In the early days of our relationship, I treated conflict like a deadly poison. Even the smallest amount could kill the love between us. Danny and I would get in a fight and I was certain it was all over. He obviously didn’t get me and I was pretty sure I didn’t like him anymore. The whole thing was a mistake and we were better off single or with someone else.
Ever feel like that?
I was in the car with our nine-year-old son, Hudson, this week. He was asking about where Danny was and I explained that he was sitting in on a panel discussing how to help families in our city. Hudson’s response was, “Is he going to help them have better marriages? If moms and dads have strong relationships then they can fight and it doesn’t ruin everything. But if they don’t, the kids get really scared because they think their parents are going to get divorced.”
My jaw may have dropped slightly.
It was amazing to me that he understood that conflict doesn’t have to end badly. While I can’t imagine anyone likes getting in a fight with the person they love, there’s a way to interact with each other that can turn it from fighting WITH your spouse to fighting FOR your marriage. And that’s what I want to help you understand today.
Here are some simple (not necessarily easy) rules of engagement that Danny and I have learned to apply to our fights:
1. Attack issues, not the other person
There’s a difference between discussing something that hurt or offended you and making generalizations about the other person.
For example, if the other person forgot about a date that you were looking forward to, you would feel really hurt. When you communicate that to them, you could either say, “When you spaced the date we set up, it made me feel like I wasn’t valuable to you” or “You don’t care about me at all. The only thing you think about is yourself.”
One way allows for mistakes but still acknowledges the pain caused by it. The other assumes you know why they did what they did and puts them in a box. Fights usually escalate when the other person feels like they have to defend their character.
2. Don't raise your voice
It's hard not to let things get loud. Your spouse stirs up emotions in you that no one else even comes close to, both good and bad. That's how it's supposed to be when you're heart is in the mix.
When voices escalate, the walls go up. And the key to fighting well is keeping those walls down so you can actually listen and understand your spouse.
If you start to raise your voice, apologize. A good dose of humility will help calm things back down and serve as a reminder to keep yourself from letting things move in that direction.
3. Don’t use terms like “Never” or “Always”
Women are usually more guilty of this than men. When we get emotional, it creeps into our language and suddenly we’re arguing about whether the offense should actually be categorized as “always”, instead of what the original point of conflict was about.
The best thing to do is to help each other notice when emotional language is derailing the conversation. Allow each other to correct themselves and retract statements that are going to keep you from actually working towards a resolution on the main thing you’re in conflict about.
Policing each other on this isn't going to help, but gently calling attention to it can keep an argument on the right track instead of going down a rabbit trail where you forget what you're actually arguing about.
4. Talk Slowly
If you are quick to get defensive or fight for the upper hand in the argument, slow your words down. Take deep breaths and give yourself time to think before letting those words out of your mouth.
Sometimes this might mean taking a break from the disagreement for a little while.
Be willing to say, “Hey, I need some time to get my head straight. I really want to talk about this with you but can you give me a little bit to calm down first?”
5. Don’t walk out without agreeing to a break
The best thing for the both of you might be to take some time and come back to the conversation. But make it a priority to let your spouse know that you’re not throwing in the towel.
There is nothing more attractive or strengthening to a relationship than someone who refuses to give up even when it’s killing them. If you want the kind of marriage that lasts the test of time, then swallow your pride, look your spouse in the eye and tell them you’re going to figure this out, together…whatever it takes.
6. Talk about ONE issue until you find resolution
Don’t tackle everything in one fight. Refuse the temptation to bring up past arguments. The rule in our relationship is that we don’t bring up anything from the past UNLESS we’re stuck in a place of not being able to understand each other and we need the example to help the other person understand.
Here’s what that would look like:
We’re in a fight about how to schedule our holiday. From what he remembers, we came to an agreement about how to spend the Fourth of July. But from my perspective, he forgot to communicate with me about it.
In trying to help him understand the breakdown in how we’re communicating, I might bring up that time he thought he emailed me about a date on the calendar but actually didn’t. The point in bringing it up isn't to use it as a weapon against him but to help us find a solution. Understanding that this isn’t a one-time thing but that we need to think about how to fix the way we’re interacting with each other is highly motivating for most men because they tend to be solution oriented (less fighting and more sweet talk is totally what he's after.)
If you're bringing up the past and rehashing old wounds, it means you didn't actually do the work of resolving and forgiving. Deal with one thing at a time, see it through to the very end, and be done with it.
7. She needs to feel understood
Men and women tend to approach conflict with different needs. It doesn’t mean they don’t have shared needs. Everyone wants to feel respected, cared for, and understood.
HOWEVER, women typically don't want to work on a solution until they feel understood.
It’s actually really hard for most men to comprehend. They’re not wired that way. So it’s frustrating to feel like she’d rather keep talking about how hurt she felt rather than working to find a solution so that it never happens again.
Men, the best thing to do to help her find resolve is to look her in the eye and communicate back to her what she’s feeling and why. Give her the opportunity to correct you if you’re missing what's actually going on. And do everything in your power to listen without getting defensive. You can care about the way she feels without necessarily agreeing with the emotion.
8. He needs to find a solution
Guys tend to want to reason through what went wrong and find a solution. They want to fix whatever is broken and move on.
It’s incredibly frustrating when the conflict ends without any clear understanding of what happened or how to prevent it from happening again.
In our relationship, we’ve learned to categorize conflict in two categories: an actual disagreement or a perfect storm.
The actual disagreement is when you’re looking at things from two different perspectives and you need to fight through it to get on the same page. (A helpful tip: it’s going to require sacrifice and humility on both parts.)
The perfect storm is when one person said or did something that triggered a reaction in the other person and before you know it, you’re both defensive and arguing about who knows what.
As soon as we can identify that it’s just a perfect storm that in a hundred years isn’t likely to repeat itself, we work hard to back peddle out of it.
To illustrate, imagine this scene:
The kids spill juice all over the floor at the exact moment he walks through the door, laughing about something his buddy was just telling him on the phone, and asks, “What’s for dinner?” as if it’s her responsibility to meet everyone’s needs, ALL OF THE TIME.
He didn’t do anything wrong, except be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe next time he’ll hold off on the “What’s for dinner?” comment, but honestly, it’s just a perfect storm of events.
Women, if it’s just a perfect storm situation then you need to work hard on communicating that or you will erode his motivation to work on solutions to actual disagreements. Learn to give each other grace, apologize quickly, and laugh. It’s one of the best ways to reel back in your emotions when they’re dangling over a cliff.
9. Decide who your “Safe People” are going to be
Everyone needs someone to step in as referee from time to time. If you get to a place where you’ve done everything you can to understand the other person’s point of view and find a solution but you still disagree, then pull in people who you trust to not take sides.
We recommend people who aren’t family for this.
Your mom is always going to be your mom and as much as she might try to be unbiased, she is. So is your sister or group of buddies. They might be willing to shoot straight with you but chances are, you need someone who is willing to fight for your marriage as much as you are.
This is why pastors and counselors are important. They can help you look at things through each other’s eyes. (Maybe not all pastors, but I happen to think there are some good ones out there.)
When Danny and I get in a fight, the only people we talk about it with (other than each other) is the people we’ve both decided are safe for our marriage. This keeps us from talking behind each other’s backs and creating distrust in our relationship. Both of us know that we’re not bad mouthing each other to our friends.
10. Invest in understanding your spouse in non-conflict moments
Each of us is different. There are trigger points for your spouse that are going to be different from every other guy or girl out there based on how they grew up and their experiences in life.
Ask questions like:
How did your parent’s resolve conflict in their relationship?
What sets you off the most in a disagreement? (Keep it generic, don’t let this turn into attacking the other person.)
Is there anything I say or do when we’re fighting that you wish I wouldn’t? (Decide ahead of time not to get defensive, you’re just learning.)
What makes you feel like I’m fighting for our marriage and not fighting you? (be specific.)
What’s your worst fear about arguing with me?
When you spend time understanding the person you married, you are strengthing the bond between you and you're more likely to come out on the other side of a fight still loving each other.
11. Don't bring up divorce
In a recent article in Time Magazine, Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages, was quoted saying, "We have this mythological idea that we will find a soul mate and have these euphoric feelings forever." The article goes onto say that soul mates tend to be crafted, not found. And that "practice, practice, practice" is the avenue through which that happens. They observed that long-married couples who they'd interviewed had acted as if divorce was not an option. Instead of approaching their marriage like buying a new car, they treated it like learning to drive. Discipline was the key to success.
The fastest way to erode trust in your relationship is to constantly bring up the back door. Over the years, my husband has continually reminded me that if we ever get ourselves in serious trouble in our marriage, he'll do whatever it takes to get us back on track. If that means selling the house to pay for marriage counseling or stopping everything else to figure out what went wrong, the priority is making it through the fire and coming out stronger on the other side.
12. Press through until you can be intimate with each other
Pray together. (You knew I was going to bring that up, didn’t you?) Prayer is not only powerful because you’re inviting God to help you, but it’s also intimate. You have to put down the boxing gloves and lower the walls to genuinely pray for and with each other.
Look each other in the eyes, without hostility.
Touch each other, affectionately.
Make-up sex is a very real thing. (Just saying. Ahem, I'll move on.)
Lastly, I want to tell you that this is difficult for everyone. If you’ve developed some bad habits in this area, it can feel like staring up at Mt. Everest and knowing you need to tackle it but not really wanting to.
Can I just encourage you with this? God is for you. He’s for your marriage. And as bad as things might be, you can come back from this.
Intimacy can be cultivated, passion rediscovered, and your love story be one for the books. You can't go back and change what's happened, but you can start today and write a new ending.