Part Two:  “Traveling with a Resolution Roadmap”     

                                          “A conflict resolved is a marriage restored.”
Unresolved conflict threatens the health of any marriage relationship. When couples travel on their marital journey with ongoing conflict, they risk dangerous collisions and harmful breakdowns. While remaining unresolved, the conflict often leads to relationship destruction and marital dissolution. Conversely, couples who learn to manage conflict in a mature, meaningful manner are able to protect the relationship they vowed to maintain. Simply put, a conflict resolved is a marriage restored!
In Part One I introduced the benefit of having in place a relationship conflict resolution roadmap. In this article (Part Two) I’d like to provide a number of thoughts, tips, and tools that can help you develop your personal roadmap for your unique situation. No one roadmap will fit every couple; however, with adaptation a basic roadmap can become an important resource for “roadside assistance” as you continue to travel in your relationship journey. 
The roadmap I’d like for you to consider contains several key components. The roadmap begins with a “Purpose” statement that clarifies your goal in regard to your marital conflict. Secondly, there is a section on “Preparation” that helps you to “set the stage” for conflict-oriented discussions. Thirdly, you’ll develop a “Process” section that lays out the specific steps you’ll agree to take in order to resolve your conflict through effective decision-making. Fourthly, you’ll identify and list certain “Provisions” that will represent your “rules of the road” for safe relationship travel. The fifth and final section is the “Promise” statement you and your spouse will develop and use as your personal commitment to the total roadmap. Obviously, you have the freedom to modify these sections as you deem wise, based upon your unique circumstances and needs. Try to keep your roadmap as simple and short as possible, yet long enough to contain the skills and safeguards you need for resolution success. Let’s look now at each of these five components.


First, our roadmap needs a purpose (or goal) statement. When conflict arises, what is our primary goal in dealing with that conflict? Clearly, our stated goal is to resolve the conflict efficiently and effectively. How will we use the conflict to strengthen and build our relationship? How can we prevent the conflict from damaging and destroying our marriage? The challenge for you is to think through and write out a brief statement that captures the heart of what you and your spouse want to accomplish as you struggle through your conflict experiences. The paragraph that follows may provide a sample statement for you to consider.
We understand that we will have differences and disagreements in our life together as a couple. We do not want these conflicts to threaten our basic relationship. Instead, we will consider them to be opportunities to increase our understanding of each other more fully, to use our respective knowledge and skills as effectively as we can, and to work as a partnership to resolve the underlying points of conflict. Our ultimate purpose is to safeguard our marriage from threats and to promote healing, growth, and maturation. Therefore, we are establishing this roadmap to provide a process that we can use to resolve our conflict effectively and to safeguard and strengthen our relationship.


Secondly, our roadmap needs to include some guidelines related to preparation or “setting the stage” for the discussion of disagreements. We do notwant  to imitate many couples who jump into arguments with little or no thought about style, structure, or safeguarding. A lack of preparation usually intensifies the existing conflict, creating more frustration and causing additional failure.

The first “preparation item” is “time.” When a disagreement arises in a marriage, the two spouses have an important choice to make. They can choose to tackle the problem immediately, or they can delay the discussion until a more suitable time.  Clearly there are “emergencies” in which a disagreement must be dealt with as quickly as possible. In those situations the spouses hopefully will try to use communication skills and conflict resolution tools as effectively as possible for fast resolution of the conflict.
However, in the majority of situations the discussion can be delayed until a better time is available. The delay gives each spouse time to consider the key issue and to commit to the usage of their roadmap for resolution. It’s wise to agree on both a starting and a stopping time. Once set, the starting time needs to be remembered and respected by both spouses. What length of time should be reserved? The specific length may vary, but it’s usually best to have a time that is too short rather than too long. Extended, drawn-out discussions usually lead to exhaustion and negative results. Work for a length of time that is productive, call a halt, and reschedule the discussion for “Part Two.” If the discussion is predicted to require several sessions, the couple may want to use a timer to alert them to the agreed-upon time to stop. The respect for time is critical, both in regard to starting and in stopping.
A second “preparation item” is the “setting.” Where’s the best place to discuss the problem—in the kitchen, the den, the yard, or another location? Since privacy is usually preferred they will choose a place that offers a good opportunity for discussion without being overhead or interrupted by children or other people. Some couples prefer public settings (like parks or restaurants), while other couples want to hold all significant discussions at home. Many couples like to select one particular setting that serves as their “default location.” Unless otherwise specified, that location is the setting for all scheduled discussions.
A third “preparation item” is “initiation.” Which spouse will agree to serve as the “official initiator” for a scheduled discussion? That person has the primary responsibility for keeping up with the calendar and for making sure that the discussion occurs as scheduled. Further, that spouse is responsible for actually starting the discussion, preferably by identifying the specific topic to be discussed, noting the length of time for the discussion, setting a timer if desired, and deciding what style of problem-solving is to be used for the issue at hand.
The fourth “preparation item” is “style.”  What style of communication will they use as they discuss the issue? Obviously, the spouses can decide to be “free-flowing” and can converse in the back-and-forth manner in which they customarily talk. However, if the issue is one that has been hotly-debated in the past, has high emotionality for either spouse, or has serious, long-term implications, the couple would do well to begin their discussion with the Speaker/Listener style of communication. Basically, one spouse becomes the speaker while the other spouse serves as the listener. The goal of this structure is to gain and insure accurate understanding of the other person’s “story,” that is, his thoughts, feelings, wants, and recommendations. Basically, the listener paraphrases the speaker’s comments to see if he understands correctly. The speaker will confirm an accurate understanding and will clarify if needed by saying again that portion of his original message that had not yet been understood. This process continues until the speaker feels reasonably understood. At that point the spouses change roles so that the first listener can have a turn at being the speaker, and the sharing continues until the new speaker feels reasonably understood. The Speaker/Listener skill does not automatically bring agreement to a specific point-of-view.  Rather, the skill brings mutual understanding without which a satisfactory resolution to their conflict is highly unlikely. Conflict is usually intensified by maintained misunderstandings, rapid interchanges, disrespectful interruptions, and excessive emotionality. Thankfully, the Speaker/Listener skill attempts to counter these threats through increased mutual understanding, slower exchanges, respectful behavior, and controlled emotionality. The skill can be used at the beginning of a discussion, or it can be inserted later at any time when either spouse believes that mutual understanding has not been adequately achieved. 
Preparation is a key ingredient to successful conflict resolution. A good resolution is more achievable when these four “preparation items” are considered carefully and when the “stage” is set for a discussion that is productive and effective.

The four preparation items you’ve completed leads to a face-to-face discussion with your spouse in which the disagreement is addressed and hopefully resolved. What you do in this discussion will determine whether or not the conflict is fixed. The following seven steps can be used as a “model” (or guide) to help you work through the conflict and move toward a solution. The first four steps can be worked on individually prior to the couple’s discussion, or they can all be addressed together during the discussion. Any “homework” each spouse has completed will certainly need to be shared in the joint discussion. The seven “I-steps” are as follows. 
1.  Isolate the key issue to be discussed
2.  Itemize several possible solutions to the problem
3.  Investigate each solution (strengths/weaknesses, pro/con, etc.)
4.  Individualize solution preference (“Which one do I prefer?” / Rank Order List)
5.  Increase mutual understanding (sharing preferences and assessing understanding)
          (Use the Speaker/Listener skill as needed to achieve satisfaction: “I feel understood.”)
6.  Identify one solution for the problem (with possible #2 as a contingency plan)
         Possible conflict-resolution choices:
          ____ “We both prefer the same solution.”
          ____ “Let’s meet somewhere in the middle.”
          ____ “Let’s do what you want; it means much more to you than to me.”
          ____ “Let’s agree to disagree; we’ll use two different solutions.”
7. Insure successful resolution (implementing the decision and inquiring about
          mutual satisfaction at a scheduled future “checkpoint” on the calendar)

A marriage journey is always better when the two people respect and follow certain “rules of the road” that promote safety and success in travel. We can learn a lot from our experience with automobile driving. It is perhaps easier to get a marriage license than it is to get a driver’s license. To acquire a driver’s license we must study a manual, pass a written exam, and demonstrate in an actual road test that we are willing and able to recognize and follow the legal rules of the road. If we tried to drive our cars in a manner comparable to the way we relate to our spouse during conflict, we would probably have had our driver’s license revoked years ago! It is tragic but true that most people show more respect for their fellow-drivers than they show their spouse whom they profess to love. We would do well to use in our relationship conflict the same level of consistent care, consideration, and cooperation that we show daily as we drive about on roadways and highways. 
The work you’re doing in the previous section (the Process and the Seven-step Model) might be compared to a road trip you decide to take. You have a clear destination in mind:  reaching the town of “Conflict-Resolved.” As you work through the seven steps, you need to use certain “provisions” to insure that your “travel” is completed safely and successfully. These provisions are actually “rules of the road”—what you DO and what you DON’T DO on your journey. The following list contains a variety of “rules of the road” that may or may not be relevant to your specific situation. Please consider each provision and add the ones to your roadmap that you believe you need. Feel free to add other “rules” not identified here that could work well for you.

*Stick to the issue on our agenda (or stop the discussion until both agree to stay on task)
*Secure a Time-Out as needed to calm down (per our accepted Time-Out agreement)
*Stop the discussion at the agreed-upon time (even if the issue has not been resolved)
*Select the Speaker/Listener skill at any point when we feel misunderstood
*Schedule a follow-up session for continuation (see “Setting the Stage” above)
*Show respect and consideration
      We will refrain from the following negative behaviors:
            *Using physical violence (to each other or to personal property)
            *Committing verbal abuse (avoid words/phrases such as . . .)
            *Starting serious discussions while under the influence of alcohol/drugs
            *Blindsiding each other (forcing an unexpected discussion)
            *Misusing the past (bringing up past mistakes that have been forgiven)
            *Interrupting each other excessively or impolitely
            *Intimidating each other (threating divorce, suicide, or violence)
            *Making global statements (“You always”; “You never”; “Everything”)
            *Insisting on arguing in front of our children or in public places

(These provisions contained a reference to a Time-Out agreement. Every couple needs to have in place a Time-Out program that they have set up and agreed to use. A sample program is available for those interested. Also, the Speaker/Listener skill was referenced. A detailed description of this communication skill is also available for you. Please see the links to these documents at the end of this article.)

A conflict resolution strategy will work for you only if it is used. As you complete the development of your resolution roadmap, you may want to end with an opportunity for each spouse to agree with and to commit to the plan. This promise of commitment can be done verbally or can be made by signature. My recommendation is that both spouses sign and date the roadmap to confirm their willingness to follow it to the best of their ability. The paragraph that follows is a sample that you can adapt to fit your relationship.
We have worked together to formulate this list of guidelines in hopes that they will help us discuss and resolve our differences in a healthy, productive manner. As a result, we hope that our relationship will be both safeguarded and strengthened. We accept these guidelines as our roadmap for our relationship and we hereby commit ourselves to following and using them in all of our conflict situations. We will review these guidelines annually and will modify them as needed. Until that review we adopt the current list for our usage.

Concluding thoughts . . .

The Conflict Resolution Roadmap that you develop will help you travel safely and successfully on your relationship journey. After using the roadmap several times you will probably need to “fine-tune” it in specific ways. I encourage you to schedule a “tune-up” appointment on your calendar at which time you review your roadmap together and modify it as needed as new variables become known. I also encourage you to seek professional assistance from a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) if you have significant problems either in developing your roadmap or in applying your roadmap to your unique conflicts. Just think of the therapy as a form of “roadside assistance” that will equip and enable you to move ahead effectively on your journey.

As indicated earlier, without a resolution roadmap spouses tend to forget the real issue and to fight each other. A workable roadmap enables them to stay focused on the original issue that represents the “real enemy.” In teamwork they join hands and work together to resolve the real issue and to protect their relationship. As a result, their relationship is both preserved and strengthened. A successful resolution reinforces the truth that “a conflict resolved is a marriage restored.”
One final thought. Even the best conflict resolution roadmap cannot and will not guarantee that your marriage will survive or be successful. Frankly, there are no actual guarantees. Too many human variables are involved in the “marital equation.” At best we have reasonable reassurances. A workable roadmap is a welcomed reassurance in that you have an important tool necessary for safe travels. I like what one man said in this regard:  “Well, if I can’t get a guarantee, I’ll take all the reassurances I can get.” I hope that the material presented in these two articles will encourage and equip you as you develop and use your personalized conflict resolution roadmap.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.
Resources for you . . .
If you are interested in several helpful resource books or relevant websites that deal with marital communication and conflict, check out the materials on this website. Go to Home Page, click on Resources, then on List of Categories, and then on Communication and Conflict. Or, you can just click here.
To view a PDF worksheet for the sample Conflict Resolution Roadmap referenced earlier, please click the image to the right or just click here.

For more information (PDF) about the Speaker/Listener skill mentioned earlier in the
article, please click the image to the right or just click here.


If you want to look at a sample (PDF) for a Time-Out Program, please click the image to the right or just click here.

To view a short video of a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Resolving Marriage Conflicts," click on the image to the right or just click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


     (Communication and Conflict #503)


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