Justin L. Terch: Conflicts are more process than event

Have you ever had a conversation and realized that the other person was "on a different page"? Have you ever had an argument with your partner and realized that you were each upset about two totally different things?...

Have you ever had a conversation and realized that the other person was "on a different page"? Have you ever had an argument with your partner and realized that you were each upset about two totally different things?

After working with couples who are experiencing conflict, I have discovered that we too often assume that the other party is at the same place in the conflict as we are.

One of the misconceptions about conflict is that it is a single occurrence, or a single event. Conflict is more of a process than it is an event. Sometimes the entire conflict process can last only a few minutes or hours (like a minor argument) and sometimes it can last years (like a high-conflict divorce).

The process of experiencing conflict has stages and cycles, and, when the parties are experiencing different stages of the conflict, it can create more turmoil and make the experience less productive.

As a mediator, I have worked with separating couples that don't realize this disparity.


One party files for divorce while the other party hasn't yet dealt with the reality that the romantic relationship is over.

While one party may be concerned with separating assets and setting up custody and visitation arrangements, the other party is still trying to deal with their spouse's new boyfriend or girlfriend. This lack of empathy and understanding for each other can make the process more difficult, more time-consuming and more expensive.

If working with couples in conflict has taught me anything, it is that the absolute best thing a person can do is recognize that we all experience separation at different paces and in different ways.

Trying to negotiate a child custody arrangement or dividing up assets when the parties are in totally different stages of the separation process can be difficult at best and disastrous at worst. It creates a power imbalance that shifts the focus of the discussion from constructive dialogue to resentful coercion.

So, the question remains: How do we deal with this problem?

The absolute best way to handle the fact that you and your partner may be experiencing two different stages of conflict is to be aware. Keep your "radar" on. Pay attention to what the other person is saying, and what they are not saying.

If you are discussing attorneys and divorce agreements and the other person is talking about how they have been hurt, you should take that as a sign that you may be on different levels.

This should prompt you to ask yourself: "Is he or she really ready to discuss the technical aspects of our separation? Is there a better way to address my need to move forward with our separation while still respecting his or her need to process this change in our lives?"


Obviously, there are times when we can't just delay the inevitable. We can't simply stop the separation process indefinitely in order to accommodate the other party's inability (or sometimes unwillingness) to complete the separation. However, being mindful of these differences, and using that knowledge appropriately, can help make reaching agreements easier and more constructive.

Understanding that conflict is not an event, but a process, can help us relate to our partner and others in our life.

It can help ensure that when we are forced to deal with the technical side of conflict (negotiating a divorce, for instance), we are doing it constructively, not destructively.

It can help ensure that our separation, while maybe painful, is a wound that can heal. It helps our children see people working toward mutually acceptable decisions, not just "re-hurting" the other parent.

Finally, it can help people move forward in their lives, with hope and determination, not simply anger and resentment.

Justin L. Terch is a mediator and court-appointed parenting-time expeditor. He is the director of ADR services at Terch & Associates in Cloquet. His company can be found online at .

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