This video segment is one of six lessons in the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.
The GCM series are marriage preparation and marriage enrichment level resources. If your marriage needs restoration level care consider one of the other options available at summitchurch.com/counseling, or visit bradhambrick.com/findacounselor for help finding a counselor near you.
If you are interested in the pre-marital mentoring program built around these materials, you can find everything you need at www.bradhambrick.com/gcm.
NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the GCM seminar notebooks. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at firstname.lastname@example.org (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).
The best outcome for marital conflict is neither avoidance nor victory, but honor and unity. We must realize how much the mindset we take into conflict determines the outcome of our disagreements. Some of us feel like conflict is inherently wrong and, therefore, whenever it occurs, feel defeated. Some of us are competitive and when conflict arises, we have an instinctual “game on” response that generates a “refuse to lose” mindset.The best outcome for marital conflict is neither avoidance nor victory, but honor and unity. Click To Tweet
Conflict done well can be the best friend of your marriage. This is not a nicer recasting of the mantra “fight hard; make up hard.” Conflict reveals what matters most to us. When we get angry we are saying two things about the action that provoked us: (1) this is wrong, and (2) it matters. When we get sinfully angry, we’re saying a third thing: this is wrong, it matters, and (3) it matters more than you. When we do conflict well, we show our spouse that things that are important to us are not more important than our spouse. That brings us to our first question about conflict.
To Speak or Not to Speak?
The first question in every conflict is whether it is worth addressing. Many unnecessary fights are engaged and many beneficial conversations are avoided in every marriage. The first part of wisdom is knowing if and when to speak.
Below are seven biblical ways of approaching conflict. The responses are listed in a progressive order – the early ones for milder concerns and the latter for severe concerns. Your goal, as we study these, is to grow in your ability to discern which approach fits which conflict best, instead of just relying on your personality to dictate your preference.
- Give Grace / Overlook: (Matthew 7:1-2, Proverbs 19:11) If we addressed everything we didn’t like, we would become negative people. Giving grace shows that we value our marriage more than our preferences. This is what allows a home to be a warm place where both people feel safe to be themselves and make mistakes. This “atmosphere of grace” should be a trademark of a gospel-centered marriage that lays a foundation of trust for the remaining responses to our differences.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “give grace and overlook”? Issues that are not immoral, matters of personal preference, and issues that have not become habits.
- Confess as You Address: (Matthew 7:3-5) Many things will and should pass through the first filter. The key principle in this area of conflict is to model the response to sin that you desire from your spouse. When we neglect this principle, we begin to focus most on what we can control least, which is a recipe to exacerbate anger, anxiety, or despair.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “confess as you address”? Issues that are moral, but which were not vindictive in motive. Issues where your stated preferences are being habitually disregarded. Subjects which negatively impact your spouse’s other relationships (i.e., children, friends, coworkers, etc.).
- Seek Counsel: (Proverbs 11:14 and Galatians 6:2) Sometimes you will “confess as you address” and still not arrive at a workable solution. This is normal. Just as no person is good at everything, no couple will resolve every challenge on their own. The humility expressed in “confess as you address” should continue as you reach out to trusted advisors (i.e., small group, mentors, pastors, or a counselor) to seek guidance on issues for which you cannot reach agreement or find a solution.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “seek counsel”? Subjects that the couple cannot agree on, whether they are preference or moral issues. Subjects where the couple cannot find a mutually satisfying agreement. Subjects where an objective perspective or specialized training would prove beneficial.
- Confront and Call to Change: (Colossians 3:16) The issues that fit in this category and beyond should all be moral offenses; not merely violations of preference. For these confrontations to be effective, your tone must remain respectful and controlled (II Tim. 2:24-25). If not, then what you are saying will get lost in how you are saying it. Your spouse should not be surprised by what you are saying, or else you have neglected the prior stages of conflict. This confrontation should follow the basic pattern, “I believe [blank] is wrong, damaging to our marriage, and your relationship with God. I am asking out of respect for our marriage that you give this the attention it deserves.”
What kind of issues fall under the category of “confront and call to change”? Moral issues which your spouse neglects after multiple “confess as you address” interactions. Subjects which are significant enough to damage the marriage, other relationships, or your spouse’s reputation.
- Be Longsuffering: (Romans 12:14-21) You should not race through these stages of conflict. There is no “prize” at the end. We should try to allow “our kindness to bring our spouse to repentance (Rom 2:4)” after a confrontation and call for change. That is the preferred approach to influencing a hard-hearted spouse in Scripture (I Pet. 3:1-6). The patience for change this passage advocates for can be applied from husbands to wives, not just wives to husbands. Being longsuffering is not condoning the offensive behavior but choosing to allow God to be the agent of conviction.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “be longsuffering”? Moral offenses which do not put the family in physical or financial jeopardy. Areas of weakness (i.e., skill, self-awareness, memory, etc…) in your spouse which are hurtful to you.
- Confront and Involve Others: (Matthew 18:16) If things reach this stage in the confrontation process, then the “others” involved would be spiritual authorities over your marriage (i.e., small group leader, elders, or pastors) and legal authorities if the offense is both immoral and illegal. In non-church contexts, this phase would be called an “intervention.” There are significant social ramifications for this style of confrontation, so the risk of not confronting needs to outweigh the risk of confronting. When getting ready to make this level of confrontation, the confronting spouse should be receiving counseling.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “confront and involve others”? Offenses which are lifestyle in nature (i.e., addiction, adultery, abuse, chronic neglect, deceit, etc.). Offenses listed in the “red flags in conflict” section of the evaluation. Offenses for which you would bear legal liability if you did not report and involve others.
- Distance Yourself for Safety: (Matthew 7:6, 18:17 and Romans 13:1-7) If you are considering this step, you need to be seeking counseling and have a safety plan (bradhambrick.com/safetyplan). Guilt over believing this phase is “biblically off limits” can lead to unwisely staying in a dangerous situation. For more guidance, you can also reference churchcares.com.
What kind of issues fall under the category of “distance yourself for safety”? Any form or threat of physical violence or forced sexual activity towards yourself or your children. Threats to harm him/herself if you do not acquiesce to your spouse’s demands. Unwillingness to end an adulterous relationship.
What Are We Fighting About?
Have you ever had the experience “we’re talking about the same thing, but we’re not having the same conversation”? This section will help you identify what is going on in those types of situations. There are four types of disagreements that a couple can have. We will discuss them in the order from most to least difficult to resolve.
- Factual Differences: Facts are not something a couple can “agree to disagree” on. Couples can disagree on definitions, values, and policies. But disagreeing on facts is an implicit accusation that your spouse is either lying or crazy. When a couple does not agree on the facts related to their disagreement, an argument has degenerated to a point that trust has likely been compromised and neither person views the other as “being reasonable.”
- Differences in Definitions: “Was what I said really disrespectful?… Did that action really communicate that I don’t love you?… When I did that, I wasn’t trying to tell you we couldn’t have sex.” These kinds of statements reveal a difference of definition. The couple agrees on the facts (what was said or done) but does not agree on the meaning of those facts. It shouldn’t be surprising each person in the relationship can interpret the same event differently. But too often we are surprised (offended) when our spouse doesn’t think like we do. We turn a moment of learning into a moment of indignation.
- Differences in Values: “Is A worth B? Is this amount of time worth that benefit? Is this level of sacrifice worth that outcome” These kinds of decisions often have significantly different implications for each spouse. That is why it is best to start these conversations with the question, “If we did A, how would B affect you?” Hearing each other answer this question is a vital part of protecting unity during a difficult decision.
- Policy Differences: Most disagreements end with an answer to the question, “What are we going to do?” It is important to see that this question can only be effectively answered when the couple is in agreement on facts, definitions, and values. While on differences of definitions and values a couple may “agree to disagree” or “choose to see things from the other person’s perspective,” on differences of policy a couple will (a) compromise, (b) delay the decision, or (c) choose between available options. Having taken the time to understand the “differences of definition” will ensure that both partners feel understood. Being sympathetic towards the differences in values is a strong preventative from bitterness or becoming a “purely functional” couple.
Structure of a Healthy-Yet-Difficult Conversation
We have developed a “Conversation Log” (page 20) to help you think through how to have an effective conversation around conflict. While it is unlikely that you will use this document frequently, it helpful to have a visual for how to arrange the pieces. We will walk though this tool as a “guided tour.”
Topic: Have you ever been mid-argument and asked, “What are we fighting about anyway?” Conflict is a time of powerful emotions – not just anger, but also anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, despair, competitiveness, etc… This contributes to the tendency of difficult conversations to change subjects frequently. When we are emotional, our minds do not tend to stay focused on one thing. Defining and remaining on one subject is a basic, but difficult, skill in effective conflict resolution.
If a given topic is an easier subject for you than your spouse, then honor your spouse by giving them the subject in advance. Write it down, give it to them, and say, “I know this isn’t the most comfortable / natural subject for you to discuss [handing them a “Conversation Log” with the subject area filled in], but it is important to me. This topic is something I’d like for us to discuss this week [or other situation-appropriate time frame].” Having a tangible piece of paper can serve as a perpetual reminder so that you are not in a position to use repetition (i.e., “nagging”) to “check in.”
Future Topics: “We can talk about that later,” is the black hole of conversation. Too often “later” means “never.” The bottom side bar of the “Conversation Log” is meant to disrupt this destructive pattern.
Guidelines: These are not rules to follow as much as points of awareness to maintain. If you treat them as rules, then your primary focus will become looking to see when they are broken. That would transform them into weapons.
- Pray: Genuine prayer humbles us and places our current conversation in perspective.
- Honor: Fairly represent your spouse’s words, tone, and content.
- Sit: Sitting is a way to maintain self-control. If you are upset, then moving around in conflict will further activate your adrenal system and, thereby, intensify your emotions. For some people sitting will be way to express honor.
- Body Language: The majority of communication is nonverbal, especially as it pertains to establishing the tone or atmosphere of a conflict. Remember the things you learned in Lesson 2 about body language.
- “Thank You”: If you get “stuck” and don’t know what to say, use that moment to affirm your spouse by saying something like, “Thank you for having this conversation with me. I’m not sure what to say right now, but I’m confident because of how we’re honoring one another, we’ll figure it out and be closer because of it.”
Discussion: This area should not be a transcript of the conversation. You just want to capture the flow and major points or concerns of both people. This helps slow down an argument that begins to move too fast.
Action Steps / Decisions: Healthy conflict has a beginning (defining the subject), middle (discussion notes), and end (action steps and decisions). Unhealthy communication has a beginning, middle, beginning, beginning, middle, beginning, etc… until it abruptly stops.
Progression of an Idol
James 4:1 begins with a very important question, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” We’ve spent most of this lesson looking at “how” to do conflict better. We will conclude by considering the “why” we’re trying to remedy. You will see the corresponding section on the Conversation Log (page 20).
James 4:1b-2a provides the answer to these questions, “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” Simply put we engage in unhealthy communication because we do not get what we want, and we listen to our desires more than we trust God.
It is important to note that the Greek word for “desire” in James 4 does not carry the connotation of sinful, or bad. It is a neutral term. Most unhealthy marital conflict occurs when we want good things too much. So, the most important step in doing conflict well is identifying which desires most commonly “war within you.” Use the list below to help.
- A dream
- Other: _____________
As a couple, how you approach your driving desires is one of the most important aspects of your marriage. You should be able to communicate clearly and patiently what you desire without explaining your bad behaviors as being caused by a delay in these desires being met (blame-shifting or manipulation). Culturally, we resist seeing this dynamic by changing the word “desire” to “need.” With this change in vocabulary we begin to believe that any hesitancy or delay in meeting our desires/needs according to our preferences is a threat to our well-being. This makes our over-reactions seem justified.
With the desire-need change in mindset it is easy to see how we justify our demanding behaviors. What we often miss in this transition is the way that demanding a desire destroys our ability to enjoy it when/if we receive it. Spouses who demand respect are not likely to see the other person’s response as sincere. Spouses who demand affirmation are less likely to hear compliments as being heart-felt. Our demands quickly turn us into the martyrs of our own sinful communication.
Read Psalm 115. Notice how we tend to become like what we worship (v. 8). Consider how lifeless your desires are apart from God (v. 5-7) and the kinds of grace-based relationships God designed. Realize that the only protection from becoming demanding in a way that defines life by our desires is trust in God’s love and provision (v. 9-15).
Once our desires take on the significance of a demand, they begin to define the kinds of things that only God should define – right and wrong, worth my time and not worth my time, friend and foe, etc. We obey our desire by looking down upon, tuning out, or attacking our spouse for not reverencing our desire as we believe they ought to.
Judging actions become self-perpetuating. We know we over-reacted, but we used our spouse’s neglect of our idol as justification for our sin. Now, it feels like we’re wrong for wanting a good thing. This makes our spouse seem even more wrong and unreasonable to us.
What started so reasonable (legitimate desires grown too large) now becomes destructive (actions and words that harm the marriage). When we are the offender in this progression, we focus on how legitimate our desires were. When we are the offended, we focus on how wrong and hurtful our spouse’s words and actions were.
“Knowing God’s Word or what he says about marriage isn’t enough; we must be willing to see ourselves accurately, in action, as we interact with our spouses (p. 20).” Winston Smith in Marriage Matters
We will look at ten ways that couples commonly punish during conflict. Each of these tactics (yes, we are implying that these are done for strategic benefit even when we do them instinctually) has varying degrees of intensity. However, you should be able to use this list to capture a clear understanding of how you punish during conflict.
- Exaggeration: We can distort what occurred by magnifying what our spouse did, minimizing what we did, giving their words more meaning than what was actually said, or allowing our emotions to dominate the conversation.
- Misdirection: We can make a conversation very slippery by changing subjects or bringing up irrelevant information. We create a lose-lose scenario where our spouse must either nag for their concern or forfeit their concern.
- Mind Reading: “What you really mean is…” “You did this just because you wanted to…” This form of punishment assumes the worst about your spouse and robs your spouse of his/her voice.
- Trait Names: Calling someone by their sin (i.e., liar, pervert, addict, etc…) or weakness (i.e., stupid, fatty, etc…) mistakes their actions for their identity. We will either use the emotionally powerful moments of marriage to reinforce our spouse’s identity in Christ, or we will highlight the things that Satan would use to keep our spouse from Christ.
- Shaming: Events from the past are the “Cold War” arsenal of marital life. The biggest problem with shaming is that it brings up failures in a way that can only create pain.
- Defensiveness: “I can’t believe you’re going to bring up ‘A’ when you did ‘B’.” This strategy has the double impact of avoiding A while focusing the conflict on B. Anything that would be a good strategy in a political debate has no place in a couple’s conflict.
- Double Bind: This form of punishment creates an unwinnable scenario for our spouse. A spouse might say, “If you loved me you would be a better provider and spend more time with me.” Often the punisher is unaware of the inherent contradiction within their request because they are only focused how much they want both outcomes.
- Contempt: We can express contempt by mocking, name-calling, disrespectful body language (e.g., eye-rolling), or talking down to our spouses. When we communicate with contempt, we are telling our spouses that they are “less than” we are. At its best, contempt displays high levels of immaturity. At its worst, contempt reveals the early stages of an emotionally abusive relationship.
- Physical or Emotional Distance: Silent treatment, giving the cold shoulder, and other forms of ignoring are punishing responses to conflict.
- Unhealthy Attachments: It can be as “innocent” as overly investing in your children, parents, work, friends, or other positive relationships. It can be as destructive as a flirty relationship with a member of the opposite sex
The great danger of this chapter is that you will merely “try harder” to implement “better teaching” as if the reason that you’ve managed conflict poorly in the past has been an information deficiency. We tend to love the kinds of lists and processes found in this chapter because we want to believe that these things will help us tame our tongues and lives.
“We never have followed the advice of the great teachers. Why are we likely to begin now? Why are we more likely to follow Christ than any of the others? Because He is the best moral teacher? But that makes it even less likely that we shall follow Him. If we cannot take the elementary lessons, is it likely we are going to take the most advanced ones? If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more will make no difference. (p. 156).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
In the next two lessons we will consider two key responses that show we are living a gospel-centered life. These are vital to the health of every marriage: repentance and forgiveness. The solution to sin is not “try harder” in your strength but “surrender” to Christ for a transformed heart.