Embracing ‘loving’ conflict

Embracing loving conflict
Melanie Dooner

Melanie Dooner

Melanie has worked as a teacher in Catholic secondary schools and now works as a writer and editor

Raising kids and being married is hard. And doing both things well can sometimes be downright daunting.

On my wedding day, I had a hope-filled vision of how I was going to manage conflict in my marriage. Now ten years on, I have discovered that after many frustrating moments and misunderstandings, simply avoiding conflict just doesn’t cut it.

This realisation has left me wondering if there really is any healthy way to deal with conflict in marriage and parenting, without either raising the stress levels in our household by all out conflict, or by creating stress through passive aggression, as I am known to do at times, by saying little but fuming internally.

During COVID-19 last year, I came across the Smart Loving blog and began reading it periodically. By the end of the year, I rarely missed a post. In the blog, coauthors Francine and Byron Pirola delve into real issues affecting marriages and offer alternative ways to think about and approach the complexity of married life.

What I love most about the blog is how it speaks into the very real pressures facing couples and parents today. I also appreciate their honesty: they don’t shy away from the hard stuff, and the advice and suggestions are always set in the context of the self-giving love and respect for one another that Jesus calls us to as Christians.

As a director of the Marriage Resource Centre and coauthor of the Smart Loving Marriage formation series, Francine Pirola offered much practical wisdom when I chatted to her. It is no surprise that money, time and sex are considered the three common sources of arguments in marriages, but what is surprising is the reason Francine gives for this. Whether it be arguments about how much we spend, save and what we spend our money on; arguments about what we do with our time and how much or how little of it we spend with our spouse; or arguments about sex, including how often, when or who initiates it; Francine says that ultimately, these arguments are about what we value rather than the issue of money, time, or sex itself.

“So, one of the things that we teach couples when they come to us,” Francine explains, “is to discover the underlying values causing the conflict. So, one partner might have a value around money for security and stability and want to save and build a nest egg, and the other might have a stronger value for material comforts.” The actual debate then is around what they use money for.

Conflict can also be about how couples spend their time and set their priorities, because we put our time and energy into the things that matter the most.

“With sex it’s a bit different,” Francine said. “It’s about how much of a connection the couple has, and how important each is to the other. For men it’s a bit more pointed than it is for women. Because of testosterone, they typically have a higher drive and so sex is the principal way through which they feel connected. For women, often their first priority in terms of wanting to feel connected to their husband, will be more around having a verbal conversation,” Francine said.

And so, conflict can occur around how couples express their love for one another and how that is interpreted. It is also helpful to see how the difference in values can play out in parenting. There are the obvious difficulties couples can have around how to parent, and that’s reflected by their values and families of origin. But conflict in families is more complex and is necessary to a degree, particularly where teenagers are concerned.

Parents who are intentional about raising children ready to face the world as healthy and well-balanced adults, will more likely spend time and energy putting boundaries in place around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, while allowing their children the space to appropriately fight for their autonomy.

“A lot of contemporary parents want to be liked by their kids,” Francine said, “and so they surrender much of their parental responsibilities to have a peer relationship with their child. In reality though, when a teenager in particular pushes back against a parent’s boundaries, what they really need is for us to provide some resistance for them so that they can fight for their independence.” So, a little bit of conflict can be a good thing, particularly between parents and their teenage children.

But of course, all conflict comes at a cost, healthy or unhealthy. And so, it is important that as people of faith we do our best to tackle conflict well and with love as our aim.

Francine and Byron teach three ways to approach conflict.

Firstly, to pray. She says, “It’s always good to start by inviting the Holy Spirit into it, to guide us and provide wisdom so that we’re not trying to resolve the conflict on our own wisdom but are calling on the advice of the Lord.”

The second tool they teach couples is to ‘Stop, Reflect, Connect’. “When tension is rising, the best thing couples can do is call a timeout.” This helps the adrenaline causing us to go into fight or flight mode, to settle down. “Once they have called a timeout, we ask couples to go back and think about what they really want in the situation. They might be having a fight with their child who really wants a cookie – they need to consider, what do I really want here?”

In the Reflect stage, parents consider their values and how these values might compete. In my family I have a strong desire to raise resilient children who are well-balanced and can tolerate discomfort, but I also desire a peaceful household. The temptation to step in and solve every sibling squabble myself is often overwhelming when all I want is a calm and quiet environment. Reflecting on what Mick and I are trying to accomplish as parents and the best way to get there, is what Francine says will give parents the insight we need to help us make sound parenting decisions and deal with conflict healthily.

In the third step, Francine stresses the need to remember to reconnect with each other and deal with the issue. “This is not the time to sweep the issues causing the conflict under the carpet,” Francine said. “You need to connect when the adrenaline has gone, and you’ve settled down. Each person involved can then sort out their needs and values and what they both want in the situation, adult-to-adult, or even adult-to-child.”

Finally, making sure we have a regular pattern of self-care is very important. Being mindful that we care for ourselves helps us to avoid falling into the trap of trigger stacking where one stress piles on top of another and then another before the initial stresses have had a chance to settle down. Trigger stacking without any focus on self-care is a surefire way to completely lose control and scream and shout at everyone in sight, because the towels were left on the bathroom floor. Again. This one I know from experience!

And so, the next time my boys press my buttons, or my husband and I don’t see eye to eye on technology use, my hope is that I will remember to embrace the discomfort of loving conflict, knowing that it is only going through the process that our kids and marriage will grow.

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