There’s a reason so many of us would rather get a cavity filled with Kenny G in the background than have that same … stupid … fight.
Conflict with your spouse is inevitable for all couples. (Whoever got the idea into our heads that “marriage should be easy”… probably wasn’t married.) How can you deal?
The following concepts from Peacemaker Ministries may result in love being a little less of a battlefield.
Why do we fight?
Conflict with your spouse happens when values collide. He wishes she would park straight; she wishes he would apply the same logic to getting his socks 17 inches closer to the hamper.
As James 4:1 puts it, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Our goals are thwarted.
Conflict with your spouse can be unspoken or overt, tangible or intangible, quiet or quite loud. They can involve clashes within ourselves, with others, with the world at large, and with God Himself.
Conflicts can be tricky because the way we go about handling them is heavily influenced by the culture in our family of origin. Whether our “normal” includes glossing over, gossiping, lashing out, storming away, or having a family meeting, our personal experience has dictated “acceptable” responses to conflict.
We all fall on a spectrum, right?
- Escaping: There are the classic “stuffers,” who prefer a false peace. They’re escaping conflict by outright denial, internalizing responses to conflict, perhaps denying.
- Attacking: On the other end of the spectrum are “blowers,” who shoot for a false justice. They might attack with words, physical force, or the withdrawal of privileges, like money or sex.
- Peacemaking: In the middle of these extremes is the true peace and true justice of godly responses: Talking it out. Finding a mediator. Overlooking an offense. Jesus calls us “blessed” when we are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Not peace-fakers. Not peace-breakers.
We don’t act as “peacemakers” just because it’s the moral thing to do. It’s because when we enter conflict, we have the opportunity to honor God and replay His actions when He was in conflict with us.
(Wait. How I handle my spouse’s workaholism is a chance to exemplify the gospel? Please explain.)
When sin broke our relationship with God, He went the distance to repair that relationship and make peace with us. When we were His enemies, God demonstrated the quality and quantity of His love by making a way for peace (see Romans 5:8). And it’s a job God has passed on to us.
Second Corinthians 5:18-20 puts it this way:
Through Christ [God] reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
The way we show forgiveness, peace, and justice in our relationships is a show-and-tell about what God did for us through Jesus.
So your response to the sniping of your mother-in-law, or your husband’s passivity, or your wife’s nagging?
Those are opportunities to honor God and grow more like Him. (Will I obey God and trust Him? Will I make my desires, my goals, my “rights,” and my agenda serve His will above mine? What is His will?).
Conflict also allows us to serve others and to grow as it gives us new ways of looking at life.
Does that mean conflict with your spouse could actually improve the relationship?!
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
When my kids had learned some basic, conflict-management skills, I was eager to lay down my referee’s jersey and whistle and let them finally work it out on their own: Sit here. Don’t get up till it’s resolved. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200.
Yet even that tended to drag on, sounding like a couple of cats tied up together in a sack. But you know what helped them cut to the chase far quicker?
Asking them to start with the log in their own eye. This comes from Matthew 7:5: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
I get to the core of the conflict a lot faster when I start with addressing my own heart issues. Which means …
Resolving conflict with your spouse in a healthy way starts with taking 100% responsibility for our contribution—even if we think our contribution is only 5% of the problem. Here’s a tip I heard from author Gary Thomas: We always underestimate the impact our sin has on other people.
Often, our desires have swollen not just from something we want, but into something we must have. So we’re willing to pass judgment and mete out punishment in order to achieve that desire (even in stealthy forms like the silent treatment or emotional withdrawal). We’re not trusting God to meet those desires. They have become demands.
As you’re able, consider how to embrace humility and confess to the other person (you might be surprised how this gets the ball rolling). Admit specifically what you did, as well as admitting the attitude that was in your heart. And don’t forget to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused.
The PAUSE process
So you’ve decided you’ll intentionally honor God and trust Him with this conflict with your spouse. You’ve spent time searching your heart and repenting from your own sin. How can you move to a place where it’s not “us against each other” but “us against the problem”?
How can this become “Let’s work on the issue of household division of labor” rather than “her vs. him”?
Peacemakers outlines a five-step process to keep in mind:
1. Prepare: Seek counsel. Pray. Continue to examine your own heart and reactions.
2. Affirm Relationships: Show value for the relationship and hope for the future. Help them feel secure to address the problem and not worry about protecting themselves.
3. Understand and Acknowledge Interests: People’s positions are motivated by their spoken and unspoken interests: Concerns. Desires. Needs. Limitations. Fears. Values.
It might help to dig below the presenting issue—whose family to visit over the holidays, or how you’re talking to me when you’re exhausted from work, or whose turn it is to cart the kids to school. Look beneath that: What’s the desire of each person, and why is it important to them (even if they’re expressing those in illegitimate, unjust, or downright rude ways)?
For example, behind the clipped responses after your long day at work? Maybe your spouse feels like everyone else gets the polite, presentable side of you. Or that ultimately, you don’t appreciate or truly see him or her.
4. Search for Creative Solutions: There are almost always more than two options. How can you think creatively about a solution to address both of your interests?
5. Evaluate Options: Which of these speak to both of our interests? Is there a way I need to willingly lay down one of my interests?
“How can I know if I’ve really forgiven them? I’m still mad when I think about the issue.”
Forgiveness is one of the most challenging tasks we face as human beings. It’s not a natural response but a supernatural one.
Forgiveness is a choice. It’s a decision modeled after God’s forgiveness of us: a decision not to hold the offense against the offender (if you need a pep talk, check out Matthew 18:21-35).
It releases the person from their sin against us, desiring good and blessing for them. And since forgiveness is a choice we make, it doesn’t even depend on the other person. We can forgive whether the person is sorry or not.
But here’s what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not forgetting or excusing, releasing someone from worldly consequences of sin. (This is different from revenge. It’s accountability for their choices. A forgiven criminal should still go to jail. An embezzler should not be given a position as an accountant.) Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, although feeling might be present.
It’s promising the following:
I will not…
- Keep ruminating negatively on this.
- Seek to hurt my offender as a result of this; I will seek to bless him or her, even if that means establishing accountability and finding justice.
- Gossip about this, speaking to others who are not part of the solution.
Instead, I will continue to pursue a relationship with the offender (unless repentance has not been demonstrated and love dictates I set boundaries to protect both of us).
In all of this, you might even come to a renewed appreciation of the lengths God has gone to forgive us, and play out the gospel in your own life and for those you love.
Other healthy habits
Scientists agree that healthy communication and conflict resolution is just one of five habits that directly correlates to marital health. Read about the other habits too.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.