Fighting the Good Fight
- Friday, October 10, 2003
Conflict is a natural component of every relationship. No matter how deeply a man and a woman love each other, they will encounter conflict. Thirty-seven percent of newlyweds admit to being more critical of their mates after marriage. And thirty percent report an increase in arguments during the honeymoon.
Whether you argue does not determine the health of your relationship. Far more important than how often you argue is how you argue. Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has identified the signs in conflict that almost always spell disaster. He calls them the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." And when they gallop into your relationship, danger is imminent. In a continuum from least to most dangerous, the four horsemen are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Do these characteristics describe your quarrels? Be on the lookout. Criticism, of course, often comes into play in spats, but when it leads to contempt, when sarcasm and name-calling enter the picture, you are on a slippery slope. At the risk of oversimplifying Gottman's findings, you might think of a destructive argument as one that resorts to belittling and degrading.
When this happens, partners begin to focus on every past sin and failure and aggressively whittle away at each other's dignity. This kind of arguing drives a wedge between couples. The next time they argue, the wedge will be driven farther and the division in their relationship will widen. After enough shouting matches the pattern becomes ingrained and is likely to ruin the relationship.
To avoid the deadly trap of contempt, focus on the issue at hand, not your partner's character. If the problem is in-laws, for example, or how money is spent, or the use of personal time, argue about that and stay away from personality assassination. You may disagree vehemently, but don't shut your partner out; don't roll your eyes in disgust. Stay on the issue and God will grant you patience and encouragement in a spirit of unity (see Rom. 15:5).
We'll say it again: conflict is a natural part of building intimacy. So don't avoid differences. Don't bury your conflicts. Go ahead, fight. But keep your conflict restricted to the issues that really matter. Truth be known, you and your partner might encounter issues that aren't easily solved. Some stubborn problems come up time and time again that you won't be able to work out on your own. And chances are, sooner or later, you'll need outside help to reach a resolution. So if that time arises, be ready. It never feels good to ask someone else for help, but seeking counsel is never a weakness.
You've probably seen the "grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change" prayer on plaques and posters. It may be trivialized by over-familiarity, but it's true: One of the major tasks of a long-term relationship is learning what can and should be changed (habits for nagging, for example) and what should be overlooked (the fact that your in-laws are coming for Christmas).
So remember this saying from Proverbs: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (12:18).
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