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The 8 Keys to Resolving Family Conflict

  1. Be hard on the problem, not the people.
  2. Understand that acknowledging and listening are not the same as obeying.
  3. ​Use “I” statements.
  4. Give the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Have awkward conversations in real time.
  6. Keep the conversation going. Life is a dialogue.
  7. Ask yourself “Would I rather be happy or right?”
  8. Be easy to talk to.

Key 1: Be hard on the problem, not the people.

Change the nature of the fight and you’ll change the dynamic. Stop throwing stones in arguments. Using blame, shame, or guilt to get your spouse to do something will become less effective as your relationship ends, because each of you will stop making the little concessions you once made for each other in the relationship. Instead, address the problem rather than laying blame on your spouse. For example, “Whether or not to sell our house is a tough decision; we both have a lot of work to do, and I would like to work together to figure this out” works much better than “If you’d only earned more money while we were married, we wouldn’t have to think about selling our house.”

If you don’t keep the problem separate from your relationship, you risk having the conflict overtake your life (especially after your divorce). When two people who are stakeholders in a relationship are at odds, they sometimes say and do all sorts of irrational things, project, deny, and shift blame.

All this drama has nothing to do with solving your problem. But there are things you can do to focus hard on the problem, not the person. The goal is to work withyour spouse, rather than being adversarial.

  • Bite your tongue. Think before you respond. Those few seconds of tongue biting can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
  • Remember that your problem is mutual. You need your spouse in order to solve this problem—and to reach an agreement. You will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
  • It takes two to have an argument. If you refuse to take the bait for a fight, the fight can’t happen.
  • Reframe your problem as a mutual problem and use “we” language. “We need to decide what to do with the credit card debt” gets a different reception than “You need to deal with your credit card debt or we’ll never have an agreement.”
  • Think about the situation from your spouse’s point of view, even if you think he is wrong. Remember, you need this person to sign your agreement. If you only think of your own perspective, you’ll never get resolution.
  • Don’t interpret what is going on based only on your fears. Resist the urge to turn everything into a catastrophe. You will get through this.
  • Don’t blame. Blame doesn’t get you anywhere, especially not now.
  • Let your spouse blow off steam and don’t take it personally. Not everything is an invitation to fight, and even if it is, you’re not coming to that party.
  • Listen. Acknowledge your spouse’s feelings without being patronizing.
  • Be direct; don’t play games. Have your own priorities straight.

Though many of these points are common sense, when the relationship gets tangled up in the problem, things can get volatile fast—and common sense gets lost. When you are hard on people, they are no longer open and available to you to help with the problem. You end up with a problem plus an argument to solve. When your spouse knows he is safe from automatically being blamed for a situation, he’ll be able to think strategically rather than defensively. You’ll be able to work cooperatively and collaboratively rather than at odds with each other.

Key 2: Understand that acknowledging and listening are not the same as obeying.

It may have been a long time since you’ve really listened to each other. When people argue, generally they’re just waiting for their turn to talk—or simply talking over each other. They’re not listening to what the other person is saying.

In order to settle your divorce and to redefine your relationship and family, you’re going to need to listen to each other harder than ever. But listening is not the same thing as obeying. You don’t have to do what your spouse wants just because she wants it. But people will not change their minds until they feel heard. Your job is to listen and understand your spouse’s perspective.

By following these simple tips, you can unilaterally change the dynamic in your relationship and start on the path toward settlement and peace. Even if your spouse is being critical and demanding, you have the power to listen without getting defensive:

  • Be still and quiet while you listen to your spouse, even if he seems very upset.
  • Separate the words (the content) from the demanding tone.
  • If it is appropriate, jot down a few notes about what your spouse is saying.
  • Tell your spouse what you think you heard. Repeat it back in your own words as a summary.
  • Tell your spouse you need time to think about it before you respond.
  • Encourage your spouse to take time to think about requests that you make, too. She doesn’t have to make up her mind right this minute.
  • Realize that when your spouse is pressured to agree with you, agreements rarely stick. The only thing worse than getting divorced once is having to do the same divorce over again, so creating a lasting agreement is worth the effort.

It pays to listen hard. If you and your spouse have been tuning each other out in the months leading up to your divorce, each of you actively hearing what the other has to say can help rebuild some of the lost respect and trust. When people know you are listening, they don’t have to scream anymore. When your spouse feels heard, he is less apt to have the need to hammer a point over and over. Conversations can move from mud slinging to creative problem solving more quickly.


(The above is an excerpt from chapter 10, pages 225-229 of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life). Click the following to find out more information about Diana Mercer's and Katie Wennechuk's new book, "Making Divorce Work", or to purchase a copy.

Diana Mercer is an Attorney-Mediator and the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services, and a contributor to First Wives World. She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) and writes for the Huffington Post, as well as her own blog, Making Divorce Work.


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