01/27/2011 12:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Conflict Resolution the Wrong Goal?

It's taken me awhile to accept it, but I've gradually embraced this as truth: Divorce isn't always bad--sometimes it can even be good.

I know. The cultural stereotypes and prejudices surrounding divorce are well-rooted, so to some, the idea of divorce being a good thing sounds just plain wrong. It's akin to saying there is no hope--that every broken thing cannot be fixed, or that every conflict cannot be resolved. When you think about it, that's what a divorce is: the result of a really big conflict that can't be resolved.

After my divorce, I was determined to be a better resolver of conflicts. I would pay more attention to them, address problems early on, and learn about techniques for avoiding and resolving clashes. Sure, conflict resolution is never a perfect process, but it seems better than the alternatives: to continue feeding the fire or to just walk away.

I thought my self-improvement plan was all going quite well. I'm married again, and my new husband and I have many fewer conflicts than my first husband and I did, right from the start. I'm older and wiser, and I decided that I must be doing a good job at figuring this conflict resolution thing out. It works! It's possible!

So I was a bit miffed when someone I know suggested that the whole idea of "conflict resolution" was a fantasy. We were at a church meeting, no less, among a group of people who should specialize in conflict resolution, and she was telling us we were fooling ourselves if we thought we could really resolve conflict.

What she was saying, though, is not that the process is false, but that the end goal is unrealistic. I realized she had a point. Just the term "conflict resolution" implies that, if done properly, you will emerge with the conflict resolved. To resolve something is to bring it to an end, or to settle it conclusively. How often is that really possible, when it comes to differing opinions and goals and desires, whether in a business, a church, or a marriage? And if it isn't possible, how long should we struggle away, pretending like it is?

That's the key question for two people who are deeply unhappy in their marriage: How long and hard should we work at this before admitting defeat and calling the lawyers?

There isn't, of course, a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but there are some important terms and definitions to consider. First, "conflict" is not synonymous with "misunderstanding." Most marriages--even strong ones--include plenty of misunderstandings, which can usually be cleared up by expressing yourself one more time, with just a bit more care.

Conflicts can't be cleared up that easily. True conflict is foundational and prolonged. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as the "competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)."

And then there's the word "resolve," which I addressed a few paragraphs up. Often, two people with different needs and opinions simply can't come to a conclusive middle ground. They might be able to live with their differences--to agree to disagree--but that doesn't mean the conflict is resolved.

In other words, I'm not saying that people who disagree or misunderstand one another should file for divorce; nor am I advocating that all people in conflict with their spouses should give up on their marriages. Usually there's a lot of difficult, important work that should be done first, before you can fully understand what's going on.

But I do wish someone would have said this to me, when I was in the midst of my own hopeless struggle and frustration: "Not all conflicts can be resolved. That's okay."

Maybe, when it comes to conflict, we're trying to accomplish the wrong thing, which inevitably leads to disappointment and failure. Maybe rather than striving to put an end to conflict, we should be working toward peacemaking--making peace with our situation and with one another, so we can move on to a better place.