Every marriage has its share of relational misunderstandings and mistakes, clashes and cold shoulders, sharp words and shouting matches that result in pain. Sometimes our conflicts resemble a head-on collision causing major damage—such as betrayal, unfaithfulness, or abuse. More often they’re small fender benders—such as finances, allotment of free time, or in-laws. It doesn’t matter how deeply you and your spouse love each other, conflict and hurt, at some level, are inevitable. It’s not a question of IF you’ll have conflict—it’s WHEN!
So what do you do when conflict happens? How do you respond when it brings hurt or anger? Many couples don’t know what to do when conflict arises, so they do nothing and inevitably drift apart. Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, states, “The number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict.” Over time, unhealed hurts can drive a wedge between us as husbands and wives.
That’s exactly what happened with Sheryl and Andrew. They’d been college sweethearts married for seven years. They had it all—good jobs, a beautiful house, three kids, leadership positions in their church—except the knowledge to resolve conflicts. If you were to ask Sheryl how good their conflict resolution skills were, she’d answer confidently that they knew how to resolve conflict. If you were to ask Andrew, it’d be a different answer. Although Sheryl and Andrew had been together for quite some time, they never really settled conflict correctly. Sheryl was the dominant type, always negotiating and driving Andrew to see her perspective. Andrew, on the other hand, was passive and found himself giving in to Sheryl’s position in most conflicts.
Then one night a small disagreement about the kids blew into World War III. Sheryl couldn’t understand. She thought this would be like all their other disagreements; they’d talk logically about the mishap, see each other’s point of view, and proceed with the evening. That was not how this disagreement went. Andrew completely shut down. For days he didn’t address the issue. Eventually, Andrew confronted Sheryl with his feelings. They took time away to discuss this major issue. Confronted with reality, neither one of them wanted to live the fairytale view of their conflict resolution abilities.
After multiple discussions, Sheryl learned that Andrew often conceded their arguments, for fear of additional conflict if he didn’t agree. Andrew learned that he needed to bring issues to the table even though it may hurt Sheryl. He realized that stuffing his feelings and giving in to the situation wasn’t true conflict resolution. Sheryl realized that her perspective of their ability to resolve conflict was clouded by the fact that many of their conflicts were resolved quickly. She thought the quick return to normal life and Andrew seeing conflicts “her way” meant they were pros at conflict resolution.
So what can we learn from Sheryl and Andrew’s story?
Do you and your mate need to rethink your ability on how you resolve conflict? Do you concede your thoughts, feelings, and perspective to your mate just to finish the disagreement? Do you push for your side to be heard and think it’s a “win” when you get your way?
No matter how conflict is currently being solved in your marriage, purpose to discuss this issue with your mate. Make sure your perception of how you resolve conflict matches reality. Implement these few ground rules, like Sheryl and Andrew have, for your future disagreements.
- Undergird all communication with honor
- Understand that you both don’t have to agree on every issue
- Align your verbal and nonverbal communication
- Compromise, compromise, compromise
Although Sheryl and Andrew continue to have conflicts, their resolution abilities are at a new level because they reached a point of authentic communication, which is the safest and most productive place to be with your mate.
For more information about conflict resolution and forgiveness, check out Gary and Barb’s book, Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage.