Closing The Loop

Continue with us in the Healing the Hurt blog series as we talk about how to close the loop of conflict on the path to healing in your marriage.

Prepare Your Heart
You may be totally sincere in your desire to resolve a conflict, but if your heart isn't right, your efforts may only make things worse. Gary and I want to share with you four steps for preparing your hearts to close the loop.

Step 1: Take a Personal Time-Out
Have you ever said or heard someone say, "I need to get away and clear my head"? For you, this may mean driving to the country, the mountains, or the beach for a day – or even just for an hour or two. Your personal time-out may take the form of a walk to a nearby park or in hours spent in a quiet corner of your house. Believe me, it really doesn't matter where you go; the idea is to create some space between you and your normal routine so you can talk through your thoughts and feelings with the Lord alone and without interruption.

Here are four important elements to include when you take a personal time-out to clear your heart.

1. Listen to God. Open your heart during this time to what God wants to teach you. This happens best through reading the Bible. Even make it a point to spend time alone daily in the word of God – not so much digging for a specific answer as simply allowing God to speak to you from any passage you may read. And during the process, ask God to help you understand the truth and apply it to your life.

2. Confess your sin. Is there a violation of God's teaching you must clear up with him before you go to your spouse? Pray along with David, "Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my shameful deeds – they haunt me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight… Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (Psalm 51:2-4, 7).

2. Talk to God in prayer. Tell Him about everything – your failures, your fears, your hurts, your desire for healing. Allow the pain that you feel in your relationship to draw you into greater dependence on God. You may pray something like this: "God, give me the understanding to be humble by resolving this issue in a way that honors you. Help me to be gracious toward my spouse and respectable of his or her perspective. Help us to talk things through. Help us to close the loop and rekindle our love for each other."

3. Determine to be a peacemaker. Jesus taught, "God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9). When we counsel couples in conflict, Gary and I can tell which spouses sincerely want to move toward healing and which ones are still looking to land a few more verbal or emotional blows. Authentic reconciliation requires two people who are committed to and making an effort toward, peace in their marriage.

Step 2: Look for the Underlying Causes
When you step out to resolve conflict and heal hurt, you must go deeper than the symptoms. If you are angry with your spouse, you need to know exactly where that anger is coming from. If you were hurt by something he or she said, you need to dig behind the hurt to find its root cause. Dealing only with the symptoms guarantees that the conflict will recur and probably get worse.

As we explained in our previous post, there are many factors that can relate to our conflicts in the present, such as family training and cultural expectations. That's why developing an understanding of the past – looking at the underlying causes of our conflicts – is essential to healing. You may want to prayerfully ask yourself some of the following questions as you seek to identify the root causes of your conflict:

How does my family background seem to affect the way I resolve marital conflict today?
What experiences from my past may have caused the current conflict?

Do I feel any root of bitterness or resentment that may be sabotaging the resolution of the current conflict? (See Hebrews 12:15.)

Is there any reason I may want to maintain conflict instead of resolving it? For example, am I enjoying a measure of control over my spouse by not resolving the issue?

Step 3: Keep Your Marriage the Top Priority
One of the greatest saboteurs of a healthy marriage relationship is to take it for granted and move it to the back burner. Barb and I know this from experience. When life speeds up and we are stretched in a dozen directions at once, the people closest to us are often the ones who are overlooked or shoved to the side.

One evening many years ago, when our two daughters were little girls, I arrived home from work and a semi-comatose state. Missy, our younger daughter, greeted me excitedly, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" I didn't even notice her. She kept at it saying "Daddy" about a dozen times. But I just kept walking.

Barb turned to Missy and said, "Honey, your daddy isn't home yet."

"Yes, he is,” Missy argued innocently. "He's right there."

"You know that, Sarah knows that, even Katie the dog knows that. But your daddy doesn't know it yet."

That was just one of many times my out-of-whack priorities were harmful to my wife and daughters.

If we don't keep a tight rein on our priorities, we may find ourselves in the same frame of mind as a top national executive who said, "Reaching a level of business success that I have requires total commitment. If your family is too demanding, get a new family. That's what I did." This guy didn't put his relationships on the back burner; he tossed them into the trash! It takes work and effort to keep our family relationships a top priority. It also takes sacrifice.

Step 4: Ask Others to Hold You Accountable
It takes effort and discipline to keep your heart prepared for dealing with conflict in your marriage. Barb and I have discovered the great benefit of enlisting others to help us keep our marriage positive and growing. That's why we encourage you to draw close to a small group of Christian friends who will help you grow as a husband or wife by holding you accountable.

Way back in 1978, I realized my need for close companionship with a few men. I needed a place to just be myself as a man, a husband, and father – not as a professional counselor. I wanted a few men to know me well enough to ask me the tough questions and help me keep Barb and our girls as a top priority. So I began meeting every Tuesday at noon in the corner booth of an Italian restaurant with three close friends: Tim, Jerry, and Mike.

During our weekly meetings, we have done everything from Bible studies to book discussions, from praying together to telling jokes. Confidentiality and mutual respect are a huge issue for us. What is said at that table stays at that table – period. We can be ourselves with each other, happy or hurting. We share our dreams with each other and hold each other accountable. To the outside world we are a physician, a financial advisor, a businessman, and a counselor. But when we meet, we leave our credentials at the door. We are just four guys who care about, listen to, and pray for each other.

I am accountable to Barb, and she is accountable to me. But that isn’t enough. We each rely on the closeness, support, and encouragement of Christian friends to keep us moving ahead in our marriage.

We all need people who will ask us the tough questions. Without that accountability, we can become isolated, and the chance for sin gaining a foothold in our lives and in our marriages increases dramatically.

Diffuse Your Anger
The offenses in a marriage relationship produce hurts and hurts often bubble over into anger. We talked about the chain reaction of hurt and anger in our first post. Sometimes our anger simmers beneath the surface; sometimes it explodes. Sometimes it is directed at our spouse, sometimes we take it out on someone or something else. If you are going to successfully work through your conflicts and find healing as a couple, you must learn to diffuse your anger. In this chapter, Barb and I will help you with this stage in the process of exercising forgiving love.

So how can we be angry but not sin when someone has hurt us? The answer is found in learning the distinction between anger and aggression. Anger is an emotion, a feeling. Aggression is a potentially harmful behavior, an act of the will. Anger can be expressed in a God-honoring way. Jesus, for example, displayed righteous anger when he threw the moneychangers out of God's temple in Jerusalem. Anger can also stimulate us to resolve a conflict that has been brewing for some time.

How do we diffuse our anger before it grows into aggression? Here are several biblical guidelines.

Deal with Anger in a Timely Way
People make two common mistakes in dealing with anger. First, they allow it to boil over instead of halting the conversation or argument and taking time to calm down. When you feel the heat of anger rising in you or when you see signs of anger in your spouse, that should be a warning sign: Anger building! Time-out! If anger sparks in you quickly, you need to slow down and confront your anger in an appropriate way.

The second mistake is waiting too long to deal with anger. Many people count to ten, let off a little steam, and they don't feel angry anymore. So they assume there is nothing to deal with. That's a myth. Chances are, the anger is still simmering inside them, waiting for another opportunity to boil over. As soon as the anger factor knifes into your marriage, deal with it. If you put it off, it only becomes more difficult to resolve.

Cool Down Before Speaking Up
"Here we go again. We always do it your way. I'm sick of it – and sick of you!"

"I can't believe you did that again! You really tick me off!"

"I give up. You'll never change. I have to do everything around here."

Behind each of those verbal fireballs is a frustrated, angry spouse. Most times, such explosions are counterproductive to resolving marital conflict. Dealing with anger in a timely manner doesn't mean just "going off" by venting your feelings indiscriminately. Cutting, anger-driven words only produce more hurt. Instead, take time to "cool your jets," as we used to say. Work through the issue with patience and discernment.

Control Your Tongue
Many of us have the problem of not controlling our tongue. That little muscle inside your mouth is capable of doing great good and great harm. You have the power to heal a broken relationship with your spouse or burn it to the ground with what you say and how you say it. Proverbs 18:21 says, "The tongue can kill or nourish life." The apostle James wrote, "The tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire" (James 3:5).

How can you control your tongue? Here are several suggestions:
Slow down your communication.
Give your spouse permission to help you keep angry words in check.
After a confrontation, ask your spouse if your words offended him or her.
Practice gentle words.

Watch Your Self-Talk
Have you ever caught yourself talking to yourself? We all do it, of course. At times you might mutter something to yourself aloud. If someone hears you, you may sheepishly explain, "Oh, I was just thinking out loud." But most of the time, self-talk is internal. It is the conscious thought process continually going on inside our heads.

Any episode of self-talk begins with what we call a triggering event. It may be something a person says, an object with you, the scene we witness, a fragrance, a sound, or any number of other stimuli. When the trigger occurs, our minds start racing at 1300 words per minute trying to interpret what we have received. In other words, we begin a high-speed, internal monologue trying to make sense of the triggering event.

This automatic thought process trips an emotional response based on how we interpret the event. It's a chain reaction, and it can all happen in a handful of heartbeats.

However, an emotional response, such as anger, isn't the end of the chain reaction. Your emotions will always give rise to some kind of behavioral response. You may cry, laugh, fight back, kick the dog, withdraw, overeat, drink too much, or whatever. Some people pull the covers over their heads and sleep for hours on end. Others fidget, pace, or drum their fingers.

Our behavior results from an emotional response based on self-talk triggered by a specific event – or combination of events. Here's what the chain reaction looks like: triggering event > self-talk > emotional response > behavioral response.

But here's the problem. Some of our emotional and behavioral responses are irrational because sometimes our self-talk – our perception of the triggering event – is inaccurate. At times your angry feelings and behavior may be a legitimate response to an event, but at other times they may be the inappropriate result of faulty self-talk.

One of the major ways to diffuse anger in your conflicts, therefore, is to control your self-talk. These are four helpful steps to help you do that.

1. Acknowledge that self-talk happens in you.
2. Recognize when self-talk is happening.
3. Challenge your self-talk to see if it is rational (supported by evidence) or irrational (not supported by evidence).
4. Replace inaccurate self-talk with accurate self I can talk.

Give Up Your Right to Revenge
Sometimes your marital conflicts are a case of mistaken perception and faulty self-talk. But often your anger is valid because there really was an offense – and it hurt. When this happens, another important element of controlling your anger is to let go of any sense of exacting revenge. The apostle Peter admonished believers, "Don't repay evil for evil. Don't retaliate when people say unkind things about you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God wants you to do, and He will bless you for it" (1 Peter 3:9).

When your spouse's offense hurts and angers you, the natural tendency is to look for a way to get even. You may be tempted to hurl insults, or you may plot a more intricate revenge. The problem is that repaying one offense with another offense only fans the flame of conflict and makes it worse. At some point, one of you has to stop the cycle and, as the apostle Peter wrote, give a blessing instead. When you do that you are clearing the way for diffusing the anger and healing the hurt.