Marriage Conflict: Why Do We Fight?

Rev. Deb Koster

February 16, 2017

Have you ever had a big argument over a small matter? An explosion over a late dinner or another empty toilet-paper roll left hanging in the bathroom?

We argue about trivial things because they represent bigger, more emotional issues. Too often we argue about the details and never quite get to the real underlying issues. Then it seems like we have the same fight over and over--the details may be different, but the base issues are the same.

We don't fight over what we fight about

Scott Stanley, in his book A Lasting Promise, speaks to the underlying issues from which conflict stems. Stanley’s book was very eye-opening for me. It showed me the reasons that little things get under my skin. Learning to listen for the underlying issue helped me to understand my frustrations and express myself more effectively.

His list of underlying issues showed me how minor things would get hooked in me and leave me frustrated. It also made me look at why I am insecure about certain things. What is it, for example, about the trash not being taken out gets me so upset? Stanley lists six different reasons or underlying issues behind the things we fight about.

  1. Acceptance (do you love me?)
  2. Integrity (can I trust you?)
  3. Commitment (will you stay?)
  4. Recognition (do you value me?)
  5. Caring (show me!)
  6. Power (will you share control?)

Discover the underlying issues

In our home, it was repairing the car that sparked a huge debate. When I was growing up, my father always maintained the vehicle. It was just Dad's job. So when my husband suggested it would be simpler if I called the auto shop myself and let them know what was going on with my vehicle, I completely lost my temper. Sorry, I am not always a good example!

To my husband, it just made sense for each of us to communicate problems and schedule appointments with the auto shop directly, rather than have me report through him and have him coordinate my schedule with the shop. It was all so logical!

When I stopped to look at our argument in light of Stanley's issues, I realized it wasn't the car, it was my expectations of feeling cared for. I needed to slow down and listen for the real concern. Having to deal with my own car left me feeling uncared for--after all, this is what I assumed caring husbands do! I felt overwhelmed by having to deal with the mechanic's shop when car issues were outside my comfort zone. I was fearful and looking for reassurance. 

Discussing my feelings about why I was so opposed to talking with the mechanic turned out to be much more productive than my temper tantrum! Hebrews 12:14-15 advises to "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble..." Listening for the source of the problem helped us to deal with the actual concern rather than arguing with one another.

It's not about the money

For another example, many couples say they fight about money but Stanley's underlying issues help us see deeper. It's never about the money, but about what the money means.

  • Will spending this money make me wonder if you love me as I am?
  • Are you deceptive with how you are handling money, making me wonder if I can trust you?
  • Do your money choices show your permanence, or does it seem like you're hesitating or making a contingency plan?
  • What does the purchase tell me about how I matter in this relationship? Are my efforts valued?
  • How does your purchases show that you care about what I value? Are you in tune with things I care about?
  • Who chooses what money should be spent and who benefits from it?

Your issues are your issues

Understanding the underlying issues not only helps us manage conflict more productively, it also shows us where our own insecurities lie. Those insecurities were probably brought into your marriage, and remain sensitive spots in all areas of your life. Do we fear being unaccepted, un-valued, or un-cared for? Do we have troubles trusting others? Do we have a need to be in control?

Sometimes people just have preferences, like being super-organized or super-flexible. Sometimes people have been hurt in the past, even as kids, leaving sensitivity to certain kinds of behavior. Knowing our own hot buttons helps us not only identify why little things make us crazy, but should also help us take ownership for the crazy. Having an uncertain past that leaves us craving control, for example, should help us relax our need for control, not be an excuse to be controlling.

If we tune-in and listen for the underlying issue, the reason underneath the issue, we can not only have deeper conversations and better healing from conflicts but also recognize our sensitivities and wounds, allowing us to take ownership of better managing our relationships.

About the author — Rev. Deb Koster

Deb Koster is a producer, writer, and speaker for Family Fire. She is also an Innkeeper at The Parsonage Inn in Grand Rapids, MI where she leads marriage retreat on weekends. After over 20 years as a Registered Nurse, she completed a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. Deb and her husband Steven enjoy doing ministry together and they are the parents of three awesome young adults.

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