Ask Dr. David: Throw Cold Water on Marital Conflict

Dear Dr. David,

My husband and I have only been married a few years, but already we are tired of the bickering and fighting that is pushing us apart. It seems that no matter what we talk about, we end up fighting. He attacks me and, I hate to say it, but I find myself attacking him back. We say hurtful things we don’t mean, sometimes apologize, sometimes not, and then do it all over again. We love each other, but wonder if there any hope for us? ~ Tired of Fighting

Dear Tired,

I am so glad you have written. It means you are looking for answers, and thankfully, they are available. You are among the many couples who have failed to find constructive ways of avoiding conflict, and then mastering the skills to manage conflict when it occurs. The bad news is that if not dealt with, it will ruin your marriage. The good news is that there are skills you can learn, and master, which will utterly transform your marriage. I have written about these strategies and more in my book, The Relationship Doctor’s Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship, and also offer Marriage Intensives for couples in significant distress.

So, let’s get to work learning a few of these skills necessary to rid your marriage of this cancerous conflict.

First, it all begins with the heart. "Out of the heart the mouth speaks," the scriptures tell us. (Luke 6: 45) Therefore, it only makes sense to start with heart surgery. Both you and your husband need to do some soul searching. Are you holding onto resentments that need to be let go? Is there bitterness hidden in the deep recesses of your heart? These must be confessed and dealt with in a beneficial manner.

Second, having performed heart surgery, agree to follow biblical principles of communication. For example, the Apostle James admonishes us to guard our tongues, for they can set a forest ablaze. (James 3: 5) Agree to set boundaries on your speech, and then hold each other accountable to talk only in healthy ways. No name-calling, ever. No accusations, ever. No blaming, ever. Own your feelings and ask for what you need.

Third, practice solving problems. Healthy couples attack issues, not each other. They stay focused on one issue at a time. They stay cool and calm as they brainstorm win-win solutions to problems. They understand that together, being married, they are an organism, and that to attack their mates ideas and person is to be hurtful to themselves.

Fourth, get into some counseling. You need someone to help you learn to take time outs rather than letting issues escalate. Your counselor will help you understand the origins of your defensiveness, and how to manage the emotion in your marriage. Through counseling you can learn strategies to help you really listen to one another, validating each others perspective.

Finally, hold each other accountable for change. If you are intentional about changing these destructive patterns, you will succeed. You can even make learning these skills fun, and marriage-saving. My wife and I practice taking time outs when a discussion starts to turn toward a fight. If either of us violates the time out, the other must give the other a massage. We have learned to throw cold water on smoke--a much better strategy then managing the fire once the forest is ablaze.

Dear Dr. David,

I have been married to my second wife for about ten years and we are having so much conflict that we seem to be headed for a divorce. The problem is that my wife doesn’t like the attention I pay to my two children from my first marriage. In fact, she wants me to quit spending so much time with them, and show her more attention. I only have visitation with them every other weekend, and feel a strong responsibility to be available to them. My own father was a distant man, and I don’t want to be that for my kids. I want to be a strong influence on their development, but my wife seems to be jealous of the time I spend with them. I don’t want to have to choose between them, but she seems to be forcing me to do just that. She has threatened that if things don’t change, she is going to move out. What can I do to save my marriage while also being a good husband? ~ Confused Husband

Dear Confused,

I have heard stories like your many times, with the growing numbers of divorced people and blended families. With divorce hovering near the fifty percent rate, and most people likely to remarry, there are more and more blended families. I strongly counsel couples to get counseling before entering into such a relationship so they will be prepared for some of the trials you discuss. I have a few things for you to consider.

First, both you and your wife need counseling for your situation. Blended families, or what we used to call stepfamilies, have unique challenges not faced by other families. There are issues of loyalty, which you are facing. It is not uncommon for one spouse to feel left out when there are established relationships between the other parent and his or her children. It is also not uncommon for children to get caught in the fray of divided loyalties. They, too, are inclined to feel a stronger attachment to their biological parent, rather than their stepparent, further aggravating the situation.

Second, listen to your wife’s needs. While there are ideal ways to handle blended family struggles, you must deal with your immediate crisis. Your boat is sinking, and you must find ways to bail water. Consider meeting your wife’s immediate need for more attention, even if for the moment that means compromising on what you think is ideal for your children. If she needs extra time with you now, give it to her, with the understanding that you will need to find solutions that work for all of you in the future. Show her that even though you spend time with your children, she has a secure place in your heart.

Third, you must find ways to create a new family. Blended families are not inferior to bio-families—just different. You must sit down with your wife, and your children, and create new traditions. What will be your new identity? What is unique about you, as a family? This is your challenge. Help your wife to feel included in new plans and activities so there is not so much talk about the past.

Fourth, be intentional about creating quality time to avoid marital crises in the future. Assuming your wife feels jealous, this suggests she is missing something from you. Are you making time for just the two of you, carved out from undoubtedly busy schedules? Are you making sure that she does not feel displaced? Agree together to keep special time for the two of you in the midst of busy family life.

Finally, maintain a healthy relationship with your children. You are wise to recognize that your children need a strong relationship with you. They have already experienced a broken home and may be especially vulnerable. Just as you create special time with your wife, be intentional about creating special time with your children. Encourage your wife to participate in this time, while on occasion spending time alone with them. It is a balancing act that you can do.

Remember, you and your wife can learn how to face the inevitable challenges of blended families. As my high school coach used to say, "Adapt and overcome."

Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at

David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.