Conflict Resolution In Marriage
Below are several areas to consider with your fiancé/spouse within the topic of Conflict Resolution Skills in Marriage. The subject matter and Scriptures should serve as a starting point, but it is not meant to be exhaustive.
SCRIPTURAL DIRECTION AND BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
Conflict will happen.
Occasional conflict in marriage is both normal and inevitable. However, how the two of you handle conflict (submitting yourself to the flesh or the Spirit) determines whether it harms your relationship or helps you to grow. (I Cor. 7:28, John 16:33)
Active listening is a key skill to understanding each other and dealing with conflict. (James 1:19, Prov. 18:13)
Guard your tongue.
Avoid speaking quickly and angrily. Criticism, sarcasm, and put-downs are hurtful to your marriage. (Prov. 15:1, Eph. 4:29)
Speak the truth in a loving manner.
Working through conflict successfully takes honest and truthful communication done in a loving manner. Would you be able to receive it, if someone came to you in this manner? Love is a very considerate awareness of the other person (Eph. 4:15, 4:25).
Deal with anger and hurt proactively. Don’t deny it, “stuff” it, or let it turn to bitterness. (Eph.4:26-27, Heb. 12:15)
Forgiveness is essential.
The ongoing practice of seeking forgiveness and being forgiving is essential to a healthy, Christ-centered marriage. (Eph. 4:32, I Peter 3:8-9)
Disagreements will happen.
Accept you will not agree on everything. Forbearance [patient restraint] is an act of love. (Col. 3:12-15)
Is conflict always bad?
Conflict isn’t automatically good or bad. Rather, how it is handled makes the difference. One spouse may need to lovingly confront the other or point out areas that need to be improved upon. However, destructive conflict causes division and is harmful to the relationship.
Sometimes couples worry that having conflict means they have a bad marriage. While we all would prefer to have no conflict in our marriages, occasional conflict actually provides you with an opportunity to work together, learn from each other, and to love each other through the differences. Interestingly, having no conflict in a relationship may actually be an indicator a couple is avoiding issues that need to be discussed. Ideally, seek to have the least amount of conflict possible in your relationship, realizing when it does occur, you can find ways to work through it for your betterment.
Avoid the extremes.
People who are “conflict avoidant” in marriage will do just about anything to avoid an argument. While this may be a good quality in many situations, those who avoid conflict may also avoid bringing up important spiritual, emotional, and relationship issues. Those who are “conflictual/argumentative” in marriage may tend to provoke arguments from time to time. While you will always know where these individuals stand on an issue, they may speak words harshly and put others down.
Jesus provided us with a perfect example for dealing with conflict. Sometimes He was silent or said few words (see Matthew 27:11-14; John 8:3-11), while other times, He spoke quite firmly and directly (see Matthew 23). Jesus always spoke to the heart of the matter and always focused on the other person’s eternal good (see Matthew 10:17-22). He did not avoid conflict due to fear of man; however, He did not seek to be argumentative (see Matthew 15:1-12). Thus, no right answer exists for every situation. Match your response to the needs of the situation and to the needs of your spouse.
Where do you tend to generally fall on the continuum below? If you tend to be “conflict avoidant,” you will need to practice speaking in a firm and direct manner, whereas, if you are more “conflictual / argumentative,” you will need to practice holding your tongue.
Conflict Avoidant Speaking The Truth in Love Conflictual/Argumentative
When conflict occurs, be careful how and when you talk to each other.
Research shows that 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation during the first three minutes of talking.1 This means harsh words early in a conversation can doom the discussion to turn into destructive conflict. In order to avoid this problem, use the model provided in James 1:19-20 where it says, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
Be swift to hear: When working through a conflict, remember your spouse wants to be listened to and understood just as much as you do. Some researchers believe that up to 80% of relationship conflicts can be dealt with by using good communication and listening skills. Listening to each other and trying to understand where the other person is coming from is a practical way to show love, honor (Romans 12:10), and submission to each other (Ephesians 5:21).
Be slow to speak: The words we speak hastily when frustrated or angry often hurt others deeply. In the end we often regret what we have said and wish we could take the words back. Remember when you hurt your spouse, you hurt yourself. Ephesians 5:28-29 reminds us, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:”
Many people think they need to “vent” their anger in order to deal with it. However, venting often leads us to spew out words or to take actions that are neither Godly nor healthy. Rather than venting your anger, first rate your level of anger/tension from 0 to 10 (see the scale below). As our tension level goes up, our ability to think clearly and solve problems effectively GOES DOWN. However, most couples try to work through their most difficult problems when they are in the Red Zone! Remember Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” Satan has a much harder time getting an advantage with us when we deal with anger appropriately.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Green Zone Yellow Zone Red Zone
Calm/Peaceful Moderate Tension High Tension
Don’t try to talk out any problems if your level of tension is in the Red Zone (7-10). Rather, take steps to calm down such as going for a walk, writing out your feelings, and taking deep breaths. If you are in the Yellow Zone (4-6), be aware you can quickly move into the Red Zone, so pay attention. Ideally, we would always talk to each other from the Green Zone (0-3) with a prayer on our heart and our spouse’s best interest in mind.
Slow to wrath: When conflicts occur, pray! Ask for God’s help in dealing with your feelings, understanding your spouse, and sharing your feelings.
Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion. Thus, it comes as a result of another issue. When you are angered by something, try to identify which of the following categories likely triggered the anger.
- Emotional hurt (e.g., embarrassment, feeling of rejection)
- Physical pain
- Injustice/sin (e.g., righteous anger)
Issues vs. Events: What are we really talking about?
There are essentially two layers to most conversations:
1. Event: the topic at hand.
2. Issue: the “under-the-surface” feelings, meanings, and goals.
Many conflicts are never solved because the spouses are actually arguing about different hidden issues. Healthy, helpful communication occurs when discussion is on the same issue. A loving action (though often challenging) is to work at understanding why your spouse is reacting to an issue the way he or she is. For example, a couple may have an argument about whether the toilet paper roll is supposed to go “over or under.” While on the surface they may both be talking about the toilet paper roll (the “event”), the “hidden issue” may be related to something very different. The unspoken issue may actually be, “This is the way we did it in my family,” or “You never listen to my ideas.” Always seek to communicate on the same issue.
Types of Conflict: Solvable or Perpetual?
When choosing to marry a particular person, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems which you will be dealing with for the rest of your life. One researcher suggests that 69% of conflicts within marriage are unsolvable. While perpetual problems cannot be solved, it is important to manage this conflict, or it will lead to gridlock and emotional disengagement within the relationship. The table below outlines the differences in these types of conflict:
|Situational||Centers on fundamental differences in personality or lifestyle.|
|Less intense, simply about the topic||Generally more intense, deeper meaning behind the position.|
|A solution can be found and maintained||The conflict keeps coming up.|
|Solvable topics for one couple can be perpetual for another.|
Financial management is a common area of perpetual conflict for couples. For example, one spouse may be a spender whereas the other spouse is a saver. Additionally, spouses may have different hidden meanings when it comes to the area of finances. Being aware of the perpetual conflicts within your relationship can be helpful. Simply labeling and identifying such conflicts as perpetual relieves tension in the relationship. In addition, consider these things as you work through perpetual conflicts.
- Acknowledge the problem and talk about it.
- Remember negative emotions are important and may help identify unmet needs or disappointments in your spouse’s life.
- Seek to understand each other’s subjective realities.
- Seek to approach the problem with good humor.
- Communicate acceptance of your spouse.
- Don’t forget to continually build friendship within your marriage.
- Learn to accept differences don’t have to be painful. They can simply be present.
Symptoms of destructive conflict.
Every couple, no matter how good their marriage, will have occasional disagreements, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Thus, when you have occasional conflict, don’t be alarmed. Rather, take the time necessary to work through the issues and move on. However, researchers have found several types of conflict that you should be aware of and work to avoid.
Escalation – occurs when spouses, “respond back and forth negatively to each other, continually upping the ante so the conversation gets more and more hostile. In escalation, negative comments spiral into increasing anger and frustration.”
Invalidation – “is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other.”
Negative interpretations – “occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case.”
Withdrawal and avoidance – occur when one or both of the spouses, “shows an unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions.” Withdrawing refers to “shutting down” and trying to get out of a conversation, whereas avoidance is an attempt to keep the conversation from starting.
Another researcher has identified types of conflict that can be so poisonous to marriages that he calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Criticism – global negative statements about your spouse’s character or personality. For example, “Why do you keep putting your friends ahead of me? I always come last on your list. Are you avoiding spending time alone with me?”
Contempt – words or gestures that show your spouse you are disgusted and repulsed with him or her. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your spouse. Sarcasm, cynicism, ridicule, name-calling, mocking, rolling your eyes, etc. are examples.
Defensiveness – instead of listening to your spouse’s position and talking through it, defensiveness is a way of blaming your spouse and often involves pointing out flaws in his or her behavior, opinions, etc.
Stonewalling – avoiding your spouse by shutting him or her out and not communicating. Stonewalling includes giving your spouse the “silent treatment.” While the intent of this is generally to avoid fighting, it also avoids the marriage.
Note that the chronic presence of the four types of conflict listed above predicts divorce by 82%.
When you notice any of the above, try to find ways to resolve the conflict in a Christ-honoring way. Calming down and taking time to pray and talk through conflict can usually resolve it. However, if you find that you cannot seem to work through the conflict on your own, don’t hesitate to seek support and guidance from an elder, minister, mentor, counselor, etc.
Special Note: Emotional abuse (also called verbal abuse) and physical abuse are never acceptable and should not be tolerated in your marriage. These types of abuse are sins that strike at the very heart of the marriage and provide Satan with an opportunity to destroy the marriage. While physical abuse may cause visible bruises, emotional abuse crushes a person’s spirit (Proverbs 18:14 says, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?”). Examples of emotional abuse include a chronic pattern of using hurtful words, angry outbursts, silence, isolation, gestures, threats, etc. to control and manipulate another person. If emotional and/or physical abuse occur in your relationship, seek help immediately.
Avoiding the Pursuer-Distancer cycle.
Spouses often have different ideas as to what is the best way to resolve conflict. Many times, one of the spouses wants to talk about problems right away while the other spouse wants time to think about it and talk later. This arrangement often leads to the Pursuer-Distancer cycle.
For example, a wife may want to talk about why her husband has been working so many hours. However, when she says, “Why are you working so much? You never have time to help me around here,” he says he wants to talk about it later and goes into his study. This, in turn, causes the wife to become more frustrated and anxious. She then follows him into his study showering him with a barrage of additional questions. In response to these continued questions (which he most likely perceives as criticism), the husband gets frustrated, becomes angry, shouts, “I work hard all day, and this is all the thanks I get!”, leaves the room, and goes to bed.
So who “causes” the Pursuer-Distancer cycle: the pursuer or the distancer? In reality, both do. When the pursuer (the wife in this case) puts pressure on the distancer (the husband in this case) to talk when he or she is not ready, the distancer withdraws. However, because the distancer does not attempt to address the problem in any way, the pursuer becomes worried the problem will never get solved and pursues more intensely. The goal is to be respectful of each other by doing the following:
- If you tend to be a pursuer: Be careful not to be too pushy – just because you feel like talking through an issue doesn’t mean that the timing is right to discuss a conflict. Instead, let your spouse know you have something you want to talk about and that you want to know when you both can talk about it.
- If you tend to be a distancer: Be careful not to withdraw without providing your spouse with a plan as to when you are going to discuss the issue. If your spouse wants to talk about something and you aren’t ready to talk, let him or her know you are aware that he or she wants to talk and now is not a good time. HOWEVER, negotiate a time in the near future that both of you can address the issue.
Additional ground rules for good conflict resolution.
Stay on one topic: Trying to resolve multiple issues in one conversation can add confusion and more misunderstanding.
Don’t dredge up the past: Bringing up past words, actions, etc. can be very hurtful to your spouse and damage trust.
Avoid “You” statements: Starting sentences with accusations (even if they are true) will put your spouse on the defensive (“You never listen.”).
Use “I” statements: Speak from your perspective. “I feel frustrated when the garbage isn’t taken out after I have asked you to take care of it.”
Control the tone of your voice: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1).
Seek first to understand: Negative emotions hold important information about how to love your spouse better.
Don’t lecture each other or treat your spouse like a child: Remember we are “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7) and we should treat each other as such.
The steps of good problem solving.
When you have an issue that isn’t solved through communication alone, go through the steps below. For minor issues, you can move through the steps fairly quickly. However, for emotionally charged, difficult issues you should move through the steps slowly and deliberately.
- Find an appropriate time and setting to discuss the issue (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
- Decide what issue is going to be discussed.
- Define the type of conflict – solvable or perpetual.
- Define the problem clearly from both points of view.
- State what you can agree on.
- Brainstorm together for possible solutions.
- Summarize, compromise, and agree upon a plan of action to try.
- Pray to God for help to take the necessary steps and to make progress.
- Identify a time to meet together again to evaluate your progress.
- If you continue to have difficulty or cannot find a way to solve the issues on your own, seek counsel from an elder, minister, mentor, or counselor.
For further information, including couple questions and exercises, please see the full document.
For Further Information:
Validation Podcast: A Key to Deescalating Tense Emotion in Personal Interactions
Sometimes interactions are charged with emotion. Often, we react to the escalation only to make it worse. In this episode of Breaking Bread, Kaleb Beyer helps us let the steam out of the charged moment so we can have rational dialogue. The key to doing this is called “validation.”
You Can Reduce Negative Reactions in Conflict
This brief article contains nine discussion points to help couples deepen their understanding of each other and improve listening skills. [Focus on the Family]
How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage
Authors: Milan & Kay Yerkovich
This book seeks to show how early life experiences create an underlying blueprint that shapes your beliefs, behavior, and expectations in your marriage. The authors identify four styles or blueprints and provide principles to help you break free of negative patterns and enhance intimacy.
The DNA of Relationships
Author: Gary Smalley
This 240 page book exposes a destructive relationship dance that often is part of relationship conflict. It offers practical steps to take personal responsibility, create a safe environment to talk through conflict, and learn to listen with the heart.