Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Dr. Greg Smalley's new book, Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage: How Healthy Conflict Can Take You to Deeper Levels of Intimacy (Howard Books, 2012).
Too often, couples worry that the conflict they go through together is a sign that their marriages are in trouble. But conflict – which is inevitable in any close relationship between two people – isn’t always harmful. Conflict can actually be helpful to spouses who learn how to use it as a tool to strengthen their marriages.
So stop worrying about the arguments between you and your spouse and start making conflict work for you rather than against you. Here’s how you can fight your way to a better marriage:
Recognize the gems buried within healthy conflict. Some of the many ways that healthy conflict can benefit your marriage include: alerting you and your spouse to problems and helping you both face those issues rather than denying or avoiding them; giving you both opportunities to break old, ineffective patterns; humbling you both and inviting God to pour grace into your lives; giving you each insight into your personal issues and need for healing; and bringing you closer together as you listen understand, and validate each other.
Break the reactive cycle. When you and your spouse push each other’s emotional buttons when discussing sensitive issues during arguments, you both can get caught in an unhealthy cycle of reacting to each other with negative emotions like fear and anger, spinning around but never actually resolving your conflict. To break that cycle, identify the buttons that your spouse pushes in you when you’re arguing about different issues. For example, arguments about money may push buttons that relate to feeling insecure or controlled. Reflect on how a recent conflict between you and your spouse made you feel about yourself. In the process, you’ll discover which of your emotional buttons got pushed during that conflict. Keep in mind that the disagreements you have with your spouse go much deeper than just the surface issues of money, chores, children, sex, work, time together, relationships with in-laws, etc. The root causes are the emotional issues that those arguments expose.
Replace lies with the truth. Behind every argument you and your spouse ever have are lies that have entered your minds because of emotional wounds you’ve each suffered. Seek healing by identifying what attitudes you each have that don’t reflect biblical truth. Pray for the wisdom you need to discern what lies you’ve believed, and then ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind, and read and meditate on the Bible to fill your mind with the truth. Going forward, have the confidence that you never need to be controlled by lies again. Make a habit of reminding yourselves about God’s deep and unconditional love for you, and of relying on the help God offers you to grow stronger every day.
Learn how to respond rather than react to what your spouse says. When you simply react during a conflict, only negative behavior (such as anger, defensiveness, or withdrawing) results. But when you refuse to give in to a knee-jerk reaction and instead take a break from the argument to calm down and pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, you can respond in positive ways (such as with self-control, kindness, and gentleness) that will strengthen your marriage and help you work out a thoughtful solution to the problem.
Change the way you think about your spouse. Recognize that many of the negative attitudes you have about your spouse don’t actually reflect the truth of God’s perspective on him or her. Spend some time in prayer, asking God to show you how Satan is trying to twist your mind against your spouse and what deceptions you have brought into your marriage. Pray for an open mind and the humility you need to always keep in mind that you could be wrong in any argument, to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, and to better understand your spouse’s point of view. Rather than just focusing on your spouse’s negative behavior, make a point of noticing his or her positive behavior as well. Ask your spouse to explain something he or she said or did that bothered you, so you can correct any wrong assumptions you may have made about it.
Seek healing for a hardened heart. If your heart has become hardened toward your spouse (so that you no longer feel love toward him or her or motivation to work on your marriage), ask God to heal your heart by filling it with His love.
Open your heart to your spouse. When your spouse pushes your emotional buttons, decide to respond rather than react. Take a break for about 20 minutes before resuming the discussion with your spouse, and during that time, identify the specific emotions you’re feeling. Then pray, asking questions like these: “What is the truth about my emotions?”, “What is the truth about me?”, “Is what my wife/husband is saying about me true?”, “What lie is Satan trying to write on my heart?”, “What do I need to take responsibility for?”, and “Who is the person I want to be in this moment – the person God created me to be?”. Then ask Jesus to give you His peace, which will guard your mind and allow you to open your heart to your spouse when re-engaging in the discussion. When your heart is open, God’s love will flow through it.
Create an emotionally safe marriage. Ask God to help you recognize your spouse’s incredible value and to honor and cherish him or her. Treat your spouse as someone who is valuable by allowing your spouse to share his or her deepest thoughts and feelings with you without fear of judgment or criticism, knowing that you will accept and love him or her no matter what. When your spouse is in pain, show compassion through kind and gentle words and actions.
Communicate well. After you each have opened your hearts to each other, listen to each other, seek to understand each other, validate each other, empathize with each other, and apologize to and forgive each other.
Work together as a team. Seek win-win solutions to your arguments – solutions about which both of you feel good. Keep asking each other questions about what’s important to each of you and why until you come up potential solutions. Then pray, asking God to guide you all to the best solution that will benefit both of you.
Adapted from Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage: How Healthy Conflict Can Take You to Deeper Levels of Intimacy, copyright 2012 by Dr. Greg Smalley. Published by Howard Books, Brentwood, Tn., http://imprints.simonandschuster.biz/howard.
Dr. Greg Smalley serves as Executive Director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as president of the National Institute of Marriage. He is the author of 11 books, including The DNA of Relationships, The DNA of Parent and Teen Relationships, and The Wholehearted Marriage. Greg lives in Colorado with his wife Erin and their four children.
Whitney Hopler is a freelance writer and editor who serves as both a Crosswalk.com contributing writer and the editor of About.com’s site on angels and miracles. Contact Whitney at: firstname.lastname@example.org to send in a true story of an angelic encounter or a miraculous experience like an answered prayer.
Publication date: November 19, 2012