Conflict Resolution Research on conflict resolution suggests that it is a process that moves
through several stages. In applying this research to the family, Kathleen Galvin, Carma Bylund, and Bernard Brommel (2018) identify six stages:
1. prior-conditions stage: the problem arises; 2. frustration-awareness stage: a family member comes to realize that
another family member is blocking satisfaction of some need or concern; 3. conflict stage: the exchange of a series of verbal and nonverbal
messages; 4. solution (or non-solution) stage: the problem is resolved (or an
impasse agreed on); 5. follow-up stage: the conflict re-erupts, or hurt feelings and grudges
develop; and 6. resolve stage: the conflict no longer affects the family system.
Although conflict resolution is a worthy goal, it is part of a difficult process. It is important to remember two caveats. First, conflict resolution focuses as much on the process as on the resolution itself. This means that some conflicts may only resolve themselves after a lengthy process. Second, some conflicts are unable to be resolved in an equitable manner where parties contribute equally to the resolution. A resolution may require one party to sacrifice his or her preferences to maintain the relationship (e.g. whether to have children or the final number of children). These types of conflicts are zero sum; one partner “wins” and the other “loses.”
Conflict Management While some conflict can be resolved, there are perpetual issues in
marriage and family that are never really resolved. Conflict management is
one of the most realistic approaches to handling conflict. Family life is too complex to understand in neat cause-and-effect terms. And conflict is so much a part of this system that it cannot be viewed simply as something that arises within and is then purged from the family. Rather, conflict continually feeds back into the system as a whole. It is, therefore, more realistic to think of conflict as a process to be managed rather than a situation to be resolved.
There are five major styles of conflict management: (1) Avoidance, which involves a low degree of both cooperation and assertiveness, is characteristic of individuals we might describe as withdrawers. (2) Accommodation, which involves a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of assertiveness, is characteristic of yielders. (3) Competition, which involves a low degree of cooperation and a high degree of assertiveness, is characteristic of winners. (4) Collaboration, which involves a high degree of cooperation and assertiveness, is characteristic of resolvers. (5) Compromise, which involves negotiation, cooperation, and assertiveness, is characteristic of compromisers. It should be noted that these five styles of conflict management are basic theoretical types. In the real world, styles of conflict management may incorporate many aspects of the different styles.
Each style of conflict management entails specific levels of concern for oneself, for other family members, and for family relationships. The style of conflict management that evidences little cooperation and little assertiveness (avoidance) shows little concern for self, others, and relationships. The style with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of assertiveness (accommodation) shows high concern for others, less concern for relationships, and little concern for self. The competitive approach shows high concern for self, less concern for relationships, and little concern for others. Collaboration and compromise show high concern for relationships and, accordingly, a balanced concern for self and others.
Most of the research on conflict management has been based on organizations and businesses that are larger and far less personal than a family. Two questions need to be asked at this point: (1) Are the data consistent with the biblical view of how to handle conflict? (2) Are the data applicable to family conflict?
In answer to the first question, we believe the data on conflict management to be consistent with what the Bible says about how Christians are to handle conflict. The Bible most directly addresses this issue in Ephesians 4:25–29: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our
neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Contained in these verses is support for being assertive. We are told that when there is conflict, we should speak truthfully about it. The implication is not to withdraw (“Do not let the sun go down on your anger”) or become aggressive (“Be angry but do not sin. . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths”). The text lends support to a direct style that shows concern for self, the other, and the relationship.
The verses also point toward unity as the ideal for Christians—we should speak the truth because “we are members of one another.” If there is anything that should be characteristic of the body of Christ, it is a spirit of unity or harmony. First Corinthians 12:12 reiterates this idea: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” We believe that the Bible stresses both assertiveness and cooperation. The best way to deal with conflict, no matter what your natural style, is for both persons to work together with equal concern for self, the other, and the relationship.
Each style of handling conflict has both advantages and disadvantages and, depending on the situation, may be more or less appropriate. As we discuss each style, we will give an example of Jesus using that style. He was, variously, a withdrawer, a yielder, a winner, a resolver, and a compromiser.
Although avoidance was not the usual style of Jesus, he did withdraw when necessary. When he healed the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath, he greatly angered the Pharisees, who “conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). Jesus surely could have confronted the Pharisees, as he had on other occasions. But instead, when he became aware of their plotting, he departed (v. 15). There was a similar reaction during the final hours before his arrest, when Jesus anticipated the upcoming conflict. As he and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives, he said to them, “‘Pray, that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed” (Luke 22:40–41). We are also told in Luke 5:15–16 that when crowds of people pressed on him with their needs for healing, Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
There will be times when family members need to withdraw from a conflict to think more clearly about the issue. Sometimes emotions run so high that conflict resolution is impossible. At other times, trivial conflicts need to be set aside for the sake of more pressing family matters. Avoidance can be destructive, however, so the person who withdraws for a time needs to be accountable by promising to come back to deal with the conflict after taking the needed break. In the absence of such a promise, withdrawing sends a signal that the individual does not care enough to work out conflicts.
In the greatest conflict Jesus had to experience in his life on earth, he yielded himself to be arrested, falsely convicted, and finally crucified. His yielding is evident in the account of his arrest in Matthew 26:50–53. After Jesus had been arrested, one of his companions struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. At that point, Jesus stepped forward saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (vv. 52–53).
Yielding may be appropriate when an issue is far more important to one family member than to the others or when it threatens a relationship. Yielding can also be a self-giving act of putting another person’s wishes ahead of one’s own. However, when yielding is motivated by a desire to show others how self-sacrificing one is, it can be a form of manipulation. Similarly, yielding out of a fear of rejection or a need to be liked can be detrimental. Yielding to another may also not be in the best interest of that person. The parent who gives in to a child’s demands for more candy or to stay up late may be doing the child a disservice.
At times Jesus adopted the approach of a winner. This can most clearly be seen in Matthew 21:12–13: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” In this situation, there was no withdrawing, yielding, or compromising. Rather, Jesus acted authoritatively and
decisively. The reason for this action, as Matthew makes clear, was that the law of the Lord was being violated.
There will be times when family members disagree on the basis of their principles and assume that the family is strong enough to survive the competition. The danger here is that the real issue may get lost in the battle over principles, and the conflict may degenerate to a personal level at which each party feels the need to win the point to save face. Such competition between family members escalates rather than decreases conflict. It takes a strong family system to survive. Winners often win the battle (the point) but lose the war (the relationship) in the process.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus elicited strong reactions. Toward those who reacted against him, such as the scribes, priests, and Pharisees, Jesus assumed a confrontational style. Toward those who reacted positively, he assumed a collaborative style, best seen in his long-term commitment to his disciples.
Since family relationships are long-term commitments, most family conflicts can best be dealt with through collaboration. The advantage of this style is that it offers maximum satisfaction to everyone. The disadvantage is that collaboration takes a lot of time, effort, and emotional energy. It also affords the advantage to a family member who is verbally skilled. In conflicts between siblings, the elder may be able to manipulate the younger one. Five-year-old Carol may be able to resolve a conflict by offering three- year-old Eddie five big nickels for his four small dimes.
In general, family systems benefit from having at least one resolver around who will see to it that conflicts are not swept under the rug. The resolver is often very intense in working through conflicts and will be frustrated when others do not cooperate or have the same amount of determination to settle things. There may be family disruption if the resolver is unable to rest until there is closure on an issue. When the resolver pursues the issue too intently, the others will distance themselves and intimacy will be impaired.