Two Persons, Two Truths: A Conflict-Busting Formula
- Dr. David E. Clarke Author, Cinderella Meets the Caveman
- 2007 5 May
What do you think the chances are that Cinderella and the Caveman will agree on what happened in a conflict and move through the resolution steps smoothly? Zero. Absolutely zero. In fact, it’s even less than zero. We’re talking negative numbers.
For this reason, Cinderella and the Caveman must learn a new conflict pattern that will help them navigate through their differences to a successful conclusion.
Believe Your Spouse
Your new conflict pattern will be based on one essential skill: You absolutely must listen to and believe your spouse’s truth.
When your spouse is talking and expressing her version of what happened and her feelings, your job is to accept what she’s saying as the truth. It is her truth. It is the way it happened for her. Period.
Two qualities of love in the classic 1 Corinthians 13 passage apply here. According to verse 5, love “does not seek its own.” It’s not just about you; it’s also about your spouse and what she thinks and feels. And verse 7 reminds us that love “believes all things.” You need to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and believe what she says.
Is this easy to do? No way! Does this skill come naturally? Hardly. By nature, we do just the opposite. Here’s what usually happens.
A married couple is discussing an incident that took place between them one hour before. We’ll call them Bill and Bertha. Both spouses were present during this incident. Neither spouse has a history of serious emotional illness. Neither spouse is known to be a pathological liar.
Bertha: “Bill, I want to talk about what happened in the bathroom a little while ago. I’m angry that you accused me of being a gossip.”
Bill: (He cuts in.) “Bertha, what are you talking about? First of all, we were in the kitchen, not the bathroom.”
Bertha: “I think I know what room we were in. I distinctly remember the sound of the shower.”
Bill: “That sound was the kitchen faucet running. And I certainly didn’t say you were a gossip. I said I wish you hadn’t told your mother what you and I talked about two nights ago.”
Bertha: “You called me a gossip and don’t deny it.”
Bill: “I do deny it. I did not use that word.”
Bertha: “Did so.”
Bill: “Did not.”
Bertha: “You are lying!”
Bill: “Lying? You’re the one who’s lying!”
This conversation isn’t going so well, is it? What do you think the odds are that this couple will get down to the real issues and resolve this conflict? Oh, about a million to one. And that’s being generous.
They are making the same mistake most Cinderellas and Cavemen make in a conflict conversation: They are fighting over two versions of the same event. Ever do that? Of course you have. We all have, over and over again.
They are quibbling over details and semantics. Who cares if it was in the bathroom or the kitchen? That’s a rabbit trail! They are incorrectly assuming that there is just one true version of what happened.
The fact is, every conflict includes two truths, two true versions of what happened. You have your truth—how you experienced the event. Your spouse has her truth—how she experienced the event. You are right and she is right. You are both right!
Please understand you and your spouse will never—and I mean never—agree on all the details of an event and what happened. The event could be important or trivial; it could be a conflict situation or not. One Cinderella and one Caveman will always see it differently. It’s part of the mystery of being married.
One of you won’t say, “Wow, honey, after hearing you talk, I realize I’m wrong. It happened the way you said it happened.” No! You experienced it differently. Two different persons always have two different perspectives.
So many couples get hung up on this level. Sandy and I did for years. I tried to convince Sandy that I knew the truth, and she tried to convince me she knew the truth. We stopped our relationship cold.
We didn’t get any deeper. We didn’t get all our feelings out. In fact, we got even angrier. We didn’t get understanding. We didn’t resolve the conflict. We got gummed up, and we damaged our marriage. These conversations ended with both of us convinced the other was lying.
We finally figured out how to get through conflicts in a new and better way. A way that protects our marriage and actually creates more intimacy. Our way will work for you too.
Take Turns in Conflict
In my example, Bill needs to let Bertha talk, and he needs to believe that what she is saying is her truth. Here’s the replay:
Bertha: “Bill, I need to talk to you about something. Can you meet me at the kitchen table in ten minutes? Good.”
Bertha: (ten minutes later) “Bill, I want to talk about what happened in the bathroom a little while ago. I’m angry that you accused me of being a gossip.”
Bill: (He says nothing original. He doesn’t say it was in the kitchen. He doesn’t deny he called her a gossip and set her straight. No, he’s too smart for that. He’s learning. He thinks, I’ll try Dr. Clarke’s way) “You heard me call you a gossip. I can see you’re angry.”
That’s all Bill says! He then allows Bertha to talk the whole situation out and express her feelings. With him listening, reflecting back what she says, and believing her truth, Bertha gets her anger and hurt out. Because he’s not disagreeing with her, her anger and emotional intensity go down. For couples to resolve conflict, their anger must subside.
This is the “one speaker and one listener” rule. To resolve a conflict, one spouse must be speaking and one spouse must be listening. If both spouses speak, they won’t resolve the conflict and will damage their relationship. When Bertha feels understood and most of her anger and hurt are out, Bill gets his turn to present his truth. Bill does not get his turn to speak until Bertha gives him the go-ahead. He doesn’t start when he feels ready to talk. He starts when she feels ready to listen. That will be when she feels understood and believed. If Bill starts too soon, Bertha won’t be ready to listen.
After a short break to let Bertha’s feeling of being understood settle and become solid, Bill talks. Bertha listens, reflects back what she hears, and believes his truth. Of course, his truth will be different from hers.
Bill: “I’m sorry for what I did to make you feel angry and hurt. I didn’t mean to, but it happened. Please forgive me. What I was trying to say was I’m angry that you told your mom about the financial talk we had two nights ago. I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I feel like that’s our personal business.”
Bill validates Bertha’s feelings and point of view. He makes sure she feels that he understands and believes her. He apologizes. Only then does he share his side of things. He does not try to refute her view and talk her out of her feelings. He is following 1 Peter 3:7 and being gentle and respectful of her.
Let’s put this all together. Catching yourselves in your old conflict pattern is good, but it’s not good enough. Listening to and believing your spouse’s truth is also good, but it’s not good enough either. These steps are not good enough because two more major steps are necessary for working through a conflict.
Stop Temporarily When You’ve Lost It
When I say “lost it,” I mean at least one of you is breaking the rules. You’re not listening. You’re distracted. You’re interrupting. You’re too angry, and you’re yelling. You are making personal attacks. You’re clamming up and shutting down.
You’re reverting back to your role in the old conflict pattern, and you are not believing your partner’s truth.
When a conflict conversation gets off track, even a little bit, you need to stop temporarily. Unless you stop briefly, you are not going to be able to gear down and get back on track. The conflict will get worse, and you’ll end up making a bigger mess. It’s approaching the point of no return.
Can you imagine the following? One of you says, “I’m angry, I’m out of control, but wait…I’m noticing I have a problem, I’m regaining my poise and control, and I’m lowering my voice. Sorry about that, my dear. Now, where were we?” Dream on. It doesn’t work this way. No one can do that. When you lose it, you get mean and nasty. So do I.
The Stop-and-Start Method
Every significant conflict, like every good conversation, is a process. You do not get through it in one unbroken sitting. You need to take breaks when you get off track. Get alone to cool off and process. Let understanding resonate and take hold.
The issues and feelings that arise in a conflict are deep and make you vulnerable. Both the husband and the wife need breaks to think, evaluate, search their souls, talk to God, consider each other’s point of view, pull themselves together, and get a grip.
A healthy conflict conversation could last several hours. It’s more likely to last a couple of days, especially if it’s a big conflict. Ideally, you want to clear your anger out by the end of the first day (Ephesians 4:26), but the rest of the process usually lasts longer.
You must revisit the issue until you’ve worked it through completely. This will be particularly tough for the spouse who wants to resolve the conflict right away. “Right away” and marital conflict don’t go together. Most men are particularly slow processors in a conflict.
Take breaks! Conflict is like a grueling physical sport. It could be an Olympic event, but who’d want to watch? Talk through a conflict in short spurts.
Take a break when you mess up—when you catch yourselves in your old conflict pattern, when you start fighting over whose version is the truth, when one of you starts yelling, when one of you isn’t listening and reflecting.
Take a break after one partner has shared his side. Let the fragile understanding you just achieved take root.
Take a break after both of you have shared and understood your two versions of the truth. This break is good preparation for the final step in the conflict-resolution process.
Let’s Make a Deal
Many times, talking through your feelings and points of view is enough to resolve a conflict. You don’t have to do anything else. But sometimes you both need to agree on a deal, a plan of action to handle the situation.
Making a deal is important, so take a break after you’ve achieved understanding of your two truths. Set a time to come back together. Process on your own. Think about what’s been said. Consider any changes in your position. Pray for guidance. Think of possible solutions and compromises.
When you return to talk, pray for God’s help. Make a deal that is specific and measurable. Don’t say, “Let’s try harder.” No one knows what that means.
In our previous example with Bill and Bertha, the compromise might be, “Let’s agree to not share any financial information with anyone without our spouse’s permission.”
Make every deal on a trial basis. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, return to the table and renegotiate. Either spouse can call for a renegotiation.
If you don’t learn how to resolve conflict, your marriage will slowly die. It will choke on smoldering resentments and bitterness. If you do learn how to resolve conflict, your marriage will be free to grow and prosper. It will be alive and refreshed with closeness and passion.
Taken from: Cinderella Meets the Caveman. Copyright © 2007 by Dr. David E. Clarke. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.
Dr. David E. Clarke is a popular speaker and the author of several books, including Men Are Clams, Women Are Crowbars and A Marriage After God's Own Heart. A Christian psychologist with a private practice, he holds a master's degree in biblical studies and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He and his wife, Sandy, have four children.