This is a guest post by Vita McFarland. Scroll to the end of the post to meet Vita & learn more about her blog "Navigating Newlywed Life."
Your first fight when you're married may scare you and that's okay. Mine certainly did. Few couples like to admit it, but conflict is common to all marriages. Start with two selfish people with different backgrounds and personalities. Now add some bad habits and interesting idiosyncrasies, throw in a bunch of expectations, and then turn up the heat with the daily trials of life. Guess what? You are bound to have conflict. It is unavoidable. Since every marriage has its tensions, it isn’t a question of avoiding them but of how you deal with them.
Conflict is one of the most difficult, yet sanctifying components of marriage. It can lead to a process that develops either oneness or isolation. When managed Biblically, conflict can serve as a catalyst for change and an opportunity for spiritual and relational growth. As believers, God calls us to be peacemakers and to allow his redemptive, transforming love to spill over into our relationships. When Christians become peacemakers, they can turn conflict into an opportunity to strengthen relationships and make their lives a testimony to the love and power of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, I'd like to encourage you not to run from it but, rather, to work through it. Below are several Biblical conflict resolution tips that have proven to be incredibly helpful in many marriages, including my own.
1. Deal with issues as they arise.
“…do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” - Ephesians 4:26
Because I am an introverted thinker, my natural inclination is to avoid all things awkward, painful, or just plain uncomfortable. However, shortly after Jer and I said our I-do’s, I learned how unhealthy and dangerous it is to simply “shove things under the rug”. Withdrawal and avoidance are associated with an increased likelihood of divorce (Gottman, Gottman, & Gurman, 2008). I believe that this is because not talking about things that are uncomfortable leads to bitterness and resentment—both of which are toxic to relationships and prevent much-needed repentance, forgiveness, and ultimately growth in intimacy. As a result, a couple will inevitably grow apart.
Therefore, I encourage you to have the difficult, uncomfortable talks and to deal with issues as they arise so as to prevent bitterness and resentment. One thing that helps Jeremy and I avoid ugly, explosive fights is touching base every week to chat about concerns, hurts, and general "hard stuff" that needs to be talked about (just in case we haven’t had a change to bring them up sooner). Without this, we have found that seemingly small irritations or hurts will fester, growing bigger and bigger, and eventually come out at the worst time—during an argument. At that point, there tends to be a lot more damage done and hurt feelings.
2. Listening is communicating
"If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." Proverbs 18:13
"My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." - James 1:19-20
Do not make assumptions! Too many times we respond to our partner without fully understanding what they are communicating, needing, or sharing. Proverbs says that it is folly to respond before we hear. In order to really hear, we must devote our full attention to our partner, without distractions. This may require a face-to-face posture, which requires eye contact. It may require physical touch in order to communicate our care and interest. First devote your whole self to understanding your partner's perspective, and then seek to share your own.
Instead of starting to talk right away to tell your husband or wife all of the reasons why you’re right and he’s wrong, ask him questions to understand his perspective and reasoning. Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply. Don’t be so busy forming your rebuttal in your mind that you don’t hear what your spouse is feeling. The foundation of good communication is active listening. An integral part of active listening is using reflections (e.g. “what I’m hearing you say is _____) to confirm that what you're hearing is what your partner is really trying to communicate.
Doing this prior to coming up with responses or judgements can help prevent many unnecessary fights. Validation of your spouse’s views and feelings communicates understanding and acceptance, and consequently builds trust and intimacy. Men and women are SO different! I’m continually amazed at how mine and Jeremy’s perspectives differ on the most seemingly simple matters.
3. Focus on specific problems.
It is a good idea to attack individual problems and behaviors (e.g. sins) rather than the character or person-hood of your spouse. This means avoiding the use of labels, such as “lazy”, “selfish”, and “crazy”. It is important to stick to one issue at a time without the bringing up of past hurts. Clarify why the issue is important to you and provide your understanding of the issues involved without proposing solutions (Baucom, Epstein, & Lataillade, 2008). Next, explain what your needs are that you would like to see taken into account in them solution.
When explaining your feelings to your spouse, do your best to use “I” statements instead of “You” statements in order to avoid the blame game. Rather than using blaming statements, it is much more effective to describe how you feel when your spouse does something that hurts you. Blame almost always leads to defensiveness, hurt, and decreases the likelihood that your spouse will acknowledge their wrong and ask for forgiveness. On the other hand, when your spouse understands how much their behavior has hurt or inconvenienced you, they will be more inclined to fix the issue because, after all, most people have good intentions (Masters of Love, 2014).
For example, rather than saying “You’re not helping around the house. Could you be any more lazy?” you might say “I feel overworked and exhausted; I could really use a little help in these areas…” Or…. Instead of “You’re always late—you don’t care about me at all; you don’t care about anyone but yourself”, the “I” message would say, “I feel frustrated when you don’t let me know you’ll be late. I would really appreciate if you would call so we can make other plans.”
Hopefully, the next phase of the discussion will involve both parties proposing concrete, specific solutions that take your own and your partner’s needs and preferences into account (Baucom, Epstein, & Lataillade, 2008). Please do not focus on solutions that meet only your individual needs. Your spouse then has a choice regarding whether or not they will meet your proposed need. God designed us to have freedom of choice as we respond to life, to other people, to God, and to ourselves. No human being, your spouse included, can force you do anything. This violates the basic law of freedom God established in the universe (Cloud & Townsend, 1999). Marriage is not slavery. Each partner should be free from the other and therefore free to love and serve the other of their own accord. When there is control, or perception of control, there is not love.
4. Deal with your anger effectively
"Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly." - Proverbs 14:29
Have you ever lost your temper? If at all possible, I suggest not speaking to your partner when you are angry. When we give ourselves over to fully venting our anger, we expose ourselves to thinking, speaking, and acting in quite a foolish manner. And your partner will not really hear you because they will be defensive (or perhaps even afraid). As soon as you become aware of your anger, take some intentional steps to cool down and stay engaged with your spouse in a way that promotes the successful resolution of your conflict.
If you tend to say unkind or regrettable things when you are frustrated or angry, there is something that can be done. As soon a conversation or disagreement starts to get heated, take a break! One part of the brain in particular—the limbic brain—often gets in our way when managing conflict. It is the center of all emotions and is often referred to as the "mammalian brain". When danger is perceived or sensed, the limbic system signals the release of adrenaline to the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls higher-level thinking and decision-making), thereby inhibiting its ability to think rationally (Siegel, 2010). With less blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, you're less able to deal with conflicts proactively and wisely, and more likely to say something you’ll regret.
So go ahead and take a short-ish break to breathe, collect your thoughts, and to soothe your emotions. This is a good time use God as your lightning rod and give your anger over to Him because He can handle it. This will help you to not “throw up” (word vomit) unnecessarily all over your spouse. Just taking a time-out is not enough. You must—and this is equally important—reconvene immediately after the break to talk things through calmly and rationally until they are as resolved as possible.
Dealing with your other stressors may also help improve emotional reactivity towards your spouse. In recent months, my husband has been uncharacteristically more irritable and snappy towards me after work and I was annoyed. After prayer and discussion, we were able to determine that when his “cup” was full from his stressful job, he’d tend to take it out on me for rather small offenses. Upon realizing this, he has recently begun praying and releasing his work-related stressors during his drive home. As a result, he is in a better mood when he comes home and his emotional reactivity has decreased.
5. Do not repay evil with evil
"Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, 'I will take revenge; I will pay them back,' says the Lord." - Romans 12:19
"Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding." - Proverbs 17:27
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” - 1 Peter 3:9
The urge to get payback for wrongs committed against us can feel quite natural. It is difficult to drop the charges and allow the perpetrator who has wronged us to go free. When it comes to marriage however, God's people are encouraged to let go of the impulse for revenge and to turn the conflict over to God. Allow God to work on your spouse's heart and allow Him to fight on your behalf. Often it is our woundedness that is driving our conflict with each other. God works at the level of the heart and only He can bring about the healing that many of us (and our spouses) really need.
The empirical research of Denver researchers Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg (1998) has demonstrated that escalation is an incredibly destructive pattern that creates barriers to oneness in marriage and increase a couple’s chances for marital failure. Escalation ends when one partner decides to cool things down and says something to de-escalate the argument; thereby breaking the negative cycle (Fruzzetti & Fantozzi, 2008). This requires both grace and humility, because you will have to give up the fight to be “right.”
Are you hotheaded, or are you a cool spirit? It takes the fruit of self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) to be able to restrain harsh words. You need to be aware of your own emotional states and you must be equipped with the skills to soothe yourself, and to stay engaged with your spouse through tense moments. Experience and wisdom are the foundation of this sort of "cool spirit." If you find yourself struggling with this area, ask the Holy Spirit to meet you in your need and to develop this strength within you. I promise He will hear you and begin to change your heart over time.
6. Be kind
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." - Colossians 3:12
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” - Galatians 6:1
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of practicing common courtesy and respect during a disagreement. Because we tend to be comfortable with those we are closest to, too often we are the harshest to them. Even though we love them the most, we can hurt them the worst. Words are incredibly powerful and carry weight, so please choose them carefully!
Whether you realize it or not, when you say something in an unkind or sarcastic tone, your spouse might feel deeply hurt because they believe you are treating them like an idiot. Over time, he or she may internalize these statements, and this will dramatically reduce their sense of self-worth. I have learned experientially that men, especially, are very sensitive to any sort of disrespect. Ladies, he wants a kind wife, not a mother. And men, please know that women’s hearts are very sensitive and they need for you treat them with empathy and tenderness. This is one of the most effective ways to love your wife.
In his observations of thousands of couples over the course of his career, world-renowned marriage Researcher Gottman has found that two personality traits play very significant roles in a relationship’s success — kindness and generosity (Masters of Love, 2014). It makes each spouse feel loved, validated, understood and important. Some people are naturally kind, but kindness is a muscle that can get strengthened with practice. What are some practical ways to demonstrate kindness to your spouse during a disagreement? This looks like avoiding words of contempt, eye-rolling, using manipulation and control to get your way, and tearing your spouse down. It looks like speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15),
7. Humble yourself
The Greek word for humility is tapeinoó, which means to humble or make low. This definition reflects the same idea found in Philippians 2:3 when Paul writes,
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves."
If you believe that you are always right, and find yourself looking down upon your spouse because you feel that you are superior to them, beware. These behaviors are indicative of pride—the antithesis of humility. Scripture is clear that God is not okay with pride. James 4:6 teaches us that “…God is opposed to the proud and gives grace to the humble.” If this is you, begin to ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you are wrong in each situation and when repentance is necessary.
During marital conflict, husbands and wives who swallow their pride ultimately choose to value their spouse's thoughts, feelings and needs above their own. This isn't easy and it doesn't come naturally, but it will be a turning point in times of disagreement.
This is what humility looks like during conflict:
- I focus on you.
- I give you my full attention
- I am patient
- I seek to understand you before being understood by you.
- I listen with my eyes, ears and open heart.
- I assume the best about you.
- I ask God to change me first.
- I respect your feelings regardless of whether they make sense to me.
- I treat you with gentleness and compassion
- I forgive you.
Romans 12:10 admonishes us to "outdo one another in showing honor," and these attitudes have the potential to counteract the negative impact of pride because we are honoring and valuing our spouse. As we humble ourselves by outdoing our spouse in showing honor, he or she is more likely to respond to us in a positive way.
Baucom, D., Epstein, N., LaTaillade, J., & Kirby, J. (2008). Cognitive-Behavioral Couple Therapy. In A. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (4th ed., pp. 31-68). New York: The Guilford Press.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (1999). Boundaries in marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Gottman, J., Gottman, J., & Gurman, A. (2008). Gottman Method Couple Therapy. In Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (4th ed., pp. 138-162). New York: The Guilford Press.
Scott Stanley, et al. A Lasting Promise: A Christian guide to Fighting for your Marriage (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1998).
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
Smith, E. E. (2014, June 12). Masters of Love. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/