrassing, or insulting our loved ones will typically prevent the issue from getting settled and will actually create side-effect problems from wounded relationships. These are tactics often used in order to win and to get the other to lose. The next time the unresolved matter comes up — and it will — the problems created by unskilled communication will make a difficult situation worse.

It is easy to slip back into unhelpful habits that are so well established that they seem natural. Don't worry or become self-critical. Instead, stop and try again. It does not hurt also to pray for God's guidance.

What skill matters most? Listening. Actually, effective listening is a collection of skills working together simultaneously. Here are some skills that aid in effective listening.

One, manage your surroundings so that there are no or few interruptions. If the cellphone rings, let it ring. Should a child want something that is not urgent, tell her or him to wait for 30 minutes or so while mom and dad finish their conversation. Minimizing interruptions says, “I believe you and this issue are important enough for focused time with each other.” An interruption that refuses to go away (the child's bladder will not wait 30 minutes) can be addressed after you quickly agree to a specific time and place to continue the conversation.

Two, let your family member have his or her say without chiming in. Yes, you disagree and want to immediately say so, but your disagreement will still be there when the other is done.

Third, paraphrase what the other person has said. He or she should be satisfied that you heard and understood, before stating your own view. Being able to accurately summarize what someone else has said, especially when you are irritated, is harder to do than it sounds.

Fourth, strive to be genuinely curious about what your loved one is saying or trying to say. Ask clarifying questions when you're unsure what the other person said or meant (“Please help me understand what you meant when you said ...”). Use “I” statements, as Ruth Ediger describes.

Finally, if you can mean it, when difficult conversations are over, thank your loved ones for engaging with you and sharing their views. Each person took risks to participate in the conflict, and hopefully each person contributed to the growth of relationship.

Don MacDonaldDon MacDonald is a professor of marriage and family therapy in SPU's School of Psychology, Family, and Community. He presented a session on “Fighting Fair” at SPU's 2012 Day of Common Learning.