Unit 5: Conflict Styles and Tactics
Deborah Davis, Ph.D.
“He Said, She Said…”
Marie, an adult college student and mother of a fifteen-year old son,
has been experiencing an ongoing conflict in her home for some time now.
She and her fiancé, Mike, have been at odds for the last several months of
their relationship. At the center of the conflict is Lenny, Marie’s son by her
first marriage. Marie and Mike argue over the way Marie punishes Lenny
when he doesn’t do his household chores or violates his curfew. Mike feels
Marie is too easy or soft when it comes to disciplining Lenny. When an issue
arises that requires her to discipline her son, her fiancé is very vocal about
his disapproval of her punishment choice. Conflict always comes of these
Last Saturday night, for example, Lenny came home way past his
agreed upon curfew. Marie was nervously waiting in the living room for
Lenny to return, thinking something terrible had happened to him. When
Marie heard Lenny’s key in the lock at 2:45 am, she jumped up, ran to the
door, and greeted Lenny with, “Where have you been? I have been so
worried about you! I thought you were lying on the street somewhere! Why
didn’t you call me?”
Lenny, unable to get a word into Marie’s assault of questions, stood in
front of the open door, waiting for Marie to stop pummeling him with
questions and accusations. Meanwhile, Mike strolled down the stairs, half-
asleep, wondering what all the noise was about. When he reached the
bottom stair, he recognized a familiar sound: Marie and Lenny are at it
again, he thought to himself.
Mike stood quietly for a moment, listening to the accusations,
questions, denials, excuses between mother and son, hoping he could find a
moment to interject. Lenny, casually leaning against the wall, stared straight
ahead while Marie
continued her assault. Mike stood silently as Marie told Lenny that such
behavior would not be tolerated; there would be punishment for his
irresponsible actions. “In fact, Lenny,” Marie said, “as a result of your being
inconsiderate and not notifying us about your being late, you will need to be
home by 10:00 pm for the next four Saturday nights.”
“WHAT?” screamed Lenny, “that is so unfair!”
Mike then intervened, saying, “ Marie, that’s not real punishment. If I
had stayed out past curfew, my father would have beaten the living….”
Marie, trying to control her anger, turned to Mike and said, “This is not
about you; this is about my son.”
After a long pause, Mike said, “Fine. YOU deal with it. I am going to
bed. In fact, why don’t we all go to bed? We can deal with this tomorrow,”
whereupon Lenny vaulted up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door,
leaving Marie standing,
speechless. Each stood silently, Marie looking up the stairs after Lenny and
Mike, staring at Marie. Mike heaved a loud sigh and turned to go up the
stairs, back to bed.
Very quietly, Marie said, “Why did you do that?”
“What?” asked Mike innocently.
“Tell Lenny we would deal with this problem tomorrow,” Marie spurted
“You know I need to deal with this problem now!” Marie was feeling
the resentment grow.
“I just thought,” Mike said, “it’s late and telling him that he has to be
home by 10 o’clock for the next month is not severe punishment for what he
did, is it, Marie? Tomorrow, we can decide what real punishment he should
get, alright? Let’s
go to bed.” Again, Mike turned to go up the stairs, back to bed.
Marie, beside herself, followed Mike, and grabbing his arm, blurted
out, “Real punishment? How would you know? You never had children. What
do you know about being a parent? You never even call your own mother.”
“You are too soft on that boy—that’s all I know. How will he ever learn
the difference between right and wrong?” Mike responded.
“All I know,” said Marie, “is that he is my son and I know what is best
“Fine,” said Mike, “I’m going to bed.” He turned and stomped up the
stairs. Marie stood alone at the foot of the stairs, seething.
The next morning, Marie sat at the kitchen table, quietly sipping her
coffee. As Mike came in, he moved to Marie and slowly leaned down to kiss
her. Her body rigid, she pulled away. “You’re still mad at me, Marie?” Mike
Marie said nothing, her lips pursed in a frozen sneer.
“Come on, honey,” he said. Still no response. Mike stared at Marie for
what seemed like an eternity. Obviously, she was not going to even look at
Mike, much less say anything.
Just at that moment, Lenny burst in. Sensing Marie’s repressed anger
and Mike’s futile attempts at conversation, he said, “Hey guys, sorry about
last night. Next time, I’ll call, I promise. I really don’t have to be home at 10
for the next four
Saturday nights, do I? I’ll do whatever you want around the house,” he
whispered to Marie.” I’ll rake the leaves; I’ll take out the trash; I’ll even
mow the lawn—just let me come home late, okay, Mom?”
All eyes were on Marie. She looked up at Lenny and her heart melted.
My son, she thought. He’s a good boy and he didn’t really do anything
wrong. He is not a thief, she silently assured herself. “Oh, okay, honey,” she
lovingly said to Lenny,
“we can forget about it this time. Please, though, call the next time you
know you are going to be late.”
“Sure, Mom, sure,” Lenny said, and off he went.
Mike stared at Marie, frozen to the spot. “Well, that will teach him how
to be responsible,” Mike said.
“Look,” Marie jumped in,” I know how to handle my own son, so
please don’t interfere.” She began washing to coffee cups, the clattering
“Interfere?” Mike screamed. “I thought we were a family and I had
some say in the matter.”
“You do, Mike, you do. It’s just that…,”
“Forget it,” Mike interrupted. “I don’t know what you want anymore. I
need to go to work,” and he stormed out the back door.
Marie stood at the sink, letting the hot water run between her fingers,
remembering that today was her birthday.