How to Resolve Conflict
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Pastor Dave Wilson and his wife, Ann, talk about marital conflict. The Wilsons admit they had a lot to learn about conflict when they got married. Together they share what they’ve learned.
How to Resolve Conflict
Bob: Dave and Ann Wilson say one thing they were completely unprepared for when they got married was how to resolve conflict.
Ann: My dad was big on conflict in terms of resolving it. I grew up with two brothers and a sister, and he wouldn’t let us leave the table if something happened; he made us talk about it.
Dave and I get married. We’ve been married a few months and we hit our first big fight, and he gets up and walks out of the room!
Dave: And that’s what I did. I didn’t even process it—I just like: “You leave.” I’m walking out of the room, and I’m walking into the kitchen. She yells—
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, May 12th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How do you handle conflict in your marriage? Do you have a strategy?—do you have a plan?—or does it just turn into another battle/another skirmish? We’re going to talk about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’m hearing, again, you guys share stories from your marriage; and I’m thinking, did you think about, instead of Vertical Marriage, calling it Dave and Ann’s Big Book of Failures? [Laughter]
Dave: That’s basically what it is. [Laughter]
Ann: It so is! It totally is. My dad read our book; and he called me up; he said, “You guys were a mess!” He also said, “I feel sorry for Dave.” [Laughter]
Dave: I do too!
Bob: Part of the thing that has resonated so much with people, as they’ve read the book, Vertical Marriage, is the transparency and the authenticity—which, early on—you guys decided, “We’re just going to be honest about the mess.” Did you flinch at that decision? I mean, did you have to think for a month or two, “Do we really want to be this public with this?”
Ann: I don’t think it was even a decision; it’s just who we are. It wasn’t, “Oh, should we or shouldn’t we?” it just kind of comes out of who we are.
Dave: Yes, I don’t think there’s any other way we could do it. I’ll be honest; our hope—in the book, in a small group, and any time we teach on a stage—is that two things would happen: one is that people would go, “Wow, they’re like me. We struggle; they struggle.” Number two would be, “They have a victory in Christ that I want.” It’s both/and; we want them to know that there’s a real struggle in life—and we’re not going to hide that and we’re going to be honest—but there’s actually a power in Jesus that’s real that can really work on a day-to-day basis in your life.
Bob: You mentioned the small group. Now, Vertical Marriage® is a small group series/a five-part small group video series. There’s more information about the Vertical Marriage small group series on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. One of the themes you tackle in the book and in the video series is the theme of resolving conflict, because conflict is common to every marriage.
We talked about this a little over a year ago, right as the book had come out. Dennis and Barbara Rainey and I interviewed the two of you on FamilyLife Today before you were the hosts of FamilyLife Today, and we talked about principles you’ve learned from Scripture about how to resolve conflict in marriage.
[Previous FamilyLife Today Broadcast]
Bob: You guys had two different approaches to conflict that you saw modeled for you when you were growing up. What was it like in the Wilson home when you were growing up?
Dave: Well, a lot of fights—alcohol involved. I remember, as a little boy—I mean, my parents were divorced when I was seven—so a lot of these memories were, you know, a very young age. He would come home drunk and be abusive and loud. I would run away with my sister to my bedroom.
Dennis: You remember the fights?
Dave: I can remember them.
There was a year—15/18 years ago, I did a FamilyLife®Weekend to Remember® in Parsippany, New Jersey, and realized it’s right near my home I grew up in—it was in New Jersey. My dad was an airline pilot, flew out of New York, and built this home in a gated community.
Long story short, I got a van and went over and found my house. I’m a grown man now; and I walked in, and I could remember fights all over that house. I could remember the feeling of fear and almost terror running away to a bedroom just to cover my ears and not hear the sort of carnage out there. That’s what I grew up with; and that didn’t go away until the divorce, which was horrible. I still wanted my dad, even though it was a very sort of dark era of my life; but then my mom and I moved to where her parents lived in Ohio, and it got real quiet.
I didn’t know it then, but I knew it after Ann and I got married, I developed a perspective about conflict which was this: “It’s bad. Avoid it at all costs. It ends in divorce. It ends in ugly stuff.” So when conflict comes in your life, you just avoid it. So I get married, thinking that’s going to work in marriage. Well, guess what? I didn’t marry that—[Laughter]—I married a woman who embraced conflict.
Bob: A prize fighter; right? [Laughter]
Dennis: —who chased you around the ring, trying to pick a fight; right?
Bob: You [Ann] don’t like conflict; but you grew up learning, if there’s conflict, you wrestle this baby to the ground.
Ann: My dad was big on conflict: in terms of resolving it, or battling it, or tackling it. I grew up with two brothers and a sister. He wouldn’t let us leave the table if something happened; he made us talk about it. I don’t know if it was necessarily healthy in what we said, because it could get loud/it could get verbal. I don’t think there was any cursing, but I didn’t see it as negative. At the end of the day, he would say, “Are we all good?” and then he’d allow people to leave.
Dave and I get married. We’d been married a few months, and we hit our first big fight. He gets up and walks out of the room!
Dave: And that’s what I did. I didn’t even process it—I just like: “You leave.” I’m walking out of the room, and I’m walking into the kitchen—nobody’s at home at this point. We’re living with her family, at the time, because we were raising support to become missionaries. I’m walking into the kitchen, and she yells.
Ann: Oh, I was shocked; I’m like, “Where are you going?!” He just gives this look. I said, “Come back here and fight me like a man, you chicken!” [Laughter]
Dave: Oh, those words stung.
Ann: Please!—no one ever say that. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; by the way, that’s the chapter title in our book: “Come Back Here and Fight Like a Man, You Chicken.” That’s, literally, the chapter title that introduces this whole thing about conflict in the book; because I’ll never forget those words. I turned around—she’s sitting on the couch—and I yell back—okay; remember this is 38 years ago—I yell back: “Oh yeah? Well, bleep you!”—
Ann: And we were very new in our faith.
Dave: —and I leave. I didn’t realize, until years later, what I’d done in that moment. I did exactly what I saw my dad do. Never even computed that I would have seen my dad yell and scream and curse, and there I am—I say, “Well, bleep you!” I turned and walked away because that’s what I do; right? She yells back at me: “Oh yeah? Well, bleep-bleep you!”
Ann: —which I had never done. I had never cursed, but I was so mad that he would say that to me.
Dave: And when she cursed back—double curse by the way—I was bad, but she was really bad.
Barbara: She one upped you.
Dave: I just went [gasp]. I did; I literally went [gasp], because I was shocked that my wife would curse me. I’m out; I left—I went upstairs. I’m just going to leave this situation, because that’s what you do; right?
Ann: Everyone’s thinking, “These are the new hosts?” [Laughter]
Dennis: That’s what I was thinking. [Laughter] That’s what I was thinking—I was going [speaking with an announcer voice]: “I bring you this message from the host selection committee of FamilyLife Today. We have a question for you: ‘Do you curse each other out today?’” [Extended laughter]
Dave: Thirty-eight years ago—it’s never happened since.
Ann: It really hasn’t, actually.
Dave: It never has happened since. Again, I’m not saying we’re perfect; but yes, God has done a miracle in our life.
Here’s the amazing thing—when I walked upstairs, guess what my wife does? [Knocking] She follows me.
Barbara: She follows you; absolutely.
Dave: I am like—it’s the bedroom she grew up in. I went in there and shut the door. She kicks open the door—
Bob: A good prize fighter: you go to the corner; they come after you in the corner. They can pummel you to death over there. [Laughter]
Dennis: “Come out! You’re fighting like a chicken!”
Dave: Exactly; yes!
Ann: I sat beside him and I put—I sat right beside him—
Dave: —on the bed.
Ann: —our thighs are touching. I put my hand on his leg, and I look at him—like, “We need to talk about this.”
Dave: And I was just so frozen. I was like: “What are you doing?! Get out of here!” It was—I look back now and it is like, “Okay; I had a belief about conflict.” I was showing it right there: “Conflict’s bad; you avoid it.”
I now have a belief about conflict—it’s in the book. Conflict is actually a good thing. I would say—probably better stated—it’s neutral; and how you handle it determines [how] it can be really—a really good thing in your marriage.
In fact, every marriage/every relationship has it. We all know how to have conflict—very few of us know how to resolve it. That’s why we wrote a whole section—it’s like: “Let’s help couples. If they go, vertically, with Christ—when you get the vertical marriage thing—how does that help them resolve conflict?” Because now I actually enjoy conflict. I don’t look for it; but when it happens, I am like, “Oh my; if we do this well, we’re going to be closer at the end of this thing, not further apart.”
Dennis: I think one of the most important hours in the entire Weekend to Remember is the session on Saturday afternoon, right before the sex talk; it’s about resolving conflict.
Dave: Yes, yes.
Dennis: I think the reason is because most couples do not have the basics. They don’t have a vocabulary nor the training to know how to talk to each other and to discuss a disagreement and how we’ve hurt one another.
I want to ask both Bob and Barbara—first my wife, Barbara: “Do you remember your parents arguing? What was the model of arguing?” I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you that question, just listening to you two [Dave and Ann] talk about it.
Ann: —which would be a great discussion to have with your spouse—
Dennis: It really would.
Ann: —“Tell me about…”
Barbara: Well, even for pre-married couples/—
Barbara: —engaged as a part of getting ready for marriage. It’d be great to talk about that ahead of time.
Ann: —and “What do you still carry into that?”
Ann: So go ahead, Barbara.
Barbara: My family didn’t—there wasn’t much conflict resolution. There was conflict, I’m sure; but my parents were very guarded about what they expressed in front of us kids. They didn’t express a lot of emotion, or a lot of affection, or certainly not much anger. Now, there was a little bit toward the kids, occasionally, when we disobeyed or did something wrong; but as far as marital conflict, I never saw any.
Bob: I remember isolation. I remember seeing that my parents aren’t close. I remember seeing my dad come home. We’d have dinner, and then he’d go down to the basement to work. Mom would stay upstairs, and there was not connection; there was not affection. You looked at them, and you didn’t see overt conflict; but you didn’t see a couple, where you thought, “These two are so in love with one another.” That’s not the memory that I have.
Later, in my teen years, I started to see some of the conflict [come] out. In fact, I started, in my teen years, to get drawn into some of the conflict between my mom and dad and to try to—
Dennis: —be a referee?
Bob: Yes; I was siding—actually, I was siding with my mom—not trying to be a referee. It was Mom and me piling up on Dad to try to address the issue that I saw in him. I was oblivious to the issues with her. I could just see his overt behavior; I didn’t see her covert behavior that was kind of going on behind the scenes with that.
Dennis: And I only remember my mom and dad having one argument.
Dennis: Yes; voices were raised. I remember, as a five-year-old boy, physically shaking for fear, thinking that my parents would get a divorce. There were no bleep words. There was just anger and disagreement—I have no idea what about.
I think today, as you think about how prevalent divorce is in our culture, kids have to be scared to death. There’s an African proverb that goes “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Your kids need to see you two resolve conflict. Now, you may not resolve all of it in front of them; but they need to see healthy engagement between two people, who occasionally do disagree or disappoint one another.
Now, we’ve just got a brief amount of time here. I want you guys to walk us through just the essence of the basics of how you go about resolving conflict between two selfish imperfect people who disappoint and hurt one another.
Bob: Yes; think about couples, who are listening, who are saying: “Okay; we’ve got conflict. We don’t necessarily do it well. It leads to hurt feelings. We don’t get things resolved, so we need some help because we want conflict to be something that builds our marriage rather than tears down our marriage.” What kind of advice would you give them?
Dave: Well, it’s interesting. There’s so much advice. I try to make it real simple—even in the book we just call it “The Seven S’s of Conflict Resolution.” One of them you start with—and they’re not in any order—but if you start here, you’re starting in a good place. First one is: “Shut up!”; in other words, “Listen.” Because we are selfish, we come into conflict thinking, “We’re right; they’re wrong, and we’re going to show them that,” and we don’t hear what they say.
So, honestly, a lot of times it’s like, “Oh my; I’ve got to be selfless enough.” Again, this is where vertical comes in—if I go to God and say: “God, give me ears. Help me not just to be about me. I want my eyes to be focused on her/on him.” I’m going to listen; I’m going to let them talk; I’m not going to interrupt. I’m going to look at them—I’m going to put my phone away; I’m going to turn off the TV—all that good listening-skill stuff I’m going to do, and I’m going to shut up.
I’m telling you what—I can say this right now, and it’s a whole another thing to do; because when she’s saying what she’s saying, I’m like trying to interrupt and say, “You’re wrong,”—it’s like: “No; do not interrupt. Literally, look at her/look at him and say, ‘I want to know your heart.’”
Because here’s the thing—behind every story is a story; behind every feeling and comment she or he’s making, there’s something behind it. If you listen well, you’ll get to the heart of the issue; because often, it’s not the presenting problem. We all know that; it’s something behind that.
I remember—it’s a long story, but a short clip of that would be Ann and I got in a fight about her parking in a parking spot at our church by the front door—which there’s a rule at our church—if you are on staff or a member, you park in the worst parking spots and leave the best ones for unchurched people. She pulls into the parking spot by the front door of the church, while I’m standing out there before the service, and comes walking up—like “Hey, God gave me this parking spot.” I literally said: “God did not give you that parking spot! Move the car now. I’ve got to go preach.”
Anyway, I get home; and we’re in an instant fight, because she’s violated a core value of our church. I’m not saying every church should do this, but that was one of ours. We start into this fight. Cody, our youngest son—how old was he?—14?—
Dave: —is watching this fight. He says to me—he raised his hand in the middle of the fight—it was in the kitchen. He goes, “Hey, Dad, don’t you and mom travel around the country and teach couples how to resolve conflict?” I go, “Yes.” He goes, “Can you show me?” [Laughter] You said you have to show your kids—well, here it is—I go: “You just sit there, young man. You watch; I’ll show you.”
I started yelling at her. We don’t yell much anymore; but it got pretty escalated, because I was really upset that she violated a core principle of our church. She leaves the room. While she goes upstairs, I’m literally thinking, in my righteous anger, like: “You should leave the room. You know you’re wrong.” I sat there, and Cody’s there; and we both shook our heads—like, “Yes; Mom’s going to go up there and figure out she’s wrong and come back down.”
She comes back down ten minutes later. Tell them what you said.
Ann: Well, I wish I could say I went up there and prayed and asked Jesus to help me; but I really just kind of built up ammunition of what he had done wrong and what I had done right. I kind of blasted him with: “I do everything around here while you’re off at Kensington.” I had a big long list, and I felt good about it. Then Dave came back.
Dave: Well, she went off. [Laughter] She’s being very nice right now but just walks through her life as I’m doing my thing.
Bob: The machine gun just rattled.
Dave: Yes. [Machine gun sound] Yes; and it was good stuff too. [Laughter] I tell you—Cody was sitting at the end of the kitchen table, and he looked at me. It was one of those man-to-man looks. We didn’t say a word; but the look was “Dad, you’re toast.” [Laughter] I looked at him like, “Yes; I am,”—you know?
But anyway, when she got done, I asked one question—and here, I’ll set up the question this way—when she went upstairs, first of all, I’m like, “You should be upstairs”; but she was up there like 15 minutes. I did a really important thing to do in conflict, and it’s really hard to do. You know what it was?—I prayed. While she was upstairs, I prayed. It wasn’t “God, I want to be right; I want to prove her wrong.”
Ann: I didn’t pray. I didn’t pray, you guys. [Laughter] I want you to know.
Dave: She’s up there; but I prayed a simple prayer—not out loud—just sitting there. I just said: “God, I’m missing something. I’m obviously missing something. Help me to see what I’m missing!”
Dennis: That’s a good prayer.
Dave: She comes down; does her little [Machine gun sound] deal; right? All I said was: “Let me ask you something. Do you feel like Kensington”—that’s our church—“is more important to me than you are?” She didn’t even answer—she just shook her head, “Yes.”
I’m like, “There it is.” I’d been missing that whole thing. I think it was about a parking spot—it was all about her feeling cherished, and loved, and priority. I missed all that; because I wasn’t willing to shut up, let her speak, lean in: really try to say, “There’s a story behind the story; what is it?” There it was.
I was like: “Oh my; we’re back to the ten-year anniversary.” It’s like, again, she’s second and everything else in my life is first. It was one of those moments, where the conflict now could be engaged in and get to resolution because, now, we knew what it was. It wasn’t a parking spot—by the way, she’s never parking there again—but it wasn’t a parking spot.
Ann: —that he knows of. [Laughter]
I think the thing that I love about that story—and I think this is just—if you could just do this one point in conflict, of go to God first—because let’s all be honest: we don’t want to go to God first—
Ann: —because we want to make our point. And God doesn’t always want to make the same point that we want to make, so I think that’s a good one: “Go to God first.”
Dave: Yes; and I know, because of time, we’re not going to walk through “Seven S’s of Conflict Resolution.” Get the book; read them.
But it’s interesting, as you look through—and here they are—like: “Shut up,” “Soft Answer”—which, again, I didn’t really realize it in the moment; I responded gently rather than escalate. When you escalate, they escalate. When somebody’s escalating and you de-escalate, they can’t escalate; if they do, they’re just crazy. It’s like, “Oh, Proverbs 15: ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath.’” I asked her gently, “Do you feel like Kensington’s more…?” Boom; that led us to “Okay; what’s the truth here?” We call it “Seek Truth” or “Receive the Truth.” Then there’s this whole big deal—and it’s a whole long discussion—is “Seek Forgiveness” or “Grant Forgiveness.” These are these principles.
But Ann just said, and I think it’s the most important one; the seventh principle is really number one, and we just say it this way: “Surrender”—not to your spouse; to Jesus—you go vertical. When you surrender—again, you can’t control them surrendering—because every couple, probably listening right now, going, “Well, my husband won’t…” or “My wife…”—forget them—just you surrender your heart, to say: “Jesus, I’m going vertical. I’m going to do what You want me to do. I’m going to leave my spouse to You. God, soften my heart.” God can do a miracle, and He’ll get you to resolution.
Bob: Well, again, we’ve been listening back to a conversation that Dennis and Barbara Rainey and I had with Dave and Ann Wilson a little more than a year ago when the book, Vertical Marriage, first came out. Now there’s a video series that goes with it—a five-part series for small groups to go through—the Vertical Marriage video series. There is a common theme that keeps showing up; did you notice that?—surrender?
Ann: I did; there we are again. [Laughter]
Bob: But the surrender message is central to what it means to walk by faith. If we’re not walking surrendered lives—to walk by the power of the Spirit means you surrender your own power, right?
Ann: It’s a continual prayer. When Paul says to “pray without ceasing,” it’s that continual prayer of going to God first: asking Him for wisdom, direction, power.
Dave: Yes. I think one of the biggest problems in marriage and life is selfishness.
Dave: It’s at the root; so when you surrender, what happens is God makes us selfless. Then it becomes more about, “How can I serve my spouse?” rather than get her or get him to do it my way. In conflict, that is huge.
Ann: Oh, it’s so hard; it’s so hard to do it.
Bob: When there is conflict and selfishness—you put those two together—conflict’s not going to get resolved. You have to take self out in order for conflict to be resolved.
I don’t know if you’re going to get into this; but of course, Thursday night, you guys are going to be leading a small group that all of our listeners are invited to be part of. On our website at FamilyLifeToday.com there’s a link to a Facebook® group. This Facebook group is the Vertical Marriage small group that Dave and Ann are going to be leading Thursday nights at eight o’clock CT. It’s open to anybody who wants to be a part of it.
They’re going to go for three weeks, and here’s what everybody does: you watch Session One of the Vertical Marriage video series, which is available for you free online, and then you come to the small group, having watched the video, and you join in the conversation that Dave and Ann are going to be leading. That starts this Thursday night; it’s going to go for three weeks.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and join a small group with Dave and Ann Wilson as your leaders, starting this Thursday night. The information’s available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, along with information about Dave and Ann’s book, Vertical Marriage, which is available. There’s also the video series available; so if you want to use that with your small group when it starts back up, later in the summer or in the fall, the information is all available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. But we’ll see you Thursday night for the Dave and Ann Wilson small group on Vertical Marriage!
Let me just say, this small group is just one of the ways that FamilyLife® is working hard during this unusual season to continue to stay connected with you/to be a resource to provide practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family. Many of you have been connecting with us, asking us to pray for you during this time; we’re doing that. There’s a lot of family tension going on; there’s a lot of hardship that families are experiencing. We’re praying for you; and we’re working hard to provide you with resources to help strengthen the most important relationships in your life: your relationship as husband and wife, you relationship with your kids, your extended family.
That’s our mission at FamilyLife: to effectively develop godly marriages and families, one home at a time. You make all of this possible for others when you help support the ongoing work of this ministry. I know this is a time when, for some of you, that’s just not possible; for others, who are able to be generous during this season, we just want to say, “Thank you.”
In fact, if you can support us with a donation today, we’d love to say a special thanks by sending you a copy of Barbara Rainey’s new book, My Heart, Ever His, a book about how we can pray more effectively during difficult seasons. It’s our thank-you gift when you make a donation today online at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do; and thank you for your ongoing, continued support of this ministry. Thanks for praying for us; we appreciate it.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about issues from the past that are still affecting our marriage, maybe, ten or twenty years into the future. We’ll have that conversation tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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