2 Things to Consider about Conflict in Marriage
- Rachel Baker Crosswalk Contributing Writer
- 2021 1 Sep
In our decade-plus of being married, my husband and I have attended multiple marriage conferences, several relationship workshops, and numerous marriage counselors. We wanted to start our marriage out strong, so we kicked off our engagement with pre-marital counseling. We both knew that we would need help for our relationship to thrive, considering that we had relatively few examples of healthy marriage in our lives.
We both brought our childhood examples of confrontation into our relationship—neither of which were healthy. Consequently, we failed to "fight fair" or positively resolve conflict. Within our first two years of marriage, we were seriously considering divorce. We sought outside help to assist with our inside issues. Unfortunately, at first, a lot of the advice we were getting was archaic, frustratingly formulaic, and ultimately unhelpful.
I've lost count of the number of times I've heard ridiculous advice like "if you're going to fight, fight naked," or "never fight in front of the kids," or the misappropriated, "never go to bed angry." If you're reading this and have heard from your pastor or their spouse that "they don't fight," I would question the validity of that claim. As a pastor's wife, I will tell you that you and your spouse will likely experience conflict and confrontation in marriage. If you've been married for more than two seconds, I'm fairly positive that you will attest to this.
Rather than pursue a "fight-free" marriage, perhaps seek a relationship with healthy conflict resolution. While I do not savor conflict, the truth is that often conflict can lead to a healthier and stronger marriage. Through confronting our issues, we grow deeper in understanding, love, and affection for each other. So, if you're going to fight, which I argue you probably will, here are a few suggestions on how to reframe conflict and confrontation in your marriage.
Understand the Purpose of Conflict and Confrontation
"If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Romans 12:18
As I entered into marriage, I held deeply to the false belief that if my husband and I experienced conflict in our relationship, our relationship was irreparably damaged. We didn't even make it out of our honeymoon without having a little spat. These conflicts left me feeling discouraged and disappointed with marriage. Why couldn't we just figure each other out? Why didn't we communicate well? Why was living together so stinking difficult? And why did we have to fight?
All these questions are valuable to consider, but when evaluating the source(s) of conflict, we really need to drill down to the more significant issue of expectations. I expected us not to fight. I expected my husband to "get me" and live the way I had lived as a single woman prior to marriage. Additionally, I expected my husband to read my mind. All these expectations, when left unmet, led to resentment. I held on to anger and then would suddenly—almost without reason—unload on my husband. My husband had expectations of his own, and when those went unmet, he too held on to anger and resentment, but rather than exploding, he would sweep the issues under the rug. Early on, we found ourselves growing away from each other. We became like ships passing in the night, cohabiting but failing to thrive and grow in our marriage.
Neither of us wanted to fight. In a way, we were both afraid of conflict. We wanted peace in our marriage, but our failure to confront our issues kept us separate. Fortunately, through the help of marriage mentors and friends with longstanding healthy relationships, we learned that conflict is a normal and healthy part of marriage. It is what we do with our conflict and how we confront it that ultimately can bring peace. We no longer try to avoid conflict; rather, we try to understand each other and address unmet expectations. Being clear and communicative with each other has been a game-changer.
When to Avoid Confrontation and When to Embrace It
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Proverbs 15:1
Some of the worst fights my husband and I had took place when we were tired. For a long time, we both held tightly to Ephesians 4:26, "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…" in a very literal sense. We would begin talking about something very heavy right before bed and end up in a full-on fight with someone inevitably sleeping on the couch.
What an error in judgment. We would end up feeling terrible, having allowed ourselves to "go to bed angry." We'd both feel like we failed in our relationship and each other. What's interesting, though, is that we'd often wake up and immediately be able to apologize once we were actually rested.
From these relational errors, we've learned not to engage in heavy or difficult conversations when we're tired. Instead, if there is an issue that needs to be addressed, we try to make a date with each other, giving each other our full attention. During these "dates," the goal is to work on understanding each other. It's a lose-lose if we only seek to be heard but never allow our spouse the same courtesy. Throughout these conversations, it's important to practice discernment and wisdom. We need to think about the words we use and the way we speak. We need to slow ourselves down and embrace the confrontation rather than running from it.
We've learned—again, from some amazing marriage mentors—that sometimes we need to take a break during a confrontation. When the atmosphere shifts from constructive to destructive, it's time to take a breather. I find that taking a long walk and talking to Jesus or listening to worship music helps me to return to the discussion with a clear head and a heart ready to receive. Ultimately, we are learning—and I say learning because, after 12 years of marriage, I imagine that we're only getting our feet wet—that we need to avoid fighting for the sake of fighting. Sometimes, when we're feeling cranky or irritated, we take it out on our spouse, don't we? When we're not at our best, we can get nit-picky or short-tempered with our spouse. I'll admit that in my marriage, I tend to do this more often than my husband. When this happens, sometimes I need a time-out. Like an actual remove-myself-from-the-situation, time out. When I return, I can do so with a soft spirit and desire to resolve whatever we are discussing healthily. Sometimes, these resolutions take time; if you're experiencing this in your own relationship, do not lose heart. Keep the goal in mind: "With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Ephesians 4:2-3
"Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." Colossians 3:13
We've discovered that on the other side of healthy conflict is breakthrough, deeper trust, and a healthier relationship. There are absolutely things that we need to iron out in our relationships through confrontation. The outcome lies in how we handle ourselves during these moments of conflict. The way we manage our own emotions and treat our spouse speaks to our level of respect, admiration, and affection for each other. During conflict, I am reminded to show my husband grace and practice forgiveness, just like God forgives us. In our relationships, we will fail and fall short, but if we both seek to emulate God's forgiveness and compassion for us, we will succeed more than we fail. James 4:6 reminds us, "but He gives more grace. Therefore, it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" And in this way, we too can extend grace and forgiveness to each other.
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Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Ridofranz
Rachel Baker is the author of Deconstructed, a Bible study guide for anyone who feels overwhelmed or ill-equipped to study the word of God. She is a pastor’s wife and director of women’s ministries, who believes in leading through vulnerability and authenticity. She is a cheerleader, encourager, and sometimes drill-sergeant. She serves the local church alongside her husband, Kile, in Northern Nevada. They have two amazing kiddos and three dogs. Rachel is fueled by coffee, tacos, and copious amounts of cheese. For more on her and her resources to build your marriage, see her website: www.rachelcheriebaker.com or connect with her on Instagram at @hellorachelbaker.