It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Sun Tzu

What have we learned about handling conflict? I was wondering about this last night. Psychology has helped up realize that many behaviors adult exhibits are learned behaviors and what we learned as children are the behaviors that most impact us as adults. 

So, we spend years trying to work through our past and see the problem from a new perspective. How do you know if you can look at a situation from a different perspective?

I had a set of married friends, and I thought they would always be married. They were both brilliant, strong-willed, and creative. In all their uniqueness, I couldn’t see them with anyone else. And then it happened. They got a divorce.

It is estimated 50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. If this is your first marriage, 41% of them end in divorce. Second marriages, 63% of them end in divorce. By your third marriage, 73% of those end in divorce.

The data suggests that what we didn’t learn in the first marriage gets magnified in subsequent marriages. When you get to your third marriage, it’s not that you are more likely to divorce, it’s more you will divorce.  

The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

Sun Tzu

The one thing I learned that made a marriage successful is flexibility. It takes flexibility. Love is essential, but love without flexibility is still a divorce sentence. 

Not all of us get great parenting. A 2012 study found 10% of our children live with an alcoholic parent. But it’s not just alcoholism that damages parenting. Pharmaceuticals and street drugs add another layer of substance abuse. The 2009 Showtime series Nurse Jackie followed the world of a nurse trying to deal with substance abuse. In 2017, it was estimated 20 million people needed help with substance abuse. 

Estimates of adults suffering from mental illness are at about 30%. Child sexual abuse, criminal activity, selfishness, and it starts to look like great parenting is more an anomaly than the norm. I’m always so appreciative and impressed with parents who raised great kids because the rest of us have to work at it.

So, we take what we’ve learned of conflict management and bring it into our adult life where 50% of all marriages end up in divorce. What does that say about our conflict management skills? 

All warfare is based on deception.

-Sun Tzu

I got to be honest, I’m in the first marriage divorce statistic. I know why we got a divorce. Our conflict management skills sucked. We really didn’t know how to do it or how to give or take feedback. We both came from families where feedback was criticism. We both came from families where we were not heard, and family norms overcame respectful treatment. 

Oh my gosh, we would get in disagreements and dig up crap from two years ago. Arguments would tumble into a waterfall of, “Well, you did this 2 years ago!” “Well, five months ago, you did this!” “You did…you did…you did.” All incredibly not helpful. And we each had our learned behaviors from childhood on how we would handle criticism, and these behaviors were not helpful.

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

-Sun Tzu

So, we divorced and took a two-year hiatus. 

It was during this hiatus that we both learned something. The grass wasn’t greener on the other side. We were invested in each other. You could teach an old dog new tricks. 

So, some of the critical distractions which highlighted our first experience in marriage were addressed. We learned something about flexibility. Flexibility is understanding there are no absolutes in any situation, and a more effective solution takes into account all sides.

We decided to take a second run at this marriage thing. But we did it differently this second time. We were both confident that our upbringing gave us pretty crappy conflict resolution skills. To make it this time, we were going to have to work at conflict management, which meant we were going to have to work on ourselves and really be able to see our stories from a different side because conflict escalates when you can only see a story from your side.

Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.

-Sun Tzi

The next time you have an escalating discussion, realize conflict can only stop when you stop limiting yourself to your story. 

This certainly hasn’t been an easy road. When we got stuck in conflict, we started reaching out to others with better skillsets than us: counselors, church, training, friends. We expanded our reach to alternative providers. These providers took us past the limits of traditional resources. We used Non-violent communication training from the Mennonites, spiritually through Taoism, Meditation, Gurus, and Classical Chinese Medicine. 

When we did that, stuff about our own behavior would come up, which didn’t feel great. This stuff that came up is precisely why it isn’t easy work. To see another side, you have to walk through your own ickiness. 

No one wants to feel icky. And being human, you just have some icky behaviors. Some people have more icky practices than others! But, when you’re in conflict, and it’s escalating, undesirable behaviors are happening  that need to be addressed. 

There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction; (2) cowardice, which leads to capture; (3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults; (4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame; (5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

-Sun Tzu

I started listening to people more. Bullying has become rampant. But that is a learned behavior. How could it become rampant? Well, because most of us do not grow up in exceptional parenting situations. Besides that, just the fact we are human means we have needs and desires that we want to fulfill. Bullying is trying to force someone to do something you want, even if it is not in their best interest. 

You know that couple I thought would stay together forever? Bullying. When I look at the conflicts between my husband and me, what were the worse offenders? Bullying. And bullying isn’t the black and white playground antics we attach to bullying. We are much more sophisticated than that. Labeling, ignoring others, ridiculing, belittling, discounting can all be forms of bullying.

We do it so much in our society that we can’t even see it anymore. And we are sure it is icky behavior. Who wants to see icky behavior in themselves?

There are other reasons for conflict. Lying is another one that is rampant in our society. Here’s another one you do because it is more comfortable. When you do it, you call it little white lies as opposed to big black lies. You didn’t get a report done at work, “I’ve got it at my desk. I have a couple meetings. Can I email it to you this afternoon?” That gives you the afternoon to finish it. You don’t want to go to work, “Hey, I’ve got a headache and feeling nauseated.”

I come back to the divorce rate in the United States of 50% with each subsequent marriage having a higher divorce rate. Right now, my husband and I have beaten the statistics. Second marriages last an average of 8 years. We’re double that. 

We are currently beating the divorce statistics because we are willing to look at ourselves and look for external input and face our ickiness in short contained bursts!

At some point, the ickiness is no longer so significant. Maybe because you’ve become more empathetic with yourself. You realize you just are not perfect, never will be. You start to know you, and everyone else is human and has the opportunity to grow. 

There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

-Sun Tzi

The next time you are in a discussion and escalating, think about bullying and lying. 

Like I said, bullying is not the playground antics we are socialized to acknowledge. Bullying can be phrasing like, “You never complete what you started.” Instead of voicing a concern, “This really concerns me because we have kids we have to support right now. How can we do this and know our financial security will still be here?” Bullying is dismissing someone’s thoughts for lack of value like, “Oh come on, seriously?” Bullying is name-calling or labeling.

Lying can be evading the truth to avoid taking responsibility. “I got stuck in traffic.” “I have a late meeting.” “I don’t know what happened with that.” 

It’s weird, but we are so socialized to accept this kind of communication even though it breaks down trust and disconnects us from the other person. Our fights get worse, and our relationships get torn down. 

When my husband or I called each other out on our actions, the more accurate it was, the more we would fight. The more valid the statement was about our behavior, the more willing we were to escalate the argument and tear down our relationship. Again, who wants to see icky in themselves? The other thing we would do is deflect by attacking someone outside our circle and criticizing them. The deflection was the same thing, just turned towards a safer target.

These behaviors lead to our divorce. 

When an army is overthrown and its leader slain, the cause will surely be found among these five dangerous faults. Let them be a subject of meditation.

Sun Tzu

So, there are a couple things that happen in fights that are escalating. First, any conflict that escalates is personal. It’s threatening something the person usually doesn’t want to face. Second, bullying and lying are about growing up in an environment where you were not heard. So, part of bullying or lying is this desire to be heard. Of course, you’re doing it in an icky way. So, when it doesn’t work, you escalate. Lastly, these behaviors disconnect you from the other person. These can be your friends, family, acquaintances, anybody.

What are some of the behaviors that highlight you are doing this? Blaming! Discounting the other person by saying things like, “Oh, come on I didn’t mean anything by that.” Or, “A little sensitive, aren’t you.” Name-calling! “Well, now you are just acting like a baby.” Another tactic is trying to justify your actions as right instead of trying to find a solution. 

Good-luck. Only you can change your future.


 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Data Spotlight: More than 7 Million Children Live with a Parent with Alcohol Problems, 2012. Available at: Accessed 12/2/19.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.