Learning Healthy Conflict Management

“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”

(Proverbs 27:17)

Conflict happens in every marriage, but God uses those struggles to help individuals and couples grow and find greater joy (James 1:2). In a thriving marriage, couples recognize this reality and strive to learn how to handle conflict. Healthy couples deal with issues right away, speak respectfully even when they disagree, and show compassion in conflict. They are willing to talk about difficult topics, try to understand each other’s point of view, and forgive each other after a disagreement.

These principles have huge practical implications for the day-to-day functioning of your marriage in at least four distinct areas: expectationsrespectteamwork, and mutual understanding.

1. Expect rough spots

Strong, healthy marriages are based on realistic expectations. In contrast to many modern-day Americans, truly thriving couples accept conflict as one of the basic ground rules of marriage. Why? Because no matter how similar you and your mate may be in terms of basic interests, values, and personalities, you’re still two unique individuals. You come from different backgrounds, operate on the basis of different assumptions, and see the world through two distinct sets of eyes. If that weren’t enough, you also stand on opposite sides of the most fundamental of all human divides: one of you is male and the other is female! If you’re honest, you know that all of this is going to lead to disagreements from time to time.

The trick here is to recognize that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Contrary to a lot of popular wisdom, it doesn’t mean that you and your spouse are mismatched or that your marriage is destined to fail. God wants to use this bumping and jarring to refine your relationship and cause you to grow. That means it’s possible to view conflict as a positive sign of life and hope. Remember, some of the greatest saints in the Bible had differences of opinion. Paul thought Mark was a slacker. As a result, he and Barnabas had a serious falling-out over the question of whether to take Mark along on their second missionary journey (Acts 16:36-41). But years later, Paul closed his second letter to Timothy with this surprising request: “Get Mark and bring him with you when you come to visit, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Apparently their differences had been resolved – as can yours.

2. Fight fair

“Fighting fair” is all about maintaining respect. It’s a matter of cultivating honesty while learning what it means to stay in love in the midst of conflict. It’s a question of valuing each other enough to settle differences through negotiation rather than guerilla warfare.

On a deeper level, fair fighting is about keeping the main thing the main thing and learning to communicate effectively. In Ephesians 4:15, Paul urges us to “speak the truth in love.” In verse 25 he underscores the same thought by saying, “Therefore, putting away lying, ‘let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another.”

Respectful husbands and wives don’t call each other names, make false accusations, or dredge up irrelevant incidents from the past. Instead, they practice what the staff at Focus on the Family’s National Institute Of Marriage calls “Heart Talk.” There are basically three steps to “Heart Talk:” 1) Getting in touch with your own feelings; 2) Expressing those feelings in precise language; and 3) Listening carefullyto what the other person has to say.

“Heart Talk” and fair fighting are crucial to the health of your marriage. If you don’t know how to reconcile conflicts through negotiation, combat will take over and ultimately ruin your relationship. If spouses argue without ever resolving their issues or consistently avoid conflict altogether, their marriage is at risk for divorce. Paul recognized this same truth when he instructed the church at Galatia, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15).

3. Work as a team

The secret to success lies in the way you handle conflict. Thriving couples know that the way they respond to their differences is far more important than how they resolve them. To state this in broader terms, they understand that, in marriage, it’s the process that counts. The journey is more important than the destination.

All of this implies teamwork. Healthy conflict can actually become a pathway to deeper intimacy in your marriage. That’s because conflict is a perfect learning situation. When you approach problems and areas of contention as a team, with each partner striving to understand how the other processes conflict, it’s like a light bulb goes on at the heart of your relationship. Even when you disagree, you and your spouse can make generous allowances for each other and be quick to express grace and forgiveness.

Remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:25: “You are members of one another.” When one of you hurts, both of you hurt. That’s why it’s so important to function as a unit. As members of the same team, you can keep short accounts and make every effort to deal with disagreements immediately. After that, leave them behind. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).

4. No losers

Healthy husbands and wives understand that, no matter what happens, they’re always on the same team. They turn conflict to their advantage by working together toward a win-win solution. They do this by letting go of the idea of getting their own way. They re-define “winning” as “finding and implementing a solution that both people can feel good about.” They refuse to settle for anything less.

How does it work? Our friends at NIM tell us that the goal can be achieved in seven simple steps. First, establish a no-losers policy. Say to your spouse, “I will not accept any solution unless you loveit.” Second, “Heart talk” the issue through until each partner thoroughly understands the other’s feelings. Third, pray about it and invite God to participate in the process. Fourth, brainstorm all possible win-win solutions. Sixth, pick one and try it. Finally, check back in a week or two and re-evaluate. Don’t be afraid to re-work the plan if necessary.

Questions for Discussion

Here are a few questions you can use to jump-start your discussion of what it means to fight fair, work as a team, and “Heart Talk” your way to a stronger and healthier marriage:

  1. How can we work together in the weeks and months ahead to turn conflicts, arguments, or difficult decisions into a source of new strength and understanding in our marriage?
  2. What are some of the major personality differences between us? How do our maleness and femaleness set us apart in terms of our perspective on life? How can a deeper appreciation for these differences help smooth the waters the next time we’re facing a serious disagreement?
  3. How can friction in our relationship give us new insights about each other? How can those insights improve our ability to communicate effectively?

RESOURCE

Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage