Marital conflicts are inevitable, but too often, spouses fight without any ground rules.  So instead of leading to constructive change, their conflicts turn into out-of-control fights that end up hurting both partners.

It is possible to disagree with someone you love without damaging the love between you.  When you establish rules for managing conflict and act as your own referees to enforce them, both of you can win at the game of conflict.

Here are some ways you and your spouse can manage conflicts fairly and resolve them effectively:

  • Realize that conflict is unavoidable, and not necessarily bad.  Understand that it’s normal to experience marital conflict; all couples do.  Rather than trying to avoid conflict, try to use it as a powerful tool to grow.
  • Build a buffer against misunderstanding and miscommunication.  Be dedicated to your marriage – committed to investing significant time and energy into maintaining a close relationship with your spouse so you can understand each other and develop a sense of confidence in your marriage.  Make time for honest, heartfelt conversation – like the kind you enjoyed when you were dating – for at least 10 minutes every day.  Go out on a date at least every two weeks.  Ask your spouse what you can do to encourage, support, and show gratitude to him or her, then make it a regular habit to do so.  Strive to create a positive atmosphere in your marriage that blocks out storm clouds.
  • Pray!  Realize that conflict is essentially a spiritual activity.  Invite God into your conflict and ask Him to give you both the peace and accountability you need to deal effectively with it and the wisdom you need to resolve it.
  • Keep three key objectives in mind.  Strive to use your conflicts to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings better, to develop greater intimacy, and to clean up waste in your relationship (resentment over small misunderstandings and annoyances).
  • Be willing to engage in the process.  Don’t try to take a shortcut around the vital hard work that is often necessary to resolve conflict.
  • Be humble.  Don’t just blame your spouse for everything.  Realize that your mistakes and weaknesses also play a part in each conflict.
  • Accept responsibility.  Be willing to face the consequences of your actions.
  • Embrace change.  Be willing to change anything that will give you and your spouse a better life together.
  • Have a sense of humor.  Look for the funny elements inside the confusion of conflict, and laugh about them together with your spouse to relieve stress.
  • Have a thick skin.  Recognize the difference between a serious offense and a minor faux pas.  Then be willing to let minor issues go.
  • Schedule the right time and select the right place to discuss your conflicts.  Try to choose times and places that will allow both you and your spouse to be rested, focused, and motivated to work together.
  • Search for the real issues behind what you’re fighting about.  Don’t waste time discussing superficial topics; instead, analyze what’s really bothering you.  Ask God to help you identify the real issues and don’t be afraid to honestly bring them into the light.
  • Understand the way you’ve learned to handle conflict so far.  Consider your natural style of handling conflict (such as aggressively or passively), how your family of origin handled conflict, what conflict means to you, and what conflict rituals you have.  Know that you may have to retrain yourself to handle conflict in more healthy ways.
  • Really listen.  Give your spouse your full attention when he or she is talking.  Listen with an open mind, and be sensitive to what your spouse isn’t saying as well.
  • Speak wisely.  Take turns speaking so that neither one of your dominates the discussion.  Speak words designed to heal, not to wound.
  • Apologize and forgive.  Saying the words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” can unlock great healing in your marriage.
  • Follow through on changes.  When discussing each conflict with your spouse, work together to identify specific changes that would resolve each particular issue.  Then follow through to actually make those changes, or else nothing will really improve.
  • Check your anger level.  Gauge how angry you are before, during, and after a conflict.  Postpone – but don’t avoid – a discussion if either of you is too angry to truly work through the issue.  Try to understand the root causes of your anger.  If you’re dealing with a small issue, don’t have a big fight about it.  Make your argument small, as well, in proportion to the issue.  Regularly clear up festering anger so it doesn’t poison you.  Deal with your anger one step at a time to make it more manageable.
  • Avoid foul plays in the conflict game.  Stay away from unhealthy behaviors.  These include: dredging up past mistakes, arguing over who started the conflict, pointing fingers back at your mate, or comparing your mate to other people.
  • Seek an outside referee when you need extra help.  Bring your conflict to a counselor, pastor, friend, or mentor when you’re facing a situation such as violence, uncontrollable anger, past trauma or abuse, an unwillingness to make or keep rules, or a deadlock on a recurring issue.
  • Never stop trying.  Remember that conflict never ends, but there is always hope as long as you and your spouse keep working through issues together.  Consider how successfully resolving past conflicts has made your marriage stronger, and strive to keep building a strong marriage.


Adapted from "Fight Fair!: Winning at Conflict without Losing at Love," © 2003 by Tim and Joy Downs.  Published by Moody Publishers, Chicago, www.moodypublishers.org.

Tim and Joy Downs speak frequently at FamilyLife marriage and parenting conferences.  Tim is the author of the ECPA Gold Medallion Award winner Finding Common Ground, and together they wrote "The Seven Conflicts," the companion volume to "Fight Fair!".  They have been on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1979.