Marriage Conflict: Rules of Engagement

Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

February 13, 2017

My future wife and I had only been dating for a few weeks--and things were going well. So well, in fact, that I remember thinking to myself that if we kept at it, we could spend our whole lives together--and never have a single argument! (Yes, I really did think that).

Fast forward two and a half years, several days into our honeymoon. What began as a minor disagreement, turned into bickering, which in turn fed flames of an all-out fight. Unfortunately, it was the first of many that first year of marriage. We argued about why I shouldn’t flip through the channels while eating breakfast, and we argued about why we didn’t need to buy a laundry hamper (which, by the way, now sits proudly in our master bedroom!). We simply didn’t know how to handle conflict. Now, more than 15 years later, my wife and I have learned a few things. Of course, we will both confess that we are far from perfect, and we’ll both admit that we still have arguments from time to time. However, we’ve also learned (and are learning!) a few techniques that can help manage conflict in marriage.

Conflict is Important

Over the years, as couples have shared their stories with me, several have described a pattern of hiding from conflict. Often, this can be traced to negative childhood experiences with conflict: perhaps you witnessed your parents wage World War Three in the kitchen, and you vowed never to repeat that pattern. Or perhaps your fear of disappointing a parent who withheld their approval and affection from you now fills you with anxiety at the thought of anger and rejection with your spouse. Unfortunately, as you ignore conflict, resentment builds. The same disagreements crop with increasing intensity. Eventually, the trust and intimacy in the relationship erodes significantly. 

Handling conflict well begins when we acknowledge that, properly handled, conflict is not only inevitable, but it is an opportunity for deepening intimacy together, each maturing as a person. For that reason, don’t avoid disagreements and don’t gloss over problems. Rather, agree that as a couple you will approach disagreements understanding they are an opportunity to work together and in so doing, to grow closer together as a couple, and to mature as Christians.

Learn to Listen

The New Testament writer James has much wisdom for relationships in general, but he may have marriage in mind when he writes, “every one of you should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” My wife and I have noticed that one of the reasons our disagreements escalate into an all-out scrum is that one or both of us have become slow to listen, and quick to speak. Rather than hearing what the other person is saying, we are busy rehearsing our rebuttal. We’ve found that it makes a dramatic difference when things get heated if we slow down to a crawl. Our focus becomes less on making our point, and listening to the other person. The goal here isn’t even to agree or disagree, but to simply understand and validate where the other person is coming from. In fact, the phrase “that makes a lot of sense,” are magical words that can change the course of an argument for the better. At this stage, ask questions for clarification, and not to poke holes in their viewpoint. Restate their point of view in their own words.

Learn to Elevate Your Spouse 

Like many couples, my wife and I have recognized that the default setting of our heart is to prefer our own point of view rather than that of the other. “My way of managing the money is best!” we whisper to ourselves; “We’re going to spend a week at the cottage, and that’s that.” We can stubbornly cling to our way of looking at the world, without it ever crossing our mind that there are a variety of ways to look at an issue, solve a problem, or organize your shared life. Paul urges us in Philippians 2:3, “…in humility, consider others better than yourselves.” That’s a tall order – but how glorious marriage would be if we took this to heart! What if, the moment we disagreed with our spouse, each of us approached that disagreement assuming that the other person had a perspective on the issue that we didn’t – and therefore, their viewpoint mattered more to us than our own! If we did this regularly, we’d find it easier to negotiate solutions, and to work through difficult problems.

Know When to Sleep on it

We’ve all had it happen – a disagreement reaches an impasse, and the minutes tick by as you try, try, and try again to reach a solution. Before long, you’re  both tired, short-tempered, and a resolution seems to move further from your reach. The Apostle Paul is right, of course, when he teaches us that we ought not to “let the sun go down on our anger.” The question for us is, how do we apply this? Should we work out every problem before we turn in for the night? Notice what Paul says: he’s telling us that we need to resolve our anger quickly – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will work out every problem out before bed. In other words, many difficult disagreements may require that we have the wisdom to set aside a conflict for a time to think, to rest, to pray – and then come back together at an agreed-upon time to try again at resolving the problem. 

Avoid Landmines

There are a few pitfalls that, when used, detonate what could be a healthy process into a painful and damaging mess. Identifying – and avoiding – these land-mines will go a long way in ensuring the integrity of your conflict-resolution process. 

Among them are the “always-never” syndrome. Using absolutes like “You always do this…” or “You never…” are not only inaccurate, but they are unhelpful because they automatically redirect the conversation into debating whether the “always” or “never” is accurate! 

Dredging up the past is also counterproductive. Occasionally, identifying patterns can be helpful when done with great care, but most often hauling up the past only serves to fuel anger and inflict pain. 

Name calling and character attack have no place in any marriage. Working to solve a problem cannot happen if you are attacking the person rather than discussing the issue. Keep the focus on the issue – not on demeaning your spouse.

Whether you are newly married, or approaching your Golden Anniversary, conflict is a part of the package – but it need not be something that tears you apart. When handled well, disagreements and problems in your relationship can draw you together, and can draw you closer to Jesus. Seek his grace, his strength, and his wisdom, and practice these rules of engagement! 

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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