Happy Couple

Money. Intimacy. In-laws. Parenting. What do you and your spouse fight about? Conflict happens in any marriage. The complete absence of conflict may often be a big red flag indicating more apathy than love. It’s not if you will have conflict; it’s what you do when conflict arises that matters.

There are many unhealthy ways of handling conflict in marriage, and you’ve probably engaged in many of them. That may be yell and scream, manipulate and control, withdraw completely, withhold or demand sex, demean and criticize your spouse, give in to your spouse’s demands, walk on eggshells, or pronounce Bible verses to prove you’re right.

Have any of those resulted in a happier marriage? A stronger relationship?

As with communication, most of us grow up unconsciously learning how to handle conflict from experiencing how our parents or other caregivers did. Responding in healthier ways does not happen simply by deciding you don’t want to repeat what your parents did. You will need to consciously develop new skills and habit patterns to prevent conflict from destroying your relationship.

The good news is that couples who intentionally work through conflict can develop a stronger bond and more understanding than they had previously. Conflict can be the fuel to intentionally communicate, solve problems, and develop even deeper intimacy.

Following these steps when conflict arises will help you do just that.

Note: these steps assume you and your spouse are basically people of good will. If your spouse is seriously abusive, get help right away.

  1. Pause before you Speak.

For those who instinctively spew a volley of hurtful words whenever your spouse “fails,” this may be a big challenge. “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32) No one, not even your spouse, can make you feel a certain way unless you let them. When the emotions begin to boil within you, press Pause. Embrace your emotions as your own, and let the temperature cool down a little.

If your spouse has started a verbal volley and you feel yourself getting drawn into a fight, you may need to say, “I hear you. I need a few moments to think before I respond. Give me 10 minutes.” Then it’s important to come back quickly. A pause is not ignoring or withdrawing; it’s gathering the mental focus to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally.

  1. Seek First to Understand.

Understanding precedes any resolution of conflict. What’s really important to you here? What’s really important to your spouse? What are you, or they, afraid of? What’s the real goal each of you is after? Getting to the place of understanding takes listening as much as talking.

Is your spouse worried about running out of money? Are you worried your child is getting away with dangerous behavior? Do you feel unimportant, dismissed, and drained every time you interact with your in-laws? Are you missing the connection with your spouse that comes with physical intimacy? Are you so empty you feel you have nothing left to give to intimacy? Understanding such reasons underlying the conflict can help you address the real issue and move toward a solution.

  1. Get to an Open Heart.

When emotions are high it’s easy to put up internal walls and close your heart to your spouse. Be aware of the state of your own heart. Even if your spouse has engaged in seriously bad behavior your only hope of progress is approaching them with a measure of an open heart. You may need to hear some things from your spouse that hurt, and you may need to say some things that are hard to say. Doing this from an open heart will make it possible for both of you to hear each other.

If your heart is not open, address that first. You may need to pause the communication with your spouse and get in your prayer closet or with a trusted friend. An open heart does not mean you accept bad behavior, but it means you are choosing to understand, choosing to see whatever is good in your spouse, and choosing to invite God’s perspective to the situation.

  1. Address the Problem not the Person.

Name-calling, criticizing, belittling, bringing up the past – none of those help with conflict resolution. “You always” or “you never” usually make things worse. Move away from attacking your spouse. Work hard to see both of you as a team attacking a problem from the same side. Your perspectives and goals may differ a bit, and that’s OK. See the problem the conflict is about as a third party that you are addressing together.

Talk about the problem more than your spouse. You together are addressing the bank account, the schedule with the in-laws, the barriers to intimacy, or your child’s development. Getting away from shaming and blaming will open the door to a solution.

  1. Seek a Solution more than Being Right.

Harry Truman is credited as saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” If you can get away from worrying about who is more “right” you will be much closer to a solution. Work to see what is best for your relationship. That means both your needs and your spouse’s needs must be taken into account, but the relationship trumps what either of you want individually.

That may mean you act more sexual than you feel because it’s good for your relationship. You may spend less and save more because that’s what your relationship needs. You may stand up to your in-laws when you’d rather not because it’s for the good of your relationship. You show a united front to your children because that’s best for your relationship and family.

Conflict happens in every marriage, and learning skills to handle conflict successfully will do much for your relationship. And bathing all these steps in prayer will give you access to God’s wisdom that you desperately need along the way.

Your Turn: What is your usual method of handling conflict? How is that working for you? Which of these skills do you need to practice in your own marriage? Leave a comment below.

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