Before marriage, I thought I was a pretty stable person. I never raised my voice at people, never experienced serious conflict, and assumed I had self-control. Then I got married. And then came our first argument. A side of me I didn’t know existed was unleashed - my hidden selfishness came pouring out.
Our early marriage conflicts were over something as small as who ate the last peach in the fridge, the cost of a pair of shoes, or unmet expectations for birthday gifts (I want what I want, but I also want it to be a surprise!). When we realized these arguments were small compared to arguments to come (like budgets, in-laws, new cars, home buying, or parenting), we knew we had to learn how to become masters of conflict resolution. We also learned that conflict is ironic. Everything in us wanted to avoid it, but when done well, it would bring us closer together. We learned that healthy marriages invest in learning how to communicate and resolve conflict.
Through the marriage ministry at Watermark, we learned the four communication patterns; withdraw, escalate, negative interpretation, and invalidation (learned from Scott Stanley’s book, A Lasting Promise). Knowing our primary negative communication pattern was the first step in making us aware of how each of us responded to conflict. This understanding forced us to pause and consider what was going on when we had an argument. From there, we implemented three things that helped us navigate hard conversations - our home is now free of door slamming and silent treatments!
1. You have to understand before you can be understood.
We had to identify whether or not we withdrew, escalated, negatively interpreted, or invalidated each other. Then we would pause to understand why the other person would react that way during arguments. During conflict, we would stop and ask the question “Will you help me understand why you are reacting this way?” In the process, we learned where the other person was coming from. Be a student of your spouse and always remember you are a TEAM!
2. Own your part.
We had to consider the possibility that we might not see the conflict the same way as the other person. We have to withhold judgment, give one another the benefit of the doubt, and humbly accept there is something we can always “own” during conflict. The Lord encourages us to take a look at ourselves and identify areas where we can grow. Matthew 7:5 says “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”
3. Allow God’s word to guide you.
James 1:19-22 has had a significant impact on our marriage. James writes,
“… let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
The more Will and I rested in this truth, the more we began to see change. As we sought to abide daily and searched God’s word for counsel, we began to grow closer in oneness. God’s word is packed with truth related to communication and conflict.
God has done amazing things in our marriage over these last few years. I’m constantly reminded of his sovereignty over all parts of our relationship. We still have so much to learn and ways to grow, but what a joy it is to see how far we’ve come!
Healthy conflict results in a deeper, more connected marriage and is a way to live out the gospel of forgiveness and extend the grace of God to one another.
Think about the last conflict you had in your marriage. What could you have done differently? Reflect on these things with your spouse, so you’ll be prepared to face the next conflict from a healthier place.
If you want to hear more about Christ-like communication and conflict resolution, listen to John McGee (Watermark’s Marriage Ministry Director), and his wife Pam talk about it here.