One of my memories growing up was playing a game next door at my neighbor’s house with some neighborhood children. My teammate kept fussing at me because I was not up to par. He was a hot-headed ten-year-old, and I was an angelic eleven-year-old (okay… I was pretty hot-headed too, especially when I was told I was wrong). After he yelled at me three or four times, I threw my racquet to the ground and said, “If you’re so good at it, play by yourself,” and I went home! My hope was that the game would be over and he’d have to suffer for being so mean to me! Much to my chagrin, less than a minute later, they had evened out teams and the game continued – none of them giving any thought to the fact that I had left.
My behavior was no doubt childish, but I was a child. For all the times I’ve acted in such a manner as an adult, I no longer have the age excuse. Within all of us, there is a little kid that wants his or her way. We don’t like being told, “No.” We don’t like being proven wrong. We don’t like feeling foolish. Our inner-three-year-old loves to rise up within us when we are not seeing eye-to-eye with our spouse.
One way this often manifests itself is by one person abandoning a situation. For example, let’s say you are in a heated discussion with the love of your life when you feel backed in a corner. One of three natural responses occurs: they are to fight (some lash out with hurtful words), fear (some may shut down and do nothing), or flee (leaving the situation to avoid it). When thinking of someone fleeing, we often think of someone running as hard as they can away from danger. In this case, fleeing the situation usually looks like storming up the stairs, slamming doors, and refusing to talk. This is sometimes called stonewalling.
Stonewalling may begin as a way to cope with anger (getting away before saying something you’ll later regret); but, if the relational door stays closed and you don’t attempt to talk again after a short period of time (enough time to cool down), then you are abandoning your spouse. Ok, so you aren’t walking out and leaving your spouse completely; but, if you are staying away from your spouse, and punishing them by your silence, then you are emotionally abandoning them… and trust me, it will hurt you in the long run.
Most of us don’t set out to prepare for managing conflict well. So, what’s your natural defense mechanism? Do you face conflict head on, do you give in to avoid conflict, or do you flee conflict and use your silence as a weapon? Leaving a situation for a time to gain clarity and to avoid hurting someone is healthy. However, staying away and allowing pride and anger to keep you from reconciling with your spouse is childish and it comes with serious consequences.
For a window of time, one spouse will often desperately want reconciliation. Then, after being abandoned several times, he or she will want reconciliation increasingly less. Before too long, it is not uncommon for the abandoned spouse to feel nothing when abruptly left alone and emotionally abandoned. In time, apathy can arise and seeking emotional fulfillment outside of the marriage may occur. When someone has a desperate need, they will find a way to meet it. Our counsel would be for the offended spouse to find his or her needs met in his or her relationship with Christ; however, unfortunately, sometimes people turn to another man or woman to feel alive, cared for, and worthwhile.
If you aren’t yet married, you have a great opportunity to lay the axe to this root of future abandonment while it is still small. When you and your significant other fight, do you tend to clam up and punish them with your silence? I would strongly admonish you to find a different way to resolve your circumstances. While you are not in an argument, discuss how you both will handle your next argument (for it will come). If you come to an impasse in your points of view, decide together how you will handle such an impasse in a way that shows each other mutual respect. Never allow an argument to shut down communication, except for a short period of time if a cool down is needed before rational discussion can proceed. You may even want to agree on how long you think you need to be apart before resuming your discussion of the problem. You will likely encounter this dynamic before marriage and after marriage. However, if you work on setting up expectations surrounding disagreements and how to process them, it can save you countless hours of heartache after marriage!
How do you normally deal with conflict in your relationships?