Communicating Concerns & Confronting Conflict

Continue with us in our Healing the Hurt series as we discuss how to communicate concerns and confront conflict in your marriage.


Communicate Your Concerns

Communicating your concerns is absolutely necessary to the process of healing the relationship. In fact, communication is absolutely vital to the health of your relationship even when there isn’t a conflict. And if you struggle with communicating in times of peace, it will be even more difficult in times of conflict. So we want to coach you on seven basic communication principles that will not only help you resolve conflicts, but also equip you for enriching the intimacy of your relationship day to day.

Principle 1: Check your Relational Temperature
For a number of years, Barb and I have checked the vital signs in our marriage to both diagnose and prevent conflicts. It’s one of the best ways we know to open up communication that will lead to healing.

Here’s what we do. Every four to six weeks, we pose two questions to each other. We call it taking our relational temperature. We are not legalistic about it, and it’s not something we feel we have to schedule on the calendar. Often we will have this discussion during a walk together or at the end of a date night. Sometimes these questions will come up when one or both of us feel some tension in the relationship. Whenever we make a point to ask and respond to these two questions, we are able to cut conflicts off at the pass. We encourage you to use these questions periodically to check your vital signs as a couple.

1. How am I doing as a spouse? When I ask Barb how I’m doing as a husband, I’m not fishing for compliments, although she is generous to provide them. I’m looking for honest feedback. I want to know where I am missing the mark as her husband or offending her in some way. I give Barb carte blanche to tell it as it is, and she expects the same for me when she asks, “How am I doing as a wife? “We usually come away from these discussions knowing exactly what we can do to prevent or disarm conflicts in our marriage. This question allows the person closest to you, your lifetime partner, to lovingly point out any blind spots. Perhaps you have shifted from focusing on the Lord and your spouse due to other demands in your daily schedule: work, church activities, hobbies, etc. If anything is taking you captive, if the good things you are involved in outside the relationship are hindering the best things in your relationship, it should come to light when you ask each other this first question.
2. What do you need from me? This is not only a question about things like helping with household chores or finding a lost article in the house. Typical of the answers we hear from one another are things such as “more time with you”; “a little more patience”; “affection – a wink, a smile, or a hug”; or “during this pressure-packed week, I need you to pray with me.” Being proactive about uncovering your spouse’s needs will help you preempt many conflicts. It is also a straightforward way to communicate that you care about meeting needs in your relationship.

Principle 2: Adjust to Your Spouse’s Gender Style
Men and women communicate differently. That’s just how God wired us. In their classic book Love Is a Decision, Gary Smalley and Jon Trent refer to studies indicating that “The average woman speaks roughly 25,000 words a day, while the average man speaks only 12,500.“

How can a husband and wife adjust to each other‘s gender style of communication? It helps a great deal just to be aware that a difference exists. As you sharpen your awareness of this difference, continually ask yourself, “What can I do to meet my spouse’s communication need?“

Wives, realize that your husband is probably not as adept at or perhaps not as deeply interested in frequent and extended conversation as you are. It is okay to be home together or driving somewhere together and not be constantly talking about something. And it will allow your husband to focus his communication on those times when you need to talk through some issues or conflicts.

Husbands, get a clue that your wife needs to talk about things more than you do. You may need to save some of your “word power” during the day to spend on your wife. As you make her communication needs a priority, you may even find that you have a greater capacity for talking than you realize.

These are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some men are more skilled and interested in conversation than their wives. But it is remarkable how often we hear about women who want more communication and men who want less. The key is to be sensitive to your spouse’s communication style.

Principle 3: Choose the Right Time and Place
When it comes to successful communication in general or talking through a conflict in particular, timing and setting are vitally important. A friend once named two major components of healthy marital communication: skill and time. You need to exercise effective sharing, listening, and connecting skills in marriage communication, and you need to make it a priority in your schedule. You must be willing to initiate time with your spouse and be quick to respond when he or she takes the initiative. And when the timing doesn’t work for you, be sure to suggest a time that does work.

Communication is a process that allows a couple to express their hearts to each other. It involves both expressing themselves to one another and attentively listening to each other. In order for this to happen effectively, you need time that isn’t crowded with other activities and responsibilities, and you need a place that is free from distraction and interruption. When loving communication happens in a quiet, unhurried atmosphere, a husband and wife establish a sense of emotional intimacy that allows the relationship to blossom.

Principle 4: Share Thoughts, Feelings, and Needs
Since men and women are wired differently in this area too, we will share some helpful ways to communicate effectively both as a husband and a wife.

When you communicate effectively with your husband, the best order is information, feelings, then needs. When you follow this order, you are cooperating with the way God has wired your husband.

Share what you think about the issue. Wives, your husband needs information—content, a bottom line—and he usually needs that first. It is important for you to share what is on your mind about the topic or conflict in question. This will include both objective and subjective information plus your own insights, perceptions, ideas, values, and biases.
Share how you feel about the issue. Once you have shared the bottom line with your husband, you can move on to sharing your feelings. Everything we think about is attached to one or more emotions: fear, pride, joy sadness, frustration, betrayal, rejection, anger, anxiety, contentment, and so on.
Share what you need from your spouse. As you express your thoughts and reveal your emotions in communication, also state what you need from your husband in the situation. You are a partnership. You have committed before God to share each other’s burdens. But it is difficult for your husband to help carry the load if you don’t tell him what you need.
Men, women need the same three components of communication, but in a different order. They need to hear your feelings on the issue first, then your thoughts, and finally what you need to reach a solution.
Connect with her heart. The first step in communicating positively with your wife is to connect with her emotions before dealing with the details of the offense. How do you do that? Assure her that you hear her pain. If you don’t hear your wife’s heart first, she will feel misunderstood and frustrated. But when you ask her how she is feeling, she is more likely to feel heard.
Connect with the facts. Once you understand the emotions your wife is experiencing, she will be able to look at the facts more clearly. The issue will move from her heart to her head. As she feels heard and is comforted by your concern over her hurt, she is better able to receive your thoughts and ideas.
Connect with a solution. After you have connected with your wife’s emotions and discussed the facts, you may want to supply some ideas or options that will lead to a solution to the conflict. Such an approach lets your wife know that you want to help resolve the hurtful situation.

Principle 5: Tune In and Listen to Your Spouse
The Bible provides us with a simple guideline for all our relationships: “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Your anger can never make things right in God’s sight” (James 1:19-20). That says it well, doesn’t it?

If you are quick to listen, you will be more concerned about hearing and understanding your spouse than about getting your point across or winning the argument. Many times, the key to resolving a conflict is simply to listen to your spouse and seek to understand his or her position on the issue. When you both practice this discipline, you will probably be able to see things more clearly and reach a point of agreement.

Gary and I coach husbands and wives to listen actively. Active listening begins with eye contact. When your spouse is sharing with you, turn away from the newspaper, magazine, TV, or anything else and lock onto his or her eyes. When you avoid eye contact, you are conveying, “What you are about to say isn’t as important as this important issue I am focusing on.” Eye contact is vital to healthy marital communication. Eyes are the window to the soul.

Body language is also important to active listening. When you face your spouse, lean toward him or her, and occasionally nod your affirmation, your body is saying, “I’m really interested in what you are saying. You have my full attention.“ This is a concrete way to honor your spouse.

Principle 6: Share What Your Spouse Needs to Hear
A man’s approach to communication is often called the pyramid style of sharing information. When journalists write news stories, they start at the top of the pyramid with the main point: “Tornado claims hundreds of lives”; “Pentagon steps up war effort”; “Famous actor dies.” Subsequent paragraphs give additional information, from the most important to the most trivial. Many men are content just to read each headline and opening paragraph in the newspaper. And that’s often how they communicate with their wives.

Invert the pyramid, and you see how many women share information – not like a journalist but like a novelist. We gradually unfold the plot, giving all kinds of details inside lights, adding to the story layer by layer, and eventually working our way to the main point by the end of the story.
Communication between Gary and me has greatly improved over the years as we came to understand what each of us needs when we talk together. When we sit down to chat about our day, I give him several “bullets” of information, which satisfies his need to know up front what we’re talking about. But when Gary shares, he has learned to give me all sorts of information, weaving in as many secondary issues as he can remember before delivering the punchline. We both feel fulfilled with this type of communication.

When dealing with conflict, we use the same approach. I will say something like “Gary, I need to talk to you about the way you spoke to me this morning.” And then I get right to the point, no beating around the bush. He can handle it because he knows my agenda immediately. He typically responds, “Tell me what you’re concerned about.“ With that we begin to discuss and resolve the issue.

But if Gary approaches me with the same directness, he knows he might wound me. So he is more apt to ease me into the topic by saying something like, “Barb, I need to talk with you about something that’s been bothering me.“ This statement alerts me that he has something to say, but it meets my need to go through the process instead of jumping right to the bottom line.

Principle 7: Listen for the Underlying Issue
It’s likely that every married couple has experienced this kind of tension. Your communication sounds good on the surface, but you sense that your spouse is avoiding the key issue. Sometimes two different messages are being sent simultaneously: spoken and unspoken. Which one do we usually believe? That’s right, the unspoken message. We often try to say something without stating it directly, and just as often the real message gets lost in the verbiage. So a key principle for communication and resolving conflicts is to seek to understand the underlying issue with your spouse.

When you sense that your spouse is not owning up to the real issue, you have three options.
First, you can cave in and ignore the issue along with your spouse. We refer to this as the “back-door“ approach. The longer you avoid dealing with the main issue, the longer you will suffer the hurt and anger of the conflict.

Second, you may be tempted to throw your weight around. But an aggressive approach might touch off a full-blown conflict that will only make things worse.
Third, you can open the door to healing by lovingly confronting the buried issue. Using this kind but assertive approach, you can affirm your spouse, state your need, and challenge your spouse’s motives.

Your spouse will probably appreciate your willingness to dig a little deeper to deal with any issues lying beneath the surface of communication. Such honesty is healthy for both of you. There may be some defensiveness because confrontation often creates anxiety. But being direct in communication will help you resolve conflict and avoid additional conflict.

Confronting Your Conflicts

Conflicts are a given in every marriage. At some point in every conflict, you and your spouse must confront the issue head-on and resolve it. Having prepared your heart, diffused your anger, and sharpened your communication skills, you need to take the necessary steps to confront the conflict and heal the wounds. Here are six practical ways to do that.

Disarm the Conflict through Prayer
Any conflict between you and your spouse is potentially explosive. The combination of wrongs, hurts, and a variety of emotions can touch off a firestorm of cutting words and divisive actions. The first step toward confronting your conflicts is to disarm the potential for further hurt. This can happen only through prayer.

Gary and I are most effective at resolving a conflict when we have both approached it with tender and respectful spirits. It’s the kind of spirit that genuinely wants to work it out with God and with each other. So when we are ready to confront a conflict, one of us will say, “Let’s pray together first.” Here we are, armed for battle with an arsenal of verbal and emotional weapons at the ready. But we are determined that our marriage is going to glorify Jesus Christ. So we pray and invite Jesus into the process. Talk about draining the anger and fight out of a conflict! Prayer not only controls the flames of conflict but also forces us to humble ourselves before God and one another. By praying, we admit that neither of us has all the answers and that we must rely on God’s wisdom and direction.

Do we always feel like praying in the midst of a conflict? No way. Our pride tries to convince us that we can find a solution without God. Indeed, we fear that if we ask God into the discussion, we won’t get the justice or revenge we seek. The only way to deflate that pride is to humble ourselves before God and approach the conflict in prayer.

Take One Issue at a Time
Many attempts at resolving marital conflict unfold something like this. Husband and wife are trying to deal with a problem, and then one of them drags out another unresolved issue of pain from the past. In self-defense, the partner under attack responds in kind, digging up another long-buried issue and tossing it into the mix. Before long the initial discussion is buried under a truckload of conflicts dating back to the beginning of the relationship, and nothing gets resolved.

Gary and I have learned a great way to deal with multiple conflict issues. When a second topic comes up during the discussion, whoever recognizes it first will say, “It seems that we now have two open loops on the table. Let’s close the first one and then come back and close the other loop, okay?”

Depersonalize the Problem
Another technique we use in confronting conflicts is to depersonalize our conflicts. The key to depersonalizing a conflict is to attack the problem without attacking each other.

Marriage researcher John Gottman reports that when four elements are present in your arguments as husband and wife, you may be spiraling downward to an ultimate divorce. When a pattern of criticism leads to defensiveness, contempt and ultimately withdrawal, Gottman can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. In order to confront your conflicts effectively, you need to approach each other without criticism.

Criticism is different from complaining. It is sometimes appropriate to complain about something your mate says or does. Complaining sounds like this:

·       It really bugs me when you leave the toilet seat up. Please be considerate and put the seat down after you use the toilet.

·       This is the second time this week you have been late picking up the kids after school. If you think you’re going to be late, just let me know so I can help out.

Criticism is an attack on the person instead of the problem. Criticism sounds like this:

·       All you care about is yourself. If you had any sense at all, you would think about others and put the toilet seat down.

·       You blew it again. I can’t believe you don’t call when you are running late. You are thoughtless and irresponsible.

One of the most frequent mistakes Gary and I made in the early years of our marriage was being critical of each other. As a result, even when the conflict was over and things had cooled down, we often felt we had added fuel to the fire because of a critical outburst.

Take a Gentle Approach
Another way to depersonalize the conflict and neutralize the weapons of verbal accusation is to use I-statements instead of you-statements. As illustrated below, you-statements tend to point the finger of accusation at your spouse, and they are often used in an effort to win the argument.

“Why do you keep criticizing my weight?”
“You shouldn’t get so uptight about your father.”
“You are blowing this problem way out of proportion.“

Your statements almost never encourage conflict resolution and often thwart it. Notice how the I-statements take the accusatory sting out of the same issues illustrated above.

“I feel discouraged when my weight problem becomes the topic of our discussion so often.“
“Is there anything I can do to help you work through your anger toward your dad?”
“I think there is a more realistic way to view this problem.“

Another way to incorporate gentleness when you confront your conflicts is to avoid exaggerations like always and never. Exaggerated you-statements only add fuel to a conflict. Such over-generalizations prompt the listener to take a defensive posture, which is not conducive to conflict resolution.

Seek to Resolve Instead of Repair
When it comes to resolving conflict at home, I’m (Gary) like a lot of other men. My first response is to jump in and try to fix the problem by righting the wrong or changing someone else’s behavior. But a quick-fix approach can get you into real trouble because your spouse may think you are trying to fix him or her. Sometimes your spouse just needs you to listen, empathize, provide support, or demonstrate that you care.

So what should you do when you don’t know what to do in a conflict? Simply ask your spouse what he or she needs from you. Our friends Charles and Janet shared with us a healthy alternative to “fixing“ a conflict. Janet’s father was an engineer – a problem-solver by trade. When she was growing up, Janet and her father had their share of conflicts, and her dad’s solution was to try to fix them, which led to further breakdowns in their communication.

Realizing that this approach wasn’t working, Janet’s dad took another tack. Instead of pummeling Janet with solutions, he would say in the midst of a meltdown, “Janet, I love you deeply, but I don’t want to blow it with you. What do you need for me right now: sympathy or a solution?” It worked every time and when Janet married Charles, he was wise enough to continue using this excellent technique in their marriage.

Barb and I have employed this technique in our marriage. Often when she comes to me with a problem or conflict, I will ask point-blank, “What do you need from me: sympathy or a solution?” We recommend this approach to you. Your spouse’s answer to that simple question will probably save you a lot of guesswork and wasted effort.

Work Toward a Decision
As you confront your conflicts, be aware that some decisions may be necessary. When you come to the decision-making stage, the first questions to ask each other are, “What does the Bible say about the situation? Is there a clear admonition we need to obey?” How’s that for getting to the heart of the matter? It’s not, “What do we feel like doing?” or “What do other people think we ought to do?” Those may be good questions, but they are secondary to what God has to say.

Sometimes the Bible does not give specific direction about an issue. For example, you and your spouse are arguing over whether to send your children to public school or private Christian school. Try as you might, you won’t find a “thus says the Lord“ that will make that decision for you. At these times, you need to seek God‘s wisdom for making the best decision in that situation. Here are a couple of suggestions that will help you reach your decisions and resolve your conflicts.

Stay open to different options. Avoid tunnel vision as you make your decisions. Think through all the possibilities instead of jumping on the first one – or the only one – you see. Brainstorm about different options with your spouse. Invite trusted family members or friends to share their wisdom on the issue. You can get so locked into “the way we’ve always done it” that you fail to recognize or appreciate a better solution.
Be open to not doing it your way. How would you react if your spouse said something like, “You know, your idea is just as good as mine, if not better. Why don’t we try doing it your way“? If your spouse tends to be a controller, no other statement would cause you more shock! That’s a great way to resolve conflict, but it rarely happens so easily. Instead, we instinctively want to resolve things according to what we think is best.

One of the most important aspects of resolving conflict is to defer to your spouse whenever possible, hoping your spouse realizes that he or she is more important than the issue at hand. This is essentially what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). We are to edify and encourage each other as husband and wife, delighting in the opportunity to resolve a conflict to our spouse’s advantage. This may mean swallowing your pride and relinquishing control. But when each of you is committed to edifying and encouraging the other, the rewards will be well worth the s