When You and I Disagree

This page is all about how husbands and wives can manage the conflict in their divorce. There’s no one right way to deal with conflict. If divorcing spouses are careful to work with differences correctly, they can use the disagreements they have in divorcenegotiations to emerge with terms that allow both of them to survive and move on with their lives.

Conflict scares us. It often hurts us. It seems like something we need to stay away from. When we have a disagreement with someone, it jumps to the top of our priority list, and we can’t stop thinking about it. Our minds hurtle along with a mixture of anger, resentment, fear, doubt, and regret. For the overwhelming majority of us, conflict is unpleasant.

But conflict also often opens doors. Conflict forces us to look again at what’s important and what’s not. It allows us to change the way we relate to each other. It gives us ways to improve who we are professionally and emotionally. As hard as it is to believe, conflict is opportunity.

There’s not just one right way to deal with conflict – there are many right ways. If I understand all the responses that are possible, I can do a better job of choosing the one that works best for me, for now, for this situation. My responses to a given conflict can fall into one of five basic groups:

Because collaboration is so difficult, and so unfamiliar for most of us, I’ve laid out in detail How to Collaborate:


I can retreat or withdraw from a conflict, choosing not to deal with it. Or choosing not to deal with it at this time or in this place.

There are several ways to avoid conflict. In many cases, I can ignore a statement that the other person makes. I can leave the room. I can change the subject. I can acknowledge the statement the other person makes but not acknowledge the conflict it carries with it. I can simply run away.

Avoiding conflict is quick, simple, and usually easy. It usually preserves appearances for others. It pushes the conflict away when I need to deal with something else. The major disadvantage of avoiding conflict, of course, is that the conflict remains. Unless someone does something else, the conflict will resurface later, and I will have to deal with it again.

Avoiding is often an effective strategy for conflicts that are unimportant. If I prefer Coke and you like apple juice, it may not matter in any real way, particularly if there’s a way both of us can enjoy the drink we prefer.

Give In

I can allow the other person to get whatever it is that he or she wants. I can let them win. When I give in, I accept the other person’s position as the one to implement, and I agree to change my behavior to fit it. Of necessity, giving in means allowing another person’s needs and preferences to prevail over mine.

Giving in is like avoidance in that it is quick, simple, and easy, and in that it preserves appearances. Giving in has an advantage over avoidance in that it ends the conflict. When I give in, presumably the conflict will not resurface unless I want it to.

One disadvantage of giving in is that I fail to satisfy my own needs, because I have necessarily sacrificed them to those of another person. Another disadvantage is that I may resent the person to whom I gave in, which may affect my ability to work with this person later.


I can choose a position that is a middle ground between the two of us. Each of us gives up something to find a position that’s somewhere between the position you want and the position I want.

Compromise allows us to find a solution where neither of us feels that our needs were ignored, where both of us feel that we got something. It is relatively easy to accomplish, because compromise is almost always simple. Compromise has a feeling of fairness.

Compromise effectively ends the conflict and is less likely to result in feelings of resentment from either of us. Compromise results in a solution that both of us can accept so both of us can move on.

I think compromise is vastly overrated and frankly overused as a way of ending conflict. The first disadvantage of compromise is that the middle ground may not be the best position to take. It may sometimes even be worse than either of our original positions.

The second disadvantage is that compromise necessarily discounts the initial suggestions made by both parties without reflection about which suggestions were more thoughtful, reasonable, or fair. In doing so, it rewards those who make unreasonable offers and punishes those who make reasonable offers.

The third and most important disadvantage of compromise is the interaction that it breeds over time. If you and I have a habit of compromising over time, one or both of us will begin declaring at the outset a position we know to be unreasonable, so that the compromise solution will be about where we want it. Knowing we always compromise pushes us further and further apart and is inherently wasteful in the long run.

This is distressingly evident in the way many lawyers negotiate in adversarial divorce and in caucus style mediation. Knowing as they do that the tendency is to compromise eventually, they will push their client — that’s you — to articulate positions that are unreasonable and overreaching on the theory that “you need some room to negotiate.” The problem is that this slows down the process of reaching agreement and exacerbates mistrust between spouses when that trust is already at a low point.


I can insist on my way. I can reject your position and protect my own. I can use power to win.

Competing has the advantage of ending conflict. It also allows me to have my way. If I have enough power, competing is also relatively quick and simple.

My power can come from my formal authority within the organization, or the support of my peer group. It can come from my sheer persistence in advancing my position. It can come from many other sources, including education, job security, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical size and strength, and weapons. Power can also come from laws, judges, and police.

Competing is often the best solution when the issue is important, when a core principle of mine is on the line, or when health or safety is at issue. It’s also best when I’m dealing with someone who seems to stir up conflict for no good reason and after I’ve tried other ways to resolve the issues between us.

The primary disadvantage of competing is the resentment it may produce in the other person when I insist on my way or when I rely on power to win. It’s a high price to pay, so I have to pick my fights carefully.


I can work with you to identify both our needs and then to find a position that responds to both. It may be your position, it may be my position, it may be a compromise, or it may be a solution that neither of has considered before.

Collaboration allows us to explore thoroughly the needs of both of us. In the process of collaborating on a solution, we will generate many alternatives that may give rise to other creative work later. In the overwhelming majority of cases, collaboration offers us the chance to find a better solution.

The major disadvantage of collaboration is the time, energy, and focus that it takes. Collaboration is not the solution for every problem; it would wear us out!

But when you and I have a deep conflict and both of us really believe we are right, collaboration can bring about some wonderful results, including a permanent, mutually satisfying resolution of the conflict.

How to Collaborate

Collaboration is a process of listening, restating, generating alternatives, and evaluating alternatives. Each stage is important; we can’t skip any of them, although we certainly can move back and forth between them as we work together.


First I need you to listen to me, fully, completely, and with absolute focus. I need you to make sure you hear me describe what my needs are. You need to make sure you don’t interrupt me to react to what I say. The only reason you have for interrupting me is to ask me to repeat or clarify a statement that you’re afraid you missed.

You need to let me talk until I stop by myself. And then you need to keep your mouth shut. You need to embrace the silence. Because it’s after the silence that I may tell you the real “ouch” that’s troubling me.


Next, to demonstrate to me that you really did hear what I said, I need you to restate what you heard me say. It may be painful. It may be criticism of you or of groups that are important to you. But I need you to restate it so I know you’ve heard me.

Listening and restating is probably the hardest part about collaborating, because it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We tend to stop and fix things. We tend to defend our position. Collaboration requires that we first listen and restate. True collaboration can’t get started until we first do those things.

As I restate what I heard you say, you may realize that I still don’t understand. You can say “No, that’s not it. It’s really this way.” We cycle back to listening, and I get another chance to understand what your real concern is. So we each listen and restate, listen and restate, until I’m convinced deep in my gut that you understand me, until you’re convinced deep in your gut that I understand you.

Only after I’m deeply convinced that you’ve heard me and understand what I’m trying to accomplish can I be ready to hear your perspective. But now I’m more likely to listen, because I know you’ve heard and understood me. Same with you.

Generating Alternatives

If I’m deeply convinced that you’ve heard me and understand what I’m trying to accomplish, we’re ready to start generating alternatives. Maybe we just call them out, but we might even get to the point of writing them down on a sheet of paper or on a board so we can both see them together.

We can get creative here. Have some fun. Think of wacky solutions. And again, embrace silence. Often the most creative alternatives will come after a period of prolonged silence.

Evaluating Alternatives

After we have a thorough list of alternatives, we’re ready to begin evaluating. I need to know as we evaluate that you’re paying just as much attention to my needs as you are to your own. I also need to know that you’re not simply paying lip service to my needs to make me feel better. If you do that, I’ll figure it out right away and withdraw from the process.

As we evaluate, we can begin crossing some alternatives off our list. You also may realize as we go that you don’t yet understand what’s important to me. If so, there’s no reason not to go back and do some more listening and restating. We may even do more brainstorming once we understand each other better.

We may finish with a solution that neither of us had thought of that responds to both of our needs better than either of the solutions we were considering before. We may also discover that there is no solution that satisfies both our needs. When this happens, we have several alternatives. We can choose one of the other responses to conflict described above, like compromising or competing, or we could even decide that we need to deal with the problem separately because we have such different perspectives on it.

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