“Fighting” is (or should most often be) too strong of a word, but defining the nature and significance of the disagreement is an essential (and often overlooked) part of healthy conflict. Accurately defining the nature and significance of a disagreement is a key part of ensuring that the disagreement is resolved at the early stages of the conflict progression described above.

The first question is, “What is the nature of our disagreement?” Frequently couples are having two different conversations about the same subject. When this happens, it is usually not long before they are talking about two different subjects and can’t remember what started the now argument in the first place.

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. This will help us answer our second question, “How significant is our disagreement?” As you study the various types of differences consider how not identifying the type of disagreement you are having pushes a conversation to the more significant types of differences.

1. Factual Differences:

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.” In these instances, a couple should begin (preferably with the assistance of a counselor, pastor, or mentor couple) with the question, “What relevant facts do we agree upon?” and move to the question, “What contributes to us disagreeing on the other relevant facts that must be either true or false?”

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. There is not a third option when you disagree on facts, and trust is not given to a deceitful or irrational person.

At this level of disagreement it is important to differentiate between the actual facts you disagree upon and the implication of those facts (values and policies). Discussing implications before resolving the factual disagreements will reinforce the perception that you are in an unsafe conversation with an unsafe person. Arguing about implications also takes you further from the foundational point from which unity will be built.

2. 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. A couple agrees on the facts (what was said or done), but does not agree on the meaning of those facts.

In these instances the couple should begin with the question, “Why did (or didn’t) that action/statement mean to you what it meant to me?” It shouldn’t be surprising that two people can interpret the same event/statement differently. But too often in marriage we are surprised (then offended) when our spouse doesn’t think like we do. We turn a moment of learning and honor into a moment of indignation and condemnation. Sometimes differences of definition are innocent and simply require a time of learning to honor the uniqueness of your spouse. Other times differences of definition reveal selfishness or self-centeredness that should be resolved through repentance. However, until we humbly engage the kind of questions provided above, then a couple will argue based upon the assumption their spouse does or should see the event the same way they do.

3. Differences in Values:

“Is A worth B? Is this amount of time worth that benefit? Is this level of sacrifice worth that outcome? Is this fun activity worth that cost?” This is the form a difference in value takes. In order to phrase the question this way a couple must agree upon facts and definitions.

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 effect you?” Hearing each other answer this question is a vital part of protecting unity during a difficult decision. Even when “your option” is selected (assuming a third more mutual way cannot be found), it is imperative that your spouse knows you understand and give appropriate weight to how this decision effects him/her.

Like differences of definition, differences of value can be innocent or reveal selfishness. Again, it shouldn’t be surprising that we instinctively consider things from the perspective of our benefit and will frequently need to repent for the biasing effect this has on our values. One of the primary benefits of a gospel-centered marriage is that it creates an atmosphere of grace where we can be honest about this tendency without making excuses.

4. Policy Differences:

Most disagreements end with an answer to the question, “What are we going to do?” or “How should we respond to having hurt one another (if the disagreement began with hurt feelings instead of a formal decision)?” It is important to see that these kinds of questions can only be effectively answered when there is 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 compromise (find a middle/third way), delay the decision (not always possible), or 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.

In these decisions it is important to be balanced without being measured (i.e., score keeping). It would be an abuse of male headship to say that the husband always gets his way when agreement cannot be reached. It would be an abuse of servant leadership to say that the husband should always defer to his wife’s preference. Navigating these moments will be dealt with more thoroughly in “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Decision Making.”

A quick word on how to use these categories, don’t get too tedious. If you do, then marital conversations will begin to feel like business meetings. When you feel that you and your spouse are “not on the same page” work from the foundation (agreement on facts) to the top (agreement on policy). Identify the level where you do agree and then work toward the actual decision (i.e., policy).

Now we are ready to answer the second question is, “How significant is our disagreement?” Too often couples engage in their disagreement as if the issue were more important than the marriage. When this occurs a couple may agree on facts, definitions, values and policy yet the spouse who places more value on the subject still believes the other person “doesn’t get it.” This dynamic is common even outside of marriage.

“One of the things that Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks where such-and-such a point ‘really matters’ and the other replies: ‘Matters? Why it’s absolutely essential (p. x).’” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

When a couple disagrees about the significance of a topic the most important thing is to establish that the issue is not more important than the marriage. A primary way to do this is through listening accompanied by touch. Rudeness (interrupting and rushing) are an indication that the issue is more important than the marriage. This is why listening is such a honoring-rich activity. Inviting your spouse to come close is another way to show the marriage takes precedence over the issue.

This resource was taken from the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.