“But, God, why?!” If I had a dollar for every time I sat in my car or bedroom, crying and asking God, “Why?”, I could buy a year’s supply of tissues. Eric and I love each other, but despite this love, we have “enjoyed” some memorable arguments! I was not prepared for this fact on our wedding day. I thought I was… but I was not… not at all.
I was not prepared for us to lose it on each other in the Winnie the Pooh store, Disneyland (circa 2007).
I was not prepared for road rage arguments leading to silent and lonely car trips.
I was not prepared for the icy stare of an angry man.
All I was expecting was love, fun, laughs, and occasional squabbles (which, of course, would be easily remedied). We were going to crush this marriage thing – no problem.
But, It Was a Big Problem
Our pride was much larger than our conflict resolution skills and we made many mistakes. Though we do not argue nearly as much as we did in those early days, we are not immune to raised voices, angry eyes, stony silence, and tears. Generally, in these moments I get angry with myself and think, “I wish I didn’t need him. Why do I have to need him?!”
As our Year of Hindsight continues, we’re reviewing the topic of conflict. After combing through almost a decade of conflict-related PreEngaged posts, I curated some of the advice in those posts which I think are most worth re-mentioning. When it comes to discussing conflict, I am always preaching to myself. No one is perfect and I am most definitely far from it! ~smile~
Twenty Tips Regarding Conflict
- Not all conflict should be avoided. We believe disagreements can be goodfor relationships: they challenge our thinking, they show us the other side of the coin, and they strengthen our emotional muscles. When handled well, they can even draw us closer! It is not conflict which harms relationships; rather, it is how the conflict is worked through and resolved. Focus on quality over quantity. Instead of saying, “Look at us! We only fought twice this year!” think, “Look at us! We learned so much from all of our arguments this year!” Not fighting does not mean everything is great. On the interior, a world of resentment can be brewing – whereas, on the exterior, it can appear sunny and warm. However, the inner-tornado eventually affects the face. Let personal growth and successful communication be the measurements of success rather than the simple quantity of disagreements.
- Remember men and women are truly different. I know, this is not a popular truth in our modern era. Women can do anything men can do… right? Wrong. Women cannot go into their nothing box. Men can think about nothing. Did you know that? In my thirty-seven years, I have never experienced a thought-free moment. Even in my sweetest, calmest solitude, I am nursing at least one thought at a time. Men and women are biologically different which impacts communication, attention, and focus. Men can compartmentalize and shelve a morning-fight-with-the-wife and move on to work. Women, in general, are more likely to take that fight with them throughout the day. The book Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti is a great read which explains this dynamic well. Remembering your differences can help you assume positive intent when he or she responds to you in “strange” ways.
- Focus on the problem. Conflicts arise because of problems (or perceived problems); but, all too often, the conversation takes a turn and couples start targeting each other rather than the issue at hand. “Well, if you would come home on time once in a while, maybe I would not always be in a bad mood!” or “If you did a better job of cleaning around here, maybe I would not be too embarrassed to invite my friends over for dinner!” When we blame the other person for the problem, it is easy to attack him or her rather than the problem. Embracing blame changes the argument from: the house is not clean and that is a problem, and to: you are a bad housekeeper and that is why I am angry! The former emphasis attacks (which also produces defensiveness) while the other highlights the concern (which focuses on problem resolution). If you are too upset to focus on the problem, collect yourself and come back when you can keep a handle on your emotions and your eye on the topic at hand.
- Remember, perspective matters. While reviewing past posts in preparation for this post, I was reminded of a time I was fuming mad with Mr. Viets. I thought he was the most selfish, unfeeling jerk to walk the earth. A dear relative asked for our help and Eric declined. Actually, no – he did not decline. He declined to me and I had to break the news to my family member. If you looked closely, you could see flames on the sides of my face. Later that night, though still upset, I felt more understanding when Eric shared his reasons. Before packing your bags or chasing your spouse around the house with a bat, first seek to understand his or her perspective. Below is an excerpt from our post, Five Steps to Implement When Dealing with Conflict:
“Step one in preparing for conflict is to know the storm is coming. If you do not believe the winds and rains are heading your way, you will not be motivated to tape your windows or build your shelter.
Step two in preparing for conflicts is to consistently meditate on the following phrase: ‘My perspective is not the only one which matters. My spouse’s outlook will be as ingrained in him (or her) as mine is in me. I must seek to understand where my partner is coming from if I desire a victorious marriage.’”
- Find out your conflict management style before you find yourself in an argument. In the fabulous book Confronting Without Offending, Deborah Smith Pegues talks about four conflict management styles. There is the dictator who says, “Do it my way.” The accommodator who says, “Have it your way.” The abdicator who thinks, “I don’t like this. I’ll run away.” And, finally, the collaborator who says, “Let’s find a way.” Learning how you naturally approach conflict (before you get into your next conflict) can help you prepare for future conflicts. If you have the tendency to dominate, hurt feelings, and make matters worse, create a plan for softening your approach, choosing words more wisely, and listening more intently. If you run from uncomfortable confrontations, catch yourself before checking out emotionally. If you typically give in, followed by regret and/or anger, practice speaking your mind (respectfully, of course) so when you experience your next disagreement, you can stand up for yourself. Ultimately, we should all work towards a collaborative conflict style in most cases. Let’s find a way.
- Be aware of your communication strengths and weaknesses. Ever since I was a child, I have struggled with daydreaming. Often, I am mentally somewhere else. When I am alone, this is mostly okay, but it can be awkward when I am with people. (“Excuse me, can you repeat the last five minutes of what you said? I was at the Church of God summer camp, in 1993, performing The Storm Raged On and On.”) In addition to completely escaping into my mind, I tend to babble. Neither of these communication traits are helpful during the management of conflict. Items such as fidget cubes can help me stay present. Eric can ask me questions to make sure I am engaged. I can practice articulating myself succinctly. I can tell others when I feel myself starting to slip into a daydream (or, at least I can try to). Where do you excel in communication and where do you need work? Use your strengths to your advantage and work on improving your weaknesses.
- Take a pause. It is okay – even preferable and healthy – to say, “It seems like we are getting pretty upset. Can we take five minutes to collect ourselves?” Simple arguments have a way of turning into wildfires if we keep talking. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6, ESV). In the moment, getting your point across may seem like your most important mission, but your pride is less important than your relationship. Take the break.
- Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (cf. James 1:19). We can avoid so much trouble by shutting our mouths and opening our ears. It is not easy, especially when we feel justified in our anger; but, in the end, it is the best approach. Hear your loved one. Think about what he or she is saying and not focus on your response. Suspend judgement, give the benefit of the doubt, and then determine if anger was warranted. If after listening and hearing (truly hearing) your partner, you determine anger is still the correct response, express it in a positive way. Be angry and do not sin (cf. Ephesians 4:26).
- Beware the four horsemen! Ever heard of Dr. John Gottman? He is an outstanding relationship researcher who warns couples to be on the lookout for what he calls, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – they are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When these are present in your relationship, trouble is coming. If you see evidence of any of these – especially contempt – get to work on course correcting these quickly (those who do not often find themselves walking the path of divorce) – and get professional help if progress is not quickly made. Criticism can be turned into gentle requests. “When you get the chance, would you mind making sandwiches for the kids?” This is definitely better than, “You never do anything to help me around here!” Defensiveness can be turned into active listening. When you feel the urge to block your partner’s words, instead take a deep breath and say, “I want to hear what you have to say. You have my full attention. I just ask that you speak to me calmly.” Stonewalling (i.e., shutting your partner out and ignoring him or her) can be tweaked and turned into a five-minute recess. “I cannot handle this right now. I’m overloaded. Please give me five minutes to calm down and I’ll come back to finish our discussion.” Contempt needs serious attention quickly. Make an appointment with your pastor or a biblical counseling professional today to have a third party mediate and explore that dynamic with you two.
- Check your entitlement. We do not realize how entitled we are until someone pushes against our will. “I have the right to be coarse when someone speaks harshly to me.” or “I have the right to speak my mind in whichever manner I choose.” or “I have the right to tune my partner out when I do not like what he is saying.” or “I have the right to raise my voice if she is not getting it.” When Eric speaks unkindly to me, a “righteous” indignation arises in me whether I act on it or not. Thoughts such as, “Who does he think he is?” and “If he thinks I am just going to stay here forever and take this, he’s delusional,” come to mind. Though it is not right for Eric or any man to speak unkindly to his wife, it is also wrong for my pride to erupt or for me to dwell on embittered thoughts – no matter how wronged I feel. Being treated like a queen 100% of the time would be lovely, but I am not entitled to that. Any act of kindness is an act of grace. We think we have so many rights, but truly we exist on God’s grace and mercy.
- Consider your arguments an act of worship to God. What?!?!?! How on Earth can arguing with my partner be an act of worship? True, the quarreling itself is not, but how you handle the contention can be beautiful to our Father’s heart. How? Consider the following verses:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1, ESV)
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10:19, ESV)
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29, ESV)
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4, ESV)
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:5, 9-10, ESV)
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37, ESV)
We can make our disagreements acts of worship to God by being obedient to His Word. We can glorify him with our speech and how we treat each other. When we tell ourselves, “No, I will not speak that way no matter how angry I feel,” we are honoring Christ’s sacrifice and our Father in Heaven.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27, ESV)
- Take a hard look at your own heart. What is going on in there? Are you hardened due to sin or unforgiveness? Are you holding tight to pride or clinging to anger? Is ungodliness of any kind contributing to this altercation? When Dr. Paul Tripp encouraged us all to say, “I am my biggest marriage problem,” I threw a brief yet powerful internal temper tantrum. “But I am not my biggest marriage problem! I will not say that!” But, over time, my heart softened, and I began to align with his message. There is nothing we can do about our spouse’s thoughts and behaviors. We cannot change them. I’ll say that again: There is nothing we can do about our spouse’s thoughts and behaviors. We cannot change them. But, we can change ourselves. That is the only power we have, and if we work on changing what is lacking in us, we contribute goodness to the marriage. Our own sinfulness is often our biggest marriage issue.
- Confront privately. Public confrontations are humiliating, and humiliated people are not usually in the mood to work out problems. If you want to light a forest fire in your significant other’s belly, confront him or her (especially him) in front of others. Make a scene. Doing so may create a chasm between you which takes years to bridge.
- Open the windows. In early spring or mid-fall, I love to open the windows and air out the house. Over months of dreadful heat or bone-chilling cold, the house gets dusty and stuffy. The same is true for relationships – platonic and romantic. Whether you do it weekly (which we recommend in the newlywed days), monthly, or quarterly, have a check-in meeting with your significant other and air out your relationship. If something has been bothering you, bring it up calmly and respectfully. Also, bring accolades to the meeting. Let him or her know what you appreciate. Thank each other. Be specific. Let that fresh air in and blow away the polluted air.
- Almost every couple wants to call it quits at times. When you look longingly out the kitchen window and think, “Maybe I should just leave. There is nothing left for me here,” take comfort in knowing almost everyone wants to get out of the marriage contract at times. Let the storm pass. Cling to God’s Word. Cry. But, do not give up. One of my favorite movie proposals of all time comes from Runaway Bride:
Look, I guarantee there’ll be tough times. I guarantee that at some point, one or both of us is gonna want to get out of this thing. But I also guarantee that if I don’t ask you to be mine, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life, because I know, in my heart, you’re the only one for me.
Aside from the “there is only one right person for each person” nonsense, this quote is close to my heart. Yes, tough times are coming and we will want to run from each other; but, what we have is worth the pain and I will regret it if I do not ask you to take this journey with me. I may have to pull that movie out soon to watch again!
- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not an outdated idea (cf. Matthew 7:12). We let our guards down the most with our closest friends and family. Hopefully, your future spouse will be your closest friend and family member. In this comfort, we let it all hang out and that can include rude or thoughtless behavior. It is always a good rule of thumb, especially in marriage, to filter your words and actions through the question, “How would I feel if my partner did this to me?”
- Adopt the sandwich approach to confrontation. Who does not love a good sandwich? Turkey and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, a BLT – all served between two soft and chewy slices of your favorite bread. Sandwiches also work well when it comes time to confront someone. First, start with something positive. Thank you for sitting down to talk with me. I really appreciate it. I know you are busy. Then, add the complaint. Lately, you come home from work at different times without letting me know your plans and it throws my evening routine out of kilter. Would you please let me know when you are going to be late? Also, would you give me an estimation of when you think you will be coming home? Finished up with the other slice of positive bread. You work so hard and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it. I am always so happy to see you walk through the door! I do not enjoy eating peanut butter and jelly without the bread – what a mess that would be! Confrontations can be messy too if you leave off the positive slices of bread.
- Count it all joy! “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4, ESV) For the believer, trials and difficulties do not have to spell doom and gloom. There is a greater purpose. God uses those tough times to make us more like Christ. No argument or emotional season is wasted. If you are His, He is going to use it all for your good and His glory.
- “Is what I am about to say best for the team?” Taking a moment to contemplate your next sentence is natural to some and unheard of to others. It is amazing what three to five seconds of consideration can do to stop a fight in its tracks. Consider the question, “Is what I am about to say best for the team?” Write it on a sticky note and post it around your residence if you want to commit it to memory. When we hurt our significant other, we hurt ourselves. Not only that, but we hurt our mission – the people we meet, the children we raise, and the mark we hope to leave on this world.
- Aim to come away from each argument a bit wiser. Learn something. We can go in circles and make no progress, or we can take a step forward every time.
- We got in a fight last night because we were so tired. We should not discuss hot topics late at night.
- He seems to bristle whenever I make suggestions about how he can improve his work. I should find a better way to approach these topics.
- She tends to get quiet when I talk about my bike club. I need to get to the bottom of what is bothering her.
Fights can serve to crush us or improve us. It is all in how we handle them. Keeping a journal of lessons learned is an excellent resource, both for you and the generations to come!
The twenty points in this post only scratch the surface. We could easily fill volumes of conflict resolution manuals if we interviewed thousands of couples and asked for their tips and tricks. As you grow, you will learn so many great ways to love your future spouse through all the arguments – if you want to learn.
Let’s end this post with a few questions from how a previous post concluded (in Conflict in Relationships (Doing Conflict Well)) Ponder these questions before your next disagreement:
- Do you tend to confront without thinking?
- Do you have trouble mustering the emotional energy to confront?
- Do you find that you confront too harshly, or with too little force?
- Does your current confrontation style work for you?
- Are you usually happy with the result?
Are you happy with how you and your partner approach conflict? What conflict resolution skills do you want to gain?