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How to Use Conflict to Grow Closer in Your Marriage

How to Use Conflict to Grow Closer in Your Marriage

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Drs Les and Leslie Parrot's recent book, The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer, (Worthy Publishing, 2013).

All couples fight, since conflict is inevitable in every marriage between two different human beings in a fallen world. But just because you can’t avoid conflict doesn’t mean that you have to let it damage your relationship.

What matters most to the quality of your marriage isn’t whether you fight, but how you fight. If you learn to fight well, you and your spouse can use the conflict in your relationship to grow closer together and strengthen your marriage. Here’s how you can do so, with God’s help:

See each other as allies, not adversaries. Pray for the right perspective on your spouse, so you can keep in mind each day that your spouse is your teammate in life (not your enemy). Make it a goal to use your energy to work together toward common goals as often as possible.

Distinguish the differences between a bad fight and a good fight. The goal of a bad fight is winning the fight, but the goal of a good fight is resolving the issue. A bad fight focuses on surface issues, while a good fight focuses on underlying issues at the root of the problem you’re trying to solve. In a bad fight, the emphasis is on personalities and power struggles, but a good fight emphasizes ideas and issues. Bad fights reveal confrontational and defensive attitudes, while good fights show cooperative and receptive attitudes in action. Couples in a bad fight shift blame to each other, while couples in a good fight take personal responsibility. In a bad fight, couples belittle each other and display egocentric and self-righteous behavior, but in a good fight, couples respect each other and act with empathy and understanding toward each other. A bad fight escalates tension between couples, while a good fight eases tension. While a bad fight leads to discord, stagnation, and distance in a couple’s relationship, good fight produces harmony, growth, and intimacy in a marriage relationship.

Keep the benefits of good fighting in mind. Good fights offer many benefits that can strengthen your marriage, including: authenticity that will help you trust each other more, clarity about what you each value and what issues concern you all, a fresh start for your relationship after clearing out tension and resentments, and security that fortifies your commitment to each other.

Guard against pride and develop humility. The greatest contributing factor to bad fights is pride. So beware of pride creeping into your soul and guard yourself against it by praying daily for God’s help for you to develop a humble heart, like Jesus Christ modeled during His life on Earth.

Pursue cooperation. Aim to find win-win solutions to the problems about which you’re fighting, so both of you can benefit. Whenever that’s not possible, simply agree to disagree.

Pursue ownership. Rather than blaming your spouse or your circumstances for the problems you’re facing, take responsibility by admitting your own imperfections, mistakes, or neediness that have contributed the problems.

Pursue respect. Try your best to always leave your spouse’s dignity intact when you’re arguing. Ask God to help you respect your spouse, whether or not you believe your spouse deserves it, because God calls you to give each other love and respect unconditionally. Keep in mind that respect will keep dangerous contempt from building up in your marriage and create an atmosphere of safety within your relationship.

Pursue empathy. Pray for the ability to accurately see the world from your spouse’s perspective so you can understand each other well and act with empathy toward each other.

Figure out what you’re really fighting about. If you focus simply on the surface issues that provoke conflicts between you, you’ll waste time and energy, but if you dig deeper to discover the root issues of your conflicts, you can make progress resolving the issues that are actually at the core of your conflicts. Two fundamental issues drive most fights between couples: perceived threat and perceived neglect. You can feel threatened when you perceive your spouse as being: critical, judgmental, controlling, demanding, or attacking. You can feel threatened when you perceive your spouse as being: uncaring, uncommitted, neglectful, selfish, or disengaged. Once you identify the real root issue of each conflict, you can approach it productively.

Determine whether or not issues are truly worth fighting over. Choose your battles carefully. Reflect on the issues that are currently causing tension in your relationship, and ask yourself honestly about each one: “How important is this issue to me?” Decide if each issue is really worth fighting through with your spouse, or if it’s something that’s best to just let go.

Choose the best time to fight about issues that matter. You won’t make much progress resolving issues if you fight about them at the wrong time (when either or you is hungry, tired, in pain, emotionally charged, or in a hurry), or when one of you hasn’t had enough time to adequately think about the issues involved. So carefully consider whether or not you’re ready to discuss the issues that concern you; if not, wait until you’re able to give the discussions your best attention. 

Control angry impulses. Out-of-control anger during arguments can destroy your marriage. Realize that, no matter how angry you may feel about something, you do have the power to discipline yourself to respond constructively rather than destructively. The key is training your mind to respond wisely to situations that make you angry. Rather than just reacting, stop to calm yourself and reflect on the situation. Don’t make any negative assumptions about your spouse or his or her motives; intentionally believe the best until you can gather all the information you need to accurately assess each situation.

Follow rules designed to help you manage arguments well. Freely and regularly share your thoughts and feelings with each other rather than withholding information from each other. Rate the depth of your disagreements. When necessary, agree to disagree. Apologize when you regret hurting each other. Use the “XYZ formula” (“In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z”) to communicate clearly about issues. Avoid cruelty during your arguments; aim to be as kind as possible. Take a time-out if you need one. Try to read your spouse’s mind as much as possible. Pray for your spouse.

Figure out your “fight type.” That’s how your personality influences your approach to conflict. How much do you tend to express your desires? How flexible are you in meeting your spouse’s desires? During arguments, is your behavior mostly competitive, collaborative, cautious, or conciliatory? Once you understand this, you can accentuate or moderate certain aspects of your personality to be more productive during conflict.

Seek healing for unresolved childhood pain that is affecting your marriage now. No matter how good your childhood was, you’re bound to have some unresolved pain from it that affects all of your current relationships. Ask God to help you identify that pain and heal you from it so you can approach marriage conflicts from as healthy a perspective as possible.

Work through common marriage issues well. Ask God to guide you and your spouse to successfully deal with the most common marriage issues: money, sex, work, parenting, and housework. Talk openly and honestly with each other about your concerns in each of these areas regularly.

Adapted from The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer, copyright 2013 by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. Published by Worthy Publishing, Nashville, Tn.

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are founders of and the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. Their best-selling books include Love Talk, Crazy Good Sex and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts. Their work has been featured in the New York Times and USA Today and on CNN, Good Morning America and Oprah.

Whitney Hopler is a freelance writer and editor who has served as a contributing writer for many years. Visit her website at:  

Publication date: April 10, 2013