Conflict. For some spouses, it’s a way of life. For others, it’s a word they refuse to entertain.
We all bring different perspectives and biases to how we react to marital conflict. There’s not necessarily any one right way to handle and resolve conflict – but, be assured that there are some mindsets, behaviors and attitudes you should avoid in this area of your marriage.
In the following articles, we’ll examine healthy attitudes toward conflict resolution and begin to recognize that, in the final analysis, loving your spouse is a very real way to express your love for God. How we love our spouse has direct correlation to how we relate to and love our Creator.
First, we’ll look at the importance of fighting. Rather than avoiding conflict in marriage, we must embrace healthy conflict as a way to enjoy and love our spouse. Avoiding or denying the inevitable mix-ups of marriage only postpones having to really deal with them and grow through them.
Next, we’ll see that resolving conflict is a balancing act. By purposefully holding back honest communication, the silent partner in marriage can stunt the growth of the relationship. The opposite characteristic – being the overly dominant spouse – also has its pitfalls. By finding appropriate balance between these extremes, we create a better marriage. More importantly, these characteristics often carry over into our relationship with God.
Finally, we’ll examine the role of emotional and sexual intimacy in marriage. We honor God when we consistently resolve marital conflict without letting it build into resentment. Sexual intimacy, then, stems from emotional safety in marriage.
In the end, we can all do a bit better when it comes to resolving the conflict in our marriages. Hopefully it becomes clear that doing conflict a little bit better is a very real, very important way to honor God and express our love and devotion to Him. Let’s not forget the eternal significance of our closest personal relationship – marriage.
It’s Unfair Not to Fight
Avoiding conflict in marriage isn’t fair to yourself or your spouse. Learning to embrace and resolve conflict healthily leads to a better marriage.
Remember June and Ward Cleaver – that oh-so-happy couple that chuckled through life’s lessons with nary a care? The couple that never seemed to have any conflict? Never seemed to fight? Gee, Beav, weren’t they happy?
June and Ward were my parents. They never seemed to disagree, to argue or to have any conflict whatsoever. I remember hearing my parents have a serious disagreement only one or two times during my formative years. If you grew up in a family where fighting was the norm and days of peace were something only the neighbors experienced, you may be jealous.
There are two sides to this coin, however. I came out of adolescence and into adulthood fearing conflict. I detested conflict. I didn’t have a clue how to handle it. Conflict brought up emotions I didn’t know how to handle. I had no backbone in my personal relationships – all because I didn’t want any conflict. I ran scared.
Fast forward to marriage. God placed a wonderful woman in my life who was much less noticeably afflicted with conflict-aphobia. True to past form, I spent the first years of our marriage trying to avoid conflict and fighting. I hated the emotions dredged up by conflict, and I didn’t know what to do when my wife brought up issues that were difficult for me to deal with. I wasted huge amounts of time avoiding conflict, hiding from it and trying to sweep it under the rug without dealing with it. I was doing all this while thinking it was best for me, best for my wife and best for our marriage.
However, instead of having less and less conflict (my inherent goal in avoiding it), my wife and I started having more frequent, more intense and more completely unsolvable conflicts. The very conflict I was running away from kept coming right back at me. I was running down a mountain away from an avalanche that wasn’t slowing down.
I didn’t allow my wife to have any negative emotions – or at least not to let me know about them. Through my words and actions, she understood I couldn’t be bothered – or wouldn’t be bothered – with conflict.
I was communicating to her, “If you have a problem with something in our relationship, don’t tell me about it. It’s your issue. You figure it out, and then tell me about it with a big fake smile on your face. Don’t tell me about your pain. I don’t want to know that you’re feeling pushed out of my life because of my utter lack of willingness to deal with reality.”
Our marriage arrived at a tipping point. Something had to give. The “my way or the highway” approach wasn’t working. My wife couldn’t go on with not being able to express herself to me. I couldn’t go on hiding and avoiding the conflict gurgling right under the surface. I was destroying my marriage in my short-sighted efforts to make it my version of “better.”
It was at this point of hurt that a series of events and connections with godly people led to me a life-changing revelation. I realized it was unfair not to fight. How selfish and arrogant of me to think that marriage had to be my way or the highway – especially when my way wasn’t God’s way.
For too many years I had been cheating my wife out of the chance to be heard. I was squashing vitality and life out of her and our marriage without even knowing it.
So I began to change. I began to accept that conflict done right is a wonderful thing. It’s a crucible through which we take our relationship to a deeper level. We learn something about each other that lets us love deeper. When we accept our own shortcomings and the faults of our spouse and we work through them honestly, we get an incredible opportunity to extend God’s grace to another person.
I soon realized I had also been cheating myself out of a huge part of marriage. I had not allowed myself to experience the emotions I was so scared of. When I paused and felt – really felt – the emotions that previously terrified me, I grew in ways I didn’t imagine possible. Taking off my emotional sunglasses led me to see the world, my wife and my marriage in a full spectrum of new clarity. Life wasn’t so one-sided anymore.
Maybe you find yourself in a marriage where your spouse “can’t do” conflict. Or maybe it’s you that can’t do conflict. It’s not fair to continue on this path.
Remember a few key principles to guide you through the process of fighting fair:
- Emotions are nothing to avoid or be afraid of. Emotions just are. God gave them to us. Let’s celebrate them in all their messiness, complexity, joy and pain.
- Emotions are signposts that help you navigate the journey of marriage. Embrace the emotional expressions of your spouse and look for the message behind the words. What does your spouse’s anger mean about their current experience and satisfaction in marriage? Learn from these emotions.
- You make a better marriage when you work through conflict and honestly confront emotions. It may not sound macho, but my ability to cry with my wife and to better understand her pain led to increased intimacy in other areas of our relationship.
I’m not trying to be Ward Cleaver in marriage anymore. My wife and I no longer avoid conflict in our marriage. We see conflict as a chance to find the deep and rich rewards that come from living examined lives. We’ve learned to fight for our marriage – which is only fair.
Not Going to Extremes
Being stubbornly silent or verbally explosive during marital conflict doesn’t honor God. Finding balance in marital conflict resolution expresses honor and love for God.
A husband and wife were fighting. They refused to talk. Getting ready for a business trip the next day, and not willing to be the first one to cave in and actually speak, the husband wrote his wife a note, “Please make sure I’m up by 5:30 a.m. I must catch a flight.”
At 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the husband awakens and realizes he’s missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t awakened him, when he noticed a note by the bed. It read, “It’s 5:30 a.m. Wake up.”
Who wins in a situation like this? Have you ever felt like you and your spouse are spinning your wheels in an argument you both know will never go anywhere?
My wife has always been better at keeping her mouth shut than I have. I mean this as a compliment. I tend to open my mouth too early, too often or too much (note to self: never again ask a woman if she’s pregnant or just took the gray out of her hair).
The downside of my wife’s verbal reticence was that early in our marital conflicts she could leave me talking to a blank stare for days on end. She could shut down the lines of communication with a flip of some mental and/or emotional switch.
It wasn’t healthy, because the silent partner in marriage holds all the cards. The silent partner controls the emotional tenor of the marriage. The one who chooses obstinate quiet over talking through conflict stunts the growth of the marriage.
It’s the same with our relationship with God. If I choose to hold back in my prayer life, to be stingy in those things I share with God, then I’m stunting my spiritual growth. And who does that hurt? God? I think his omnipotence can handle my freeze tactics. The silent treatment hurts my relationship with God and with my spouse. Obstinate silence changes the balance of power in any relationship for the worse.
Lest you think I have it in for quiet people, consider the other side of the coin. I know those whose verbal tirades have left their spouse literally quivering in fear of what comes next. I know husbands and wives who, in the name of “being real” or being “honest” in their marriage, let loose with biting, stinging words that wound their spouses to the core.
Instead of hurting the marriage by holding back verbally, these folks hurt the marriage by lashing out. These couples sell the same damage in a different wrapper.
To find the balance between these extremes, recognize that marriage, like our relationship with Christ, takes communication. Just as you won’t grow spiritually without some form of consistent prayer life, you won’t grow in your marriage without some form of consistent communication. If you’re the spouse that likes to hold back verbally when you’re mad, and you don’t take the initiative to come back to truly resolve whatever conflict you’re facing, you cheat yourself and your marriage out of God’s best. If you’re trying to keep the balance of power in your favor by holding back verbally, you’re probably succeeding – but at what price?
Maybe you’re the spouse using words to tip the balance of power in your favor. You trample on your spouse’s feelings, self-esteem and dignity with every hurtful verbal exchange. Maybe you find yourself rationalizing your communication style by saying, “She needed to hear that,” or, “I know the truth hurts, but somebody has to tell him.” If this is you, I’d caution that there are very rare, limited cases when a married individual should take this stance of being marital judge and jury.
Instead, in humility, we would do better to take whatever “she needed to hear” or the “truth that you had to tell him” before the throne of grace. Earnestly ask God if your heart and attitude are right before ever going back to your spouse for the kind of conversation that could once again trample your spouse’s spirit.
Find balance in your style of managing marital conflict. Silence hurts. So does verbally lashing out. Neither is a healthy way to resolve conflict in your marriage. In extremes, both styles of resolving conflict are futile relational power-grabs. If you’re the quiet one, learn from your blabber-mouth spouse. If you’re the talker that shoots verbal darts non-stop, learn from your tight-lipped spouse. Stop doing things the way you’ve always done them, and begin looking for different results.
Most importantly, though, don’t focus solely on the balance of power in your marriage. Focus on the balance of power between you and your Maker. Balance this scale, and the rest tends to take care of itself. Are you talking with God? Or are you the silent partner?
Keeping the Marriage Bed Pure by Resolving Conflict
Resolving conflict healthily honors marriage and keeps the marriage bed pure. Praying with your spouse leads to emotional safety, which encourages sexual intimacy.
Hey married folks. How’s your sex life? Satisfied? Is it all you dreamed about in the early weeks and months of being married?
If not, I wonder what happened to that early sense of love? Where did it escape to? And how did it get there so fast? We seem to dirty the slate so fast in marriage. Resentments set in when we argue and leave the making up until it’s too late. All too often, we forget to go back to our spouse and resolve – and I mean really take care of – the relational junk that bogs us down. Resentments build up like a pile of bones in a closet we didn’t know came with the wedding ring.
What if we took care of the conflicts that so easily get in the way? What if we consistently worked to handle conflict in a God-honoring, spouse-edifying manner? I’m guessing many marriages would be completely different.
We’re told in Hebrews 13:4 to honor marriage and to keep the marriage bed pure. I wonder if taking care of conflict is part of what “keeping the marriage bed pure” is all about. I used to think this Scripture was only about sexual impurity and sex outside of marriage (which are obviously part of the author’s intent). But what if we keep the marriage bed pure by taking care of resentment and by resolving conflict through loving and honest communication?
True sexual intimacy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I guarantee it doesn’t happen in a home filled with perpetual unresolved conflict. I can’t truly give myself to my spouse, and she can’t fully give herself to me, when we harbor resentment in our hearts. It doesn’t matter if we’re full of unforgiveness due to a real or perceived relationship misfire. The resentment that builds up from not dealing with conflict is just incompatible with true intimacy in marriage.
I’ve heard it said that sex in marriage is like air. You never know how important it is until you don’t have it anymore. If you’ve been married very long, you can probably relate to this statement.
When my wife and I are consistently taking care of conflict as it arises, and we’re promoting emotional safety for each other in our marriage, our sexual intimacy is consistently nurtured.
When we’re in an extended time of unresolved conflict, or we choose to avoid issues, or not to fight or to play the passive-aggressive game, sex suddenly becomes a huge issue. During these times, we tend to fight over not enough frequency or being unsatisfied with our level of sexual intimacy. When we’re verbally fighting, we seem to find any “reason” to be sexually discontent.
Resolve the conflict, however, and issues of sexual discontent go away like warm breath on a cold day. Practicing good communication skills is always a good foundation for taking care of conflict, but it’s not necessarily the only thing we should be doing.
My wife and I have found that praying together is one of the best ways to build intimacy. Praying for your spouse and praying with your spouse are two different deals entirely. It’s easy to pray for my wife. Praying with her, though, takes our level of intimacy to a deeper level. When I expose my weaknesses and fears to God in prayer with my wife, we find we’re both once again grounding ourselves in God’s relational Truths.
I hope I’m not misconstruing this area. Men, hear me on this – resolving conflict in your marriage does not equal more sex (my apologies to men everywhere). Resolving conflict, fighting fair and honoring God in how you communicate with your spouse does, however, provide emotional safety in your marriage.
Correctly taking of conflict honors your marriage commitment. It honors your spouse, and it honors God. Making your relationship a place of emotional safety keeps the marriage bed pure.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources addressing communication and conflict
Popular questions on this topic:
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- My spouse’s annoying habits are really getting on my nerves. Should I try to change them?
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