Q: Whenever we have an argument, my spouse retreats when I want to talk it out. How can we learn to "fight fair"?
A: When you are in a conflict, you must communicate openly and honestly. Failure to share your feelings and talk through your differences will stifle any efforts to clear the air and restore intimacy. Following are a few helpful things you can do to handle your inevitable conflicts and learn to fight fair:
Choose an appropriate time and setting. Do you and your spouse really need to solve an issue moments before guests arrive for a dinner party? Select a time and a place that minimize distractions, guarantee privacy from the children, and won't make you tense right before an event.
Ask permission to address the conflict. Make sure your spouse is ready to face the issue before you bring it up. For example, "Are you ready to talk about our disagreement over how to discipline the children?" Or, "I'm ready to confront our money problems. Are you?"
Avoid the silent treatment. Sometimes – especially when you're angry – you might clam up and give the silent treatment, thinking that the silence will communicate your perspective. Don't mistake silence for communication. Silence can be a sign that the problems in the marriage are serious. A husband might initially feel relieved that his wife has stopped nagging, but her silence may, instead, signal that she is emotionally withdrawing. Both husbands and wives can feel rejected and confused by their spouse's silence. It's very important to reestablish communication. First of all, even if you don't feel very loving, reassure your spouse of your love. The goal is to open communication, not to play games.
Agree on a plan for handling conflicts. In a peaceful moment, talk with your spouse about how you will handle conflict when it arises. Is it important to you to avoid shouting matches with your spouse? Can you agree together to do your best to avoid loud arguments? How about agreeing on a timetable for resolving conflicts – that you will resolve any given conflict within a week? Are you open to seeking help from a counselor, a pastor, or a godly trusted friend to settle the most difficult conflicts? Discuss this with your spouse before the conflicts hit.
When conflict does occur, you may choose to set up two folding chairs in the neutral setting where you will discuss the problem. After the conflict is resolved and you have sought each other's heart and perspective, fold the chairs up and put them back in the closet. Many couples report that this tends to give them an increased sense of boundary around these difficult discussions.
Pray. Prayer makes a positive impact on the resolution of conflict. By praying, two people on opposite sides of an issue welcome into the debate a third person: Jesus. Bringing Jesus into the debate means deciding together to play by His rules. Prayer also softens your heart so that you will be sensitive to the hurt in your spouse.
Because resolving conflict in healthy ways is such an important part of a great marriage, we have devoted an entire book to the issue. Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage will help you close the open loop on unresolved conflict and avoid the pain of bitterness.
Stories from the Front Lines
Some friends of ours have been married more than 30 years. They have their times of agreement, and they shared with us how one time they hit a wall and simply could not come to an agreement. The wife turned to her husband and said, "I'm going to submit because I believe that God has put you in that position. And I trust you. But I'm going to tell you something: I'm going to go to God over this issue."
The husband listened to her, gasped, and said, "Wait a minute. You're going to go to God?"
"Yeah, because I know that He loves you and that He, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can deal with you."
This gives a glimpse into the heart of a strong marriage. The man who hears these words from his wife realizes that his wife isn't trying to control him; instead, she desires that he be controlled by the Holy Spirit. She goes to her ultimate authority in prayer because she desires God's outcome for the situation. And her attitude stimulated her husband to see God's will in the situation.
When you get to the point where you aren't seeing eye to eye, transfer the situation to the hands of God and leave it there. Then the Lord has a chance to do wonderful work in your marriage and in your lives. God gets all the glory and credit.
For more on this topic, check out Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage.