Red Lights on the Road to Healing


Red Light 1: Pride

Pride may be the most destructive and harmful impediment to healing in a marriage. As the Bible tells us, “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

The kind of pride we’re talking about is not the warm feeling of pride we have in our family, our work, or our country. We’re talking about the kind of pride that says, “I run my own life, and I don’t want any interference from others.” It’s the pride that refuses to admit faults, placing all the blame for problems and conflicts on others. It’s the pride that causes a husband and wife to hunker down in their respective trenches and refuse to make the first step toward peace.


Harold had been frozen by the red light of pride for a number of years. At age 57, he had succeeded in virtually every area of his life. In business he was a corporate vice-president with an income approaching seven figures. He had been president of his service club for three terms, and the group had raised more money for charity with each succeeding term.

The one area in which Harold was failing instead of succeeding was a big one: his marriage. Fourteen years earlier, their 22-year-old son, Jake, took his own life with a massive drug overdose. Harold and Desiree were devastated and broken. Then, soon after the funeral, Harold started the accusations with his wife: “If you had only trained him better as a boy, Desiree, this might not have happened. You should have controlled his behavior as a teenager. He wouldn’t have fallen in with the wrong crowd if you had been on top of things.”

Desiree was crushed, not only by Harold’s harsh and persistent blame but also by his unwillingness to shoulder any of the responsibility. He would not admit that his extensive business travel and fanatical devotion to his hobbies and projects might have contributed to Jake’s problems. As a result, the couple was popular and well-liked by many, but they were strangers to each other behind closed doors.

To Harold, admitting that there is a conflict, let alone admitting that he may be at least partially responsible for it, is a weakness. His pride is pushing his marriage to the brink of divorce.

The antithesis of pride is humility. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it.” It is a “biggish step” to admit our pride, but it is the only way to turn that red light to green and get on with healing.

Exercising humility allows the Harolds of the world to stand back and take a look inside. We see where we lack forgiving love in our marriage and how to close the loop of conflict. Humility is a gift we rarely ask for because it usually comes in the form of some difficult lessons. But it is indeed a gift.

Red Light 2: Guilt
Mark's head hung so low it looked as if he might never raise his eyes again. "I really did it this time, Gary," he said, "and I can't go back."

Mark worked as a comptroller in a manufacturing plant. He met Mary at the small Christian college they both attended, and they married soon after graduation. Mary came from a wealthy background, while Mark grew up in a working-class home and was the first in his family to attend college. They were both 43 years old when Mark came to see me. The couple had one child in college and another in high school.

Mary enjoyed having nice things, and Mark tried to meet her desires. Though they were on a modest budget, he kept encouraging her to buy what she wanted. Mark was determined to provide for his wife the way other men in their circle of friends did, so he kept using credit cards and delaying payments. He felt terrible about the big financial hole he had plunged them into, but he couldn't bring himself to tell Mary about it.

Then one day, Mark made a decision that would change the course of their lives forever. He discovered a $12,000 error in the company's books. Sitting at his desk reviewing the figures, he congratulated himself on a job well done. But then a dark thought took him by surprise: What if I didn't tell anyone about the error? Nobody else would be able to find it. The $12,000 is there for the taking.

He knew it was wrong, but then he thought about all the raises he had been promised but had never been given. No one is looking out for me here, he thought. And trying to keep up with Mary’s spending is getting harder all the time. Maybe I can just take the money for a couple of months and then pay it back later. No one will ever know.

Can you see the web of rationalizations? Mark gave into the temptation and never returned the money as he had planned. Now he was in my office because his actions were about to be revealed by a company audit.

Mark's inability to be honest with Mary about their finances helped create his problem in the first place. But after he committed the crime, he began living with guilt. As that guilt weighed on him, he became more moody and irritable, harder to get along with. Mary knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was. Mark avoided any conflict over family finances because he did not want to admit his crime.

Mark was filled with self-condemnation and feelings of failure as he sat in my office. "What will Mary say? How will I ever face my kids and my parents? How will I support my family? What will happen if I go to prison?" Guilt had blocked Mark from resolving conflict with Mary and his secrecy only allowed things to get worse. He would be dealing with the consequences of his actions for many years.

The good news about guilt is that it can lead us to a loving relationship with God. The apostle Paul wrote: "God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation. We will never regret that kind of sorrow. But sorrow without repentance is the kind that results in death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). 

The red light of unresolved guilt can inhibit the restoration of a broken relationship. When you feel guilty, you need to ask yourself a pointed question: Have I violated a law of God or humanity that would lead me to feel what I'm feeling? If you must answer yes, perhaps your guilt is constructive and can lead you to repentance and healing. Confronting guilt and repenting is a difficult step, but the freedom you experience is so much more refreshing than a terrible burden you feel when you do not face up to it.

Red Light 3: Laziness
Laziness is a subtle but dangerous enemy of closing loops, a glaring red light for many couples in conflict. When people are single, they often don't realize how much work a marriage relationship requires. The big task is finding and courting a potential spouse. Once the chase is over and they have said "I do," they kick into neutral, intending to coast through the marriage. They put a lot of effort into courtship, but they are not willing to put in the grunt work of making that marriage relationship last a lifetime. When conflict arises, they are too lazy to deal with it. They pull away from the heat and escape into their fantasies with activities such as hobbies, television, shopping, or sports. Hurt and anger go unhealed when laziness blocks a husband or wife from working through the conflicts they face.

John and Deb have been struggling for years over John's apparent lack of interest in dealing with conflict in their family. When John returns home from work, he immediately turns on the television. There he sits for hours on end, night after night, watching sitcoms and sporting events. It drives Deb nuts.

Deb grew up in an active family that was always working in the yard, playing sports, and participating in family activities together. During their courting years, John spent lots of time with Deb, and he was creative in planning special times together. But during the last few years, he has nearly removed himself from any real family activity, and it hurts Deb deeply. And whenever Deb tries to talk to John about it, he’s too absorbed in the TV to listen and respond. Their love has grown cold and they have drifted into the perilous waters of emotional divorce.

Laziness can kill a marriage. It indicates apathy, and apathetic people are never willing to put the time and effort into making a marriage work. At the end of their lives, they look back and realize they forfeited the intimacy and love they really wanted in marriage. Laziness leads to regret, remorse, pain, and divorce.

Red Light 4: Shame
Annie ran from my office, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her husband, Scott, looked at me in bewilderment. "Every time we start talking about what's going on, she cries," Scott said. "I don't know how to respond."

Here was a couple trying to develop their marriage in a healthy way. But a voice kept echoing in Annie's ears from her childhood, the voice of her mother: "Can't you ever clean this kitchen the way I told you to?"; "That boy touched you again, didn't he? I told you to stay away from him. That's all he wants."

Annie grew up with messages of shame delivered by a mother who probably had grown up in the same type of supercritical home environment. As an adult, Annie heard those messages constantly in her mind whenever she and Scott faced a conflict. Those messages came out with the same tone of shame, and always with tears: "I will never do it right, Scott. I know I'll come up short in your eyes"; "I can't go to the party looking like this. Go on without me. I'll never be ready on time."

Scott hurt for his wife. They both wanted to learn how to deal with their conflicts. But every time they began talking about a problem between them, Annie would shut down or become overly defensive, and Scott would throw up his hands in disgust and frustration. They were rarely able to resolve a conflict because Annie's feelings of shame continually blocked the process.
How does the red light of shame differ from the red light of guilt? Guilt relates to behavior; people feel guilty for what they did. Shame relates to the individual; people feel shame for who they are. In her excellent book, Released from Shame, Sandra Wilson wrote, "Shame is a sense of being uniquely and hopelessly flawed. Shame leaves a person feeling different from and less valuable than other human beings."

The shame-controlled person needs to understand and internalize two key biblical concepts. The first is grace. When the apostle Paul cried out to God to remove his weaknesses, God's answer was to trust in his grace. Paul wrote, "But [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). It is in our very weakness that God will display his power in our lives – if we let him.

The second key concept is regeneration. Shame-filled people must release their negative view of themselves and embrace their true identity as the people God made them to be when they place their faith in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: "Throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. Instead, there must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes. You must display a new nature because you are a new person, created in God’s likeness – righteous, holy, and true" (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The fifth red light may be the most formidable of all. Barb will describe the role fear plays in blocking us from healing the hurts in our marriages.

Red Light 5: Fear
Fear is primarily a response to something that we perceive as overpowering or threatening in our lives. Fear can exert either a positive or a negative force on us. In the Bible we are instructed to fear God, meaning that we are to respect and defer to his power in our lives. A healthy fear of God is manifested in our trust in God. Ironically, a respectful, trusting fear of God can help deliver us from other fears that can damage our lives and marriages. In other words, the more we fear God in the proper sense of the term, the less we will fear those things that keep us from being the persons and spouses we want to be.

Fear of Failure
When you fear failure in your marriage, you will go to great lengths to avoid the problems and conflicts that generate your fear. Sometimes the fear of failure can become so severe that marital communication in any form is a chore. You may feel as if you don't measure up to your spouse’s expectations, so you stay away physically or emotionally. By avoiding the pain of failure, you can allow conflicts to fester for years.

Fear of Success
Ironically, some people back away from conflict resolution because they are afraid of success, not failure. You may wonder, "The fear of failure makes sense, but who would be afraid of success?" People who fear success avoid taking risks because their past is so scarred by failure that success is an alien idea to them. They stand immobile at the fork in the road because moving ahead into the unknown of healing seems more threatening than the familiarity of failure.

Subconsciously these people reason, If I work through and resolve this conflict with my spouse, I may have to change my behavior, and I don't know how to handle that. Or they think, If I clear up this conflict successfully, I'll probably mess up the next opportunity, so what's the use of trying? Some of these people will actually sabotage conflict resolution to spare themselves the anxiety of a change in the relationship with their spouse.

Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is a cousin to fear of failure. It's the small voice inside that says, "If your spouse really knew what you were thinking and feeling, he or she would laugh at you and turn away from you." Fear of rejection keeps some spouses from explaining the true reasons for their conflicts. We figure that if we risk stepping out, we will be rejected again. So instead of forging ahead to resolve a conflict, we swing back into the shadows and shut down. Fear of rejection leads to a loss of self-confidence that can develop into anxiety or depression. Conflicts may persist, but the pain of discussing them is so great that avoidance seems the best route to take.

Fear of Emotional Intimacy
Another type of fear that can impede the resolution of conflict in marriage is the fear of emotional intimacy. You may equate emotional intimacy with sexual intimacy, but they are very different. Many couples succeed at sexual intimacy while starving for emotional intimacy. Sexual intimacy is easy. You can come together physically and be satisfied in a short amount of time. Being close emotionally takes constant work and commitment.

People who fear emotional intimacy put up walls of protection to keep their spouses from getting close. They carefully keep their deep thoughts and feelings under wraps. They push their spouses away emotionally with angry blowups, or they avoid getting too close in the first place. Either way, the result is a marriage where conflicts are resolved only at the surface level and deep hurts go unhealed.

Slaying the Dragons of Fear
Here is a vivid image that will help you deal with any fears that may be blocking you from the path of conflict resolution and healing. Someone shared this picture with Gary and me several years ago, and we have used it in our own personal lives and in our counseling ever since.
If some kind of fear is standing between you and the healing you desire in your marriage, picture that fear as a fierce, fire-breathing dragon. Every time you even think of taking a step in the right direction, that dragon roars and breathes fire at you, keeping you at bay. The more you feed that fear with your irrational thinking and worry, the more the dragon grows. The only way to stop the growth and move ahead is to slay the dragon. 

How do you slay the dragon of fear? In confronting it with the truth. Fear is mention hundreds of times in the Bible. But more than 300 times we are told by our all-knowing heavenly Father to "fear not." Paul wrote to Timothy, "God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7). Our fears may seem invincible, but they are no match for the power, love, and self-discipline we have from the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Whether you struggle with the fear of failure, success, rejection, or emotional intimacy (any or all of them), you can defeat your fears by demonstrating faith in the God who empowers us to slay all our dragons.

Red Light 6: Control
The issue of control centers on the struggle for dominance or power in the marriage relationship.
There are two kinds of controllers: active and passive. Active controllers want to call the shots, make the decisions, determine the course of action, and otherwise dominate what happens in their relationships. Active controllers often block healthy conflict resolution by not regarding a spouse's opinions, needs, or suggestions. Or if both partners happen to be active controllers, they will spend their time arguing and seldom reach a resolution. 
Passive controllers have a low need for control and a high need to please. When it comes to conflict, they also have opinions, needs, and suggestions, but they will often back off to keep the peace and make their spouse happy. Or they will simply walk away and avoid the conflict. Passive controllers can block conflict resolution just as effectively as active controllers. By allowing a partner to dominate, often their needs in the conflict are unstated and thus unmet, so the conflict continues to simmer beneath the surface.

What's the biblical response to the problem of active or passive control and marital conflict? I think there is a helpful picture in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says: "Look! Here I stand at the door and knock. If you hear me calling open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends.” Jesus is a gentleman. He doesn't bust down the door of your marriage and take over like an active controller. Nor does he stand timidly at the door unnoticed like a passive controller. Rather, he knocks and politely waits to be invited in.

You disarm the threat of control in marriage conflicts the same way. Active controllers, you must learn to back off and knock, as it were, instead of running roughshod over conflict resolution by asserting dominance. Extend your partner the courtesy of asking his or her opinions, learning his or her needs, and hearing his or her suggestions. Classic controllers, instead of always being the doormat, you need to find the courage to step up to the door and knock. Learn to express yourself respectfully but unequivocally. The more you emulate Jesus' courteous example and your relationship, the easier it will be to deal with your conflicts and find healing.


We Need Two Incomes, but I’m Missing Out On Time with My Kids

Q. My husband and I are having a disconnect in our goals in terms of my work. Somehow along the way I have surpassed his income. My job is very stressful and I work a lot, including some time on the weekends. I feel like a bad mother. I’m never around. Grandma always has our kids. They just don’t have the benefit of their mother watching them at sporting events or even dropping them off at school or picking them up. Since the beginning, I didn’t want to have children if we couldn’t provide well for them. Now that I can do that, I want to be there for them when they get off school. I want to participate in their school activities. I want to be more involved in their schooling. But my husband is afraid of losing my income—and frankly, so am I. We need my income, but I’m hurting inside every day.


A. A wife who is a mom as well as the primary wage earner carries a huge load. Many women are in the situation of working full time, and in some cases, their income is higher than their husband’s income. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, many couples will find that there is a price to pay because moms, in particular, hurt inside when they have to put work before their kids. If a wife is working full-time plus weekends and missing out on activities and events with the children, she probably needs to slow down and think about a few things. First of all, she shouldn’t label herself as a bad mother. If the Holy Spirit is speaking, then it would be wise to listen and consider what can be done to make some changes so that she will not have any regrets when the kids are suddenly grown and out of the house.

Women, think ahead. When you stand at your child’s graduation, will you have regrets or will you be satisfied that you didn’t miss the important events along the way? Of course, you can’t be at all the events, but you need to make your kids a priority now. They aren’t going to be in this stage of life for long.

It may take some creative thinking. It will take lots of prayer. Let God know your heart. Understand your real needs. Work on your budget. See if there’s a way you can work fewer hours so that there’s still some income but so that your work hours are not hurting the family. Talk to your boss. Communicate with your husband. No matter what age your kids are right now, if they’re still at home they need you and will benefit from your extra attention. Believe us, you’ll feel real satisfaction if you can tailor your job to make this possible.

The Issue of Debt in Your Marriage

"My spouse came into our marriage with lots of undisclosed debt. What can I do?"

Money is a huge issue in many marriages – and disagreements over money lead to many divorces. Here is a personal story that was shared with us on our radio program:


I just put off our wedding because I didn't think we were ready. My concern is money issues. My fiancé has some debt and he's not being the most responsible when it comes to paying it off. Our pastor told us that it would be best for us to work on that before we got married. My bigger concern is that I'm having a hard time trusting him when it comes to money and when it comes to decisions that he's making. I feel like I've prayed and prayed and prayed for him, and I'm almost to the point that I don't know what to pray anymore. I'm kind of exhausted in that area. And…it really, really scares me.

We believe your eternity is secured when you put all your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. But this side of eternity, your relationship with Christ is very much affected by whom you choose as your spouse. Trust issues are significant, because when it comes to money, integrity matters. You need to clear the air on money issues regularly in your marriage. Are you being honest with each other? Is there full disclosure of debts? Are you in agreement on how to use the money you earn? A good way to do this is to work out a simple budget for how you will spend the money you earn each month. It also helps to determine what you can afford when it comes to how much you give, save, and spend.

There are two issues in the situation described above. The first issue is money. If you step into marriage and your spouse already had a tremendous amount of debt that creates insecurity for you, that's a major issue. Yet the second issue is even more important: What is your spouse’s attitude toward money? See a counselor to help you resolve the trust issues in your marriage. Our book Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage discusses ways to work through wounds in marriage in order to rebuild trust.

Are you both desiring to be good stewards of what God gives you – being honest, sharing it generously, being responsible with it? Get advice: spiritual advice from a pastor or wise friend and financial advice from an accountant or financial planner. Be willing to look far into the future instead of what your heart is telling you today.

The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, I've wondered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10

What’s Your Conflict-Resolution Style?

Join us as we continue in our Healing the Hurt blog series.

It's a beautiful day, the kind that beckons you to drop what you're doing inside and head outside. So you may do something that we often enjoy doing: take off for a walk in the woods. As you traipse down the lane, you hear the birds chirping and see two squirrels chasing each other. You carefully dodge the ruts in the path and can't help but hum a happy tune as you see the sun breaking through the trees, its rays dancing off the leaves around you.


Then you come to an unexpected fork in the road. It's decision time. To your left is a well-traveled, paved pathway. Everybody else seems to be on it so it must be the popular way to go, though it is jammed with traffic. To the right is a narrow, leaf-strewn path illuminated by the sunlight and winding into the woods. You don't see anyone else on the path, but it invites you, as if the light is showing you the way. Which way should you go?

There are many forks in the road of day-to-day living. Sometimes we don't even see the intersection. We just put our heads down and charge ahead on the road less traveled. At other times we slow down and wonder which way we want to go. And still other times we come up to a full stop and ask the tough question: Which way do I really need to go?

Every time you open the loop of conflict in your marriage – whether it is a major argument or just a minor difference of opinion – you stand at a fork in the road. Once an offense has led to hurt and hurt has turned to anger, you are faced with two choices. You can 1) choose to resolve the conflict and close the loop, or 2) choose not to resolve the conflict and leave an open loop.

In this post, we will help you understand how your present style of responding to conflict may indeed hinder your efforts to close the loop.

Your Conflict-Resolution Style

Closing the loop in marital conflict is never simple or easy. One reason is that each of us tend to react to hurt and anger in one of several different styles. As we discussed, your style for dealing with conflict is likely to be the product of what you learned in your family of origin. And since these are imperfect sources at best, your style is imperfect to some degree. So even when you decide to resolve the conflict, your approach may not be as effective as you would hope.

Five Common Conflict-Resolution Styles

The Winner
The people who use this style go into a marital conflict with one thing in mind—winning. They have a high need to control people and situations. The idea is to pull out all the stops and control others, making sure everything and everybody goes their way. This is not the healthiest way to heal hurt and anger in a marriage. These people rarely put much emphasis on the relationship itself because they are too focused on the issue at hand and making sure they don't get the short end of the stick.

Is the winner style ever preferable? Yes, it works well in difficult situations when someone needs to take charge and get a job done quickly. At times you don't have the luxury of getting input from others, even though such decisions may be met with real resistance.

The Persuader
Persuaders are often manipulative, working every angle to gain the advantage. They also have a high need to control their spouses. On the plus side, persuaders are more rational in the midst of a conflict, reasoning instead of dominating people and pushing them away. By manipulating people, persuaders may get their way in the short run, but in the long run, the persuaders' "victims" will resent them. This manipulation and ensuing resentment seriously damages the relationship.

The Pushover
The pushovers are the pleasers of the world. They set aside their own needs and value the relationship above all else. They are not interested in controlling their spouses, which is healthy in most relationships. In conflict, however, they tend to give in and do what their spouses want. Consistently burying their own feelings, these people risk building up resentment below the surface. They may feel as if their spouses take advantage of them, but they can't seem to build up enough strength to take a stand.

Is this style ever useful? Of course, especially when you don't place much value on the results. We need to choose our battles carefully, realizing that sometimes the relationship is more important than the issue.

The Avoider
Avoiders prefer to avoid conflict in marriage and family relationships. A nap sounds like a safer way to deal with interpersonal difficulties. So when conflict rears its ugly head, avoiding spouses may leave the room, clam up, change the subject, or shut down emotionally. They have a low need to control. However, total avoidance is unhealthy because it places such a low priority on the relationship.

Is there any benefit to avoidance? Yes, especially if you are dealing with a powerful personality. If a "winner" is trying to overpower you, being an avoider can buy you some time to think things through. But you must be willing to step up to the plate at some point and resolve the conflict, resisting the inertia that sometimes accompanies avoidance. Unfortunately, many avoiders never do get back in the game. Withdrawing from conflict as a pattern could develop a hardened heart, and conflicts can remain buried for years.

If you take a closer look at these four styles, you will see that they all have drawbacks. Notice that:

  • The win style places high priority on control but a low priority on the relationship. This person is likely to ride roughshod over his or her spouse in a conflict.
  • The persuade style gives high priority to the relationship but also scores high in the need to control. The spouse will use charm and manipulation to get what he or she wants in a conflict.
  • The pushover style highly values the relationship but places low priority on control. In conflict, this person will usually cave in to his or her spouse, becoming a doormat.
  • The avoid style ranks both the relationship and control on the low-end. The spouse is always looking for a way to avoid dealing with marital conflict.

The Resolver
The most effective approach to conflict in relationships is working toward resolution. A resolver tries to cut through the games by striving for directness and honesty in the relationship. They will step up in a steady and mature manner to assert how important it is to value the relationship while confronting the issue.

The resolver exercises just the right balance between a healthy need to control and a healthy priority on relationships. They don't try to win or avoid. They don't persuade or give in. They tend to hit the issues head-on and in a way that often opens the door to conflict resolution and a happy ending. 

When you look back over the conflict you have experienced in your marriage, which style have you employed most of the time?  If you’re like most people, you haven't always dealt with your marital conflict in the healthiest manner.

You've probably reached many forks in the road during conflicts with your spouse. You probably have a good idea which road you should take, yet you have difficulty starting to move in the right direction. You face several hindrances to taking positive, healing steps in a conflict situation. In our next post, we'll refer to these as "red lights" at the fork in the road.

Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage

This is the second month of our Healing the Hurt blog series. Join us as we talk about the different types of anger and where you learned to resolve conflict.

What Type of Anger Heats Up in You?


There are three varieties of the "baked potato" of anger: situational anger, displaced anger, and chronic anger. Each one has a different cause.

Some anger responses are situational, triggered by specific events. You can almost predict it: when a certain something happens, one of you reacts with anger. For example, Barb and I have identified several events that usually trigger anger in one or both of us. One situation that makes sparks fly is when Barb is behind schedule as we are leaving for church or an appointment. Sparks usually fly when we hang wallpaper or pictures together. Once I hang a picture, I don't want any more nail holes; one is enough. Barb, on the other hand, likes to experiment with different spots or later change things around. And I can get a little surly at Christmas time when I'm down on my hands and knees trying to get the tree to stand straight while my family is already starting to hang the ornaments.

What flips your anger switch? Behind every eruption of situational anger are offenses and hurts that have not been resolved. The sooner you close the loop on offenses and hurts, the less damage you will suffer – or inflict – from anger.

Another variety of anger is one counselors refer to as displaced anger. Rather than confronting and dealing with the direct cause of the anger in a situation, the offended spouse expresses his or her feelings indirectly. Here are a couple of classic examples. Your boss ticks you off at work, so you come home and yell at your spouse and kids for no reason. Or how about this classic: Your spouse offends you, so you go outside and kick the dog. Displaced anger may not be as damaging as other forms, but it still leaves a painful open loop in the relationship.

A third type of anger resulting from unhealed hurts is chronic anger. When an open loop is not closed in a timely manner, the hurt and anger are often shoved to the background and ignored. Because it is unresolved, this anger can flare up again and again. Buried wounds and anger generate an assortment of psychological and physical stresses that can ruin a person's perspective on life and eat away at the soul. People with chronic anger are like loose cannons, ready to blast away whenever someone unwittingly touches off the fuse.

Where Did You Learn to Resolve Conflict?

Whether you realize it or not, you came to your wedding day with certain conflict-resolution strategies that you accumulated consciously or subconsciously as you grew up and prepared for marriage. But you have probably discovered by now that some of those strategies are about as effective as bloodletting was for curing illness a couple of centuries ago.

Many individuals and couples wonder why it is so difficult to resolve conflicts in their marriages. Barb and I believe it is because they have never learned the right way to do it. They either received bad advice from someone, took their cues from the wrong role models, read books that contain more opinion than truth about forgiving love, or otherwise assimilated unproductive strategies for handling the conflict, hurt, and anger in their marriages. And in learning the wrong stuff, their conflicts have gone unresolved or become worse.

Where did you learn what you know about closing the loop of conflict? There are two primary sources through which most people get their information and advice on such matters: culture and family. Before you can learn the right way to heal the hurt in your marriage, you must realize what you have been doing wrong, identify where you got those patterns, and determined to let them go. In this post we will focus on different types of family dynamics and how they can affect our conflict-resolution styles, and in turn, our marriages.

What Our Families Teach Us About Conflict

For Gary and me, home is really where the heart is. When we think of our families of origin, we remember the love and camaraderie, holiday dinners, birthday celebrations, vacations, times when we laughed together and cried together. We also remember parents who were committed to getting along with each other, talking – and listening – to each other, and settling the differences.

Sadly, not all people can say this about their families. For many people, the very mention of family or parents sparks other memories – absence, loss, pain. Conflicts and pain at home were frequent, and forgiveness and healing were infrequent or absent together. And these people have carried what they learned at home into their marriages. Unfortunately, they don't realize how they are perpetuating the same problems with their own spouses and children. It's not until they end up in a counselor’s office, trying to sort out the messes of their marriages, that they are willing to take a hard look at themselves to discern why they act as they do.

You have probably noticed people who are repeating behavior patterns, both good and bad patterns, that they learned from their parents. A woman mirrors the perfectionism she once hated in her mother. A man finds solace in rage and control, just as his father did. Of all the married couples we counsel who are having difficulties resolving conflict, the vast majority need to come to terms with unhealthy patterns they learned during childhood.

See if you recognize your family of origin, or your present marriage and family, in one of these four descriptions.

The Good Family

Have you ever said about a neighbor, "The Andersons are such good people! They're an impressive couple, and they have a lovely family. Everyone likes them."

We all have neighbors like the Andersons, don't we? They're really nice people, the salt of the earth. They make a good living and keep their lawns mowed and trimmed. They treat their kids well. They vote every election day. Some may even attend church and be highly moral people. And they are always ready to loan a gardening tool to their neighbors. There's only one thing missing from many good couples like the Andersons: They lack a personal relationship with Jesus.

These kinds of people are like the hard-packed soil where the seed cannot take root. They may have heard the message of the gospel but have never let it penetrate their hearts. They either don't recognize their need for a relationship with Jesus (because the voices of our culture are drowning out the truth), or they hear it and don't care. They turn a deaf ear to the truth and decide to live their lives just for themselves, casting off "church stuff" as either an encumbrance from their parents' generation or as hype from a bunch of "religious nuts."

This is perhaps the most difficult home of all to understand because the family members may not realize how needy they are. Perhaps you or your spouse grew up with parents who were good to you but did not provide a spiritual foundation for the family.

How do "good" families deal with conflict? They teach and model what appears to be a healthy strategy: Fight fair, negotiate, and compromise in order to get what is rightfully yours. It sounds good until you look at the basis for this philosophy. We call it the 50/50 relationship. The message each family member delivers in this arrangement is, "I'll do my part if you do your part." Life becomes a matter of trade-off and compromises, with parents and kids keeping score so one person never gets or gives more than the other.

In this kind of home we see a lack of serving because family members have no place for the loving, serving Savior. Instead, we see a strong emphasis on self-centered people trying to get what they deserve. Kids tend to grow up to be me-oriented adults. When they leave their parents' home for their own marriages, they bring these values along with them. They will be drawn to more of a contractual style of marriage, focusing on what they get, rather than a covenantal style of marriage, focusing on what they give.

The Religious Family

The Bensons live down the street from the Andersons. In many ways they resemble their neighbors – at least from the outside. The Bensons are good, moral people, but they are also religious. They believe in God, attend church, and try to follow the Ten Commandments. But there is no personal relationship with God. Christianity for them is a religious ritual. The Bensons represent the rocky soil where the seed dies for lack of depth.

The religious home is shallow and without root. Their faith is a toxic faith. Christianity is a set of rules, a code to live by. Parents like this remind us of the Pharisees in the New Testament. They were religious people who professed to know the truth about God, but it was all superficial. Their goal was to gain attention and applause – and Jesus called them out on it.

Because of the emphasis on rules, the Bensons live by a rigid structure of family roles. Dad runs the family with an iron fist, demanding respect from his wife and children. The watchword in a religious home is "Do what you're told." The Bible is used as a club to alter behavior. Conflicts are either avoided out of fear or "settled" quickly as the kids fall into line with Dad and Mom’s dictums. Authoritarian parents are harsh and demanding. The kids may tow the line externally, but often their spirits are broken by such harshness. Or deep inside they are seething with rebellion, just waiting for a chance to escape the religious tyranny.

As adults, these children tend to bring one of three types of behavior patterns into their own marriages. One, they may become overly compliant, doing what they're supposed to do out of sheer duty. When it comes to resolving conflicts and healing hurts they are more interested in keeping the peace than dealing with issues. Two, they rebel against God, church, and rules. Conflicts usually get worse – not better – in this environment. Three, they may become indifferent, both to God and to their spouses. As such, conflicts often go unresolved and hurts unhealed.

The Wounded Family

The Carters live a few blocks away from the Andersons and the Bensons. They are not what you would call good people. The parents are controlling and abusive toward each other and toward the children. This is the kind of soil where anything of God or goodness is choked out by anger, hatred, spite, and distrust. Their kids are growing up never quite feeling accepted and loved the way God intended.

Gary and I often refer to the adult children from homes like the Carters' as the "walking wounded." These people were hurt by growing up in homes with serious relational problems. Some bear the emotional – and sometimes physical – scars of alcohol and drug abuse, emotional and physical abuse, or sexual abuse in the home. Others are wounded in less obvious ways. Some were raised without the love and nurture they needed because their parents were so distracted by their own wounds. Still others were wounded by the loss of a parent through death or divorce.  Whatever the root cause of their pain, these families tend to raise kids that carry the pain of the parents into the next generation.

Wounded people often struggle when it comes to dealing with their own marital conflicts. That's the way it was for Meghan and Ben. Whenever they began to argue, Ben got angry and Meghan ran to the bedroom, telling Ben by the slam of the door that she needed some space. In the meantime, Ben wanted to resolve the issue right away. The more Meghan pulled away, the more Ben demanded that they "fix" the problem. 

After describing the situation to Gary in a counseling session, Meghan commented, "That's just the way it is, Dr. Rosberg."

Gary asked, "Do you ever sense, Meghan, that you are repeating the same old pattern that you saw growing up?"

After a moment of contemplative silence, she corrected herself. "No, that's just the way it was when I was growing up." Megan had suddenly realized she was acting just like her mom.

If you came from a wounded family, it's never too late to learn effective ways to deal with the conflicts in your marriage.

The Biblical Family

The Duncans represent the biblical home. They live in the same neighborhood as the Bensons, Andersons, and Carters. What makes them different? They have problems and conflicts just like the other three couples. But like the good soil in Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:3-9), their fertile hearts have allowed the truth of God’s word to take root, so they are better equipped to appropriate God's healing for their hearts and their family. Rather than let conflicts drive a wedge between them, they allow those difficulties to pull them together for healing and growth. 

Here's what a typical conflict looks like in the Duncan household. Does it look anything like the family you grew up in? Does it look anything like your family today?

"Erin, you eat your spaghetti like such a pig," Rachel snarled at her sister across the table.

"Dad, did you hear what Rachel called me?" Erin whined. "A pig!" Then she snatched up her plate and stomped into the family room to finish her dinner alone.

"Rachel, why did you say that?" Dad said. "You know Erin is sensitive about comments like that. And nice, reasonably quiet dinner was just spoiled."

"But, Dad, didn't you see her slurping up spaghetti? Her face was almost on her plate! The way she eats is gross."

When Mom and Dad came into the family room, they could tell that Erin had been wounded by her big sister's attack and the apparent indifference of her parents. They knew a loop had been opened and that they needed to talk about it as a family. So they called Rachel into the room.

As they talked it through together, the real issue came to light. Mom and Dad learned that Erin felt self-conscious about her weight, interpreting Rachel's comment as "You eat as much as a fat pig." Rachel, sensing that her words had really stung her sister, realized that the hurt went deep, far deeper than she ever intended. She apologized and said she was referring to Erin’s manners, not her weight. Erin forgave her sister. As they talked and listened to each other, the conflict dissipated.

If you grew up in a family like the Duncans, you have experienced something of the biblical pattern for healing hurt in your marriage and family. But even if your parents were not like Dad and Mom Duncan, you can learn to resolve conflict if you recognize the need for the presence of the living God who helps us to heal from the inside out. You are not confined to the patterns you have learned from your family.

What to Do About What You Learned

It is our God-given responsibility to cultivate good soil in our marriage relationships so that our children and grandchildren will have a biblical pattern to follow in their marriages. The Psalmist wrote: "For [God] issued his decree to Jacob; he gave his law to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them – even the children not yet born – that they in turn might teach their children. So each generation can set its hope anew on God, remembering his glorious miracles and obeying his commands"(Psalm 78:5-7). As you strengthen your marriage through forgiving love, you will help your children to protect their marriages.

So what are you doing to alter the patterns you learned? You can look at this responsibility in two ways. You can think of it as a tremendous burden and a lot of hard work. Or you can welcome it as an opportunity to pass on to your children something that was not passed on to you. Even if you did not grow up in a healthy home, you can commit yourself to developing healthy patterns for resolving conflict.

The family you come from is important, but it is not as important as the family you will leave behind. Identify from your family of origin the barriers to communication and healthy conflict-resolution. Gain whatever insight you can from the past, deal with the emotional pain of it, and then move onto developing new patterns that include confession and forgiveness of offenses and healing of hurts. As you leave the past behind and begin to create a more positive present, you will bless the next generation.

Conflict in your marriage is inevitable, but you are not trapped in the dysfunctional patterns of resolving conflict you learned from your parents or the world around you. If you grew up in a painful situation, we will coach you on how to break out of your negative behaviors and begin a new pattern of resolving conflicts. Join us again on our blog next month as we talk about different conflict-resolution styles.