Discovering Your Conflict Style, and How to Improve It

It’s a beautiful day, the kind that beckons you to drop what you’re doing inside and head outside. So you may do something that we often enjoy doing: take off for a walk in the woods. As you traipse down the lane, you hear the birds chirping and see two squirrels chasing each other. You carefully dodge the ruts in the path and can’t help but hum a happy tune as you see the sun breaking through the trees, its rays dancing off the leaves around you.

Then you come to an unexpected fork in the road. It’s decision time. To your left is a well-traveled, paved pathway. Everybody else seems to be on it so it must be the popular way to go, though it is jammed with traffic. To the right is a narrow, leaf-strewn path illuminated by the sunlight and winding into the woods. You don’t see anyone else on the path, but it invites you, as if the light is showing you the way. Which way should you go?

There are many forks in the road of day-to-day living. Sometimes we don’t even see the intersection. We just put our heads down and charge ahead on the road less traveled. At other times we slow down and wonder which way we want to go. And still other times we come up to a full stop and ask the tough question: Which way do I really need to go?

Every time you open the loop of conflict in your marriage – whether it is a major argument or just a minor difference of opinion – you stand at a fork in the road. Once an offense has led to hurt and hurt has turned to anger, you are faced with two choices. You can 1) choose to resolve the conflict and close the loop, or 2) choose not to resolve the conflict and leave an open loop.

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In this post, we will help you understand how your present style of responding to conflict may indeed hinder your efforts to close the loop.

Your Conflict-Resolution Style

Closing the loop in marital conflict is never simple or easy. One reason is that each of us tend to react to hurt and anger in one of several different styles. As we discussed, your style for dealing with conflict is likely to be the product of what you learned in your family of origin. And since these are imperfect sources at best, your style is imperfect to some degree. So even when you decide to resolve the conflict, your approach may not be as effective as you would hope.

Five Common Conflict-Resolution Styles

The Winner
The people who use this style go into a marital conflict with one thing in mind—winning. They have a high need to control people and situations. The idea is to pull out all the stops and control others, making sure everything and everybody goes their way. This is not the healthiest way to heal hurt and anger in a marriage. These people rarely put much emphasis on the relationship itself because they are too focused on the issue at hand and making sure they don’t get the short end of the stick.

Is the winner style ever preferable? Yes, it works well in difficult situations when someone needs to take charge and get a job done quickly. At times you don’t have the luxury of getting input from others, even though such decisions may be met with real resistance.

The Persuader
Persuaders are often manipulative, working every angle to gain the advantage. They also have a high need to control their spouses. On the plus side, persuaders are more rational in the midst of a conflict, reasoning instead of dominating people and pushing them away. By manipulating people, persuaders may get their way in the short run, but in the long run, the persuaders’ “victims” will resent them. This manipulation and ensuing resentment seriously damages the relationship.

The Pushover
The pushovers are the pleasers of the world. They set aside their own needs and value the relationship above all else. They are not interested in controlling their spouses, which is healthy in most relationships. In conflict, however, they tend to give in and do what their spouses want. Consistently burying their own feelings, these people risk building up resentment below the surface. They may feel as if their spouses take advantage of them, but they can’t seem to build up enough strength to take a stand.

Is this style ever useful? Of course, especially when you don’t place much value on the results. We need to choose our battles carefully, realizing that sometimes the relationship is more important than the issue.

The Avoider
Avoiders prefer to avoid conflict in marriage and family relationships. A nap sounds like a safer way to deal with interpersonal difficulties. So when conflict rears its ugly head, avoiding spouses may leave the room, clam up, change the subject, or shut down emotionally. They have a low need to control. However, total avoidance is unhealthy because it places such a low priority on the relationship.

Is there any benefit to avoidance? Yes, especially if you are dealing with a powerful personality. If a “winner” is trying to overpower you, being an avoider can buy you some time to think things through. But you must be willing to step up to the plate at some point and resolve the conflict, resisting the inertia that sometimes accompanies avoidance. Unfortunately, many avoiders never do get back in the game. Withdrawing from conflict as a pattern could develop a hardened heart, and conflicts can remain buried for years.

If you take a closer look at these four styles, you will see that they all have drawbacks. Notice that:

  • The win style places high priority on control but a low priority on the relationship. This person is likely to ride roughshod over his or her spouse in a conflict.
  • The persuade style gives high priority to the relationship but also scores high in the need to control. The spouse will use charm and manipulation to get what he or she wants in a conflict.
  • The pushover style highly values the relationship but places low priority on control. In conflict, this person will usually cave in to his or her spouse, becoming a doormat.
  • The avoid style ranks both the relationship and control on the low-end. The spouse is always looking for a way to avoid dealing with marital conflict.

The Resolver
The most effective approach to conflict in relationships is working toward resolution. A resolver tries to cut through the games by striving for directness and honesty in the relationship. They will step up in a steady and mature manner to assert how important it is to value the relationship while confronting the issue.

The resolver exercises just the right balance between a healthy need to control and a healthy priority on relationships. They don’t try to win or avoid. They don’t persuade or give in. They tend to hit the issues head-on and in a way that often opens the door to conflict resolution and a happy ending.

When you look back over the conflict you have experienced in your marriage, which style have you employed most of the time?  If you’re like most people, you haven’t always dealt with your marital conflict in the healthiest manner.

You’ve probably reached many forks in the road during conflicts with your spouse. You probably have a good idea which road you should take, yet you have difficulty starting to move in the right direction. You face several hindrances to taking positive, healing steps in a conflict situation. In our next post, we’ll refer to these as “red lights” at the fork in the road.

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