Column Entry, Let’s Talk Family, “Traffic Light Conflict,” by Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane Badzinski

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: Traffic Light Conflict

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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April 2023

Traffic Light Conflict

Conflict is a big topic (probably because we all regularly experience it!), so this column is the first of a three-part series. This first column focuses on causes and warning signs of conflict. In our upcoming columns we present best practices for handling family conflict in ways that lead to strong family connections.

Family conflicts are inevitable—just ask Cain and Abel or Esau and Jacob. I bet some of Solomon’s 700 wives had a thing or two to say about family conflict, too. Like the rest of human history, the Bible is replete with examples of conflict and also shares some ways to address it. James 4:1–2 reads: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” James teaches that conflict happens when we battle over competing desires or goals or when we argue over limited resources. Conflict also can happen when we just rub each other the wrong way or have a personality clash. We also can’t ignore evil spiritual forces that can create family division.

While each family will have its own issues, even happily married couples—both young and old—report experiencing similar topics of conflict, according to research published in Family Process. Ever had a “discussion” (ahem!) about one of these topics?

  • Household chores
  • Closeness to (or independence from) your spouse
  • Leisure time
  • Communication
  • In-laws
  • Money

A study in a pediatrics journal shows that helping and cleaning up around the house, sibling relationships, school grades and homework, and technology top the charts for parent and early adolescent conflict topics. We can all relate to having disagreements in at least one of these areas.

Since conflict is unavoidable, it can be helpful to recognize signs of conflict and heed their warning. Like a “yellow” traffic light, recognizing conflict warning signs can tell us we need to drive with more caution, navigating our relationship carefully so we don’t get into relationship wrecks!

Harsh Start-Up

One warning sign is what Psychologist John Gottman has called a “harsh start-up.” How do your conversations start with your children or spouse?  What are the first few words that you say? How do you say them? A harsh start-up refers to the negativity and accusatory remarks during the first few moments of a conversation.

The principle is that if you start with negative words and a harsh tone the conversation is likely to spiral in that direction. However, if you start with positive words and a pleasant tone then the conversation is likely to spiral in that direction. The proverb is still true that a harsh word, or start-up, stirs up anger and a gentle answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1).

Of course we aren’t saying that you can never be in a bad mood or that your conversations should always be positive. Sometimes we all need a safe space to “vent” frustrations or to “blow off steam.” What we are saying is that being mindful of how we talk, especially how we start a conversation, can help us steer clear of conflicts.

Verbal and Nonverbal Signals

How astute an observer are you? Are you able to identify verbal and nonverbal signs of a conflict brewing?  There are many behaviors that warn us of impending turbulence. We need to keep our eyes on the road to avoid such obstructions. Steer clear of criticism (e.g., “You are lazy.”), defensiveness (“I may have spent too much money shopping but that’s because you are never home.”), contempt (“Whatever”; eye rolling), and stonewalling (physically or psychologically disengaging), advises Gottman. Of course, even healthy relationships can sometimes exhibit these signs but they signal relational distress when they travel together and occur frequently.

Situational Stress

Another warning sign for conflict is recognizing when we feel pressed or stretched in other areas of our life. Can you recall a time that you were short-tempered with someone in your family when really it had nothing to do with them? This is sometimes called a “spillover effect” because problems in one area of life overflow into other areas like family life.

Jonathan’s family calls this spillover effect “situational stress.” Sometimes an argument or disagreement isn’t about us or our family relationships, it’s situational. Maybe you had a particularly challenging conversation with a coworker and that “stress” triggered a family quarrel. Maybe you read about a tragedy in the news and that event made you particularly irritable. These kinds of experiences can cause physiological arousal, which can affect how we communicate in our family relationships.

Recognizing when we are stressed takes some practice. You may unknowingly or automatically tense your shoulders. You might walk faster than normal, or feel like your body is shaking or shivering a little. Stress may take form in a brooding thought. There isn’t necessarily a tell-tale sign for stress that is the same for everyone, but recognizing when you are experiencing stress—and even better, what you do to diffuse it—can help you avoid family conflicts.

 Signs of Spiritual Opposition

The devil made me do it! Really? Maybe. Any discussion on the causes and signs of conflict would be remiss without recognizing spiritual forces aimed at destroying relationships. Communication scholar Tim Muehlhoff argues that some conflicts are instigated, or at least fueled, by evil spiritual forces. Christians must take seriously the accounts of Satan inviting selfishness or disharmony (Gen. 3; Luke 4) and instigating conflict between Peter and Jesus (Matt. 16:22–23). Muehlhoff outlines four signs of spiritual opposition:

  • inappropriate anger,
  • sense of impending doom,
  • violent dreams, and
  • no longer believing the best about God or yourself.

Acknowledging that the demonic agenda is to steal, kill, or destroy (John 10:10) will prepare us to recognize and combat the devil’s destructive power.

What causes quarrels and fights in your family? How have you been able to recognize signs of conflict before the discord spirals out of control? How can we address conflict in productive ways? Check back into next month’s column, where we offer practical strategies for handling conflict in ways that honor God and build stronger family connections.

—Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:  A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York:  Harmony Books, 2015).

Tim Muehlhoff, Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018).

Amy Rauer, Allen K. Sabey, Christine M. Prouix, and Brenda L. Volling, “What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples? A Multimethod, Two-Sample Investigation,” Family Process 59, no. 3 (2020): 1275–1292.

Susan K. Riesch, Loretta Bush, Catherine J. Nelson, Bonnie J. Ohm, Patricia A. Portz, Barbara Abell, Malissa R. Wightman, and Patricia Jenkins, “Topics of Conflict between Parents and Young Adolescents,’ Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing 5, no. 1 (2020): 27–40.

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