Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Working Through Marital Conflict

Well, I've been married for 25 years and can (dis)honestly say that my wife and I have never been in an argument. Right!!! When you spend the better part of your life with someone, you're sure to run into areas of disagreement. Let's face it: we're all unique and see the world through our own lenses. These differences can sometimes lead to tension and conflict in our relationship.

Last semester, I asked my undergrad students to help me out with a rather “tongue-in-cheek” project. I requested that they think of some sure-fire ways to start a fight with a spouse. And did they ever come up with some doozies! Here are just a few of them:
  • After they tell a long story, say, “Oh, were you saying something?”
  • When she asks what’s in your mouth, spit it at her.
  • When they least expect it, come up from behind and tackle them full force.
  • Side with your parents against them . . . every time.
  • Suggest that you eat out when your wife has already prepared dinner.
  • Eat all of the provolone cheese even though you know that it’s her favorite, and even though there is ample pepper jack cheese (which, incidentally, you picked out).
  • Constantly use the phrase, “Glad to see you’re finally doing something for me!” whenever an act of kindness is shown.
  • Record over your wedding video because you never watch it.
  • Tell her, “I’ve got a golf trip the same weekend as our anniversary. We’ll celebrate when I’m back.”
  • Purposely burp when kissing.
  • Refer to his or her mother as a “monster-in-law.”
  • Put your fingers in your ears while they’re talking to you and go “Blah! Blah! Blah! 

Marital conflict seems inevitable in most marriage relationships. During the process of spending a significant amount of time with our spouses, eventually some kind of disagreement will arise. It virtually cannot be avoided. But, not all conflict in marriage is necessarily inherently negative! We can grow together through conflict as couples, open lines of authentic communication, grow in understanding of each other’s expectations and needs, and ultimately develop deeper levels of trust, mutual respect, and love. 

Unhealthy conflict often consists of the following elements (Fraser, 2014):

Criticism (and Cheap Shots)
Negativity (or Nagging)

Dr. Emerson Eggerichs’ book, Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires / The Respect He Desperately Needs (2004) is based on the marriage theology of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33. Eggerichs proposes two interactional cycles. The Crazy Cycle consists of the following unhealthy and dysfunctional process: Without love, she reacts without respect; therefore he reacts without love. In contrast, the Energizing Cycle consists of the following healthy relational process: His love motivates her respect, which in turn motivates his love. Men crave their wives’ admiration and respect, while women seek their husbands’ love and affection.
Let me suggest seven practical strategies for successfully working through marital conflict. 

1. Communicate. When communicating with our spouses in times of relational conflict, it is imperative that we remain calm, caring, and respectful. Also, it is critical for us to remember that communication occurs not only through verbal expression but also through non-verbals. In fact, approximately eighty percent of all communication is non-verbal, including such things as tone of voice, facial expressions, physical gestures, eye-contact, and the like. 

2. Concentrate. Pay close attention to what your partner is saying and listen both actively and reflectively. Turn off the TV, close the computer, put away your Ipad and cell-phone. Paraphrase the basic content of your spouse’s words, carefully reflect back their feelings, and deeper meanings behind what they are saying. Do so tentatively, though, often asking for further clarification. Ask yourself, “What is at stake here for my spouse?” Gain a clear understanding of what it is that is bothering our spouse at the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels.

3. Contemplate. Before responding, choose your words carefully. While feedback is a gift, the manner in which it is given is all-important. Slow down and say a silent prayer for God to give you understanding and wisdom in the manner in which you respond (cf. James 1:5). Rather than fuel the fire by your own anger or frustration, cool it! Politely ask your spouse if you may have a few minutes to think through what they have said—even to sleep on it—before replying. James 1:19 (ESV) states, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Let your spouse know that it is important to you that you respond in the best way you can, and do so with the right frame of mind, rather than reactively.

4. Collaborate. Seek to work with your spouse to formulate a mutually agreeable solution to your conflict. This process will require both “give” and “take.” Brainstorm several potential ideas and jot them down, not judging or evaluating these ideas’ merits right away. Once a list of 10-12 possible solutions has been generated, discuss them one-by-one and weigh out the respective pros and cons of each of them. Many times, the best and most creative solutions are those that emerge from the various ideas as a sort of synthesis of two or more of them. Seek to work together and collaborate rather than pull apart.

5. Consecrate. Couples need the Lord! In the midst of relational turmoil, it is a huge mistake to exclude God from the healing process. Married partners that pray together stay together! However, the world has a way of creeping into Christian marriages and destroying them from the inside out. That is why marriages need constant and consistent healthy doses of spiritual fortification. When husbands and wives take time to come together for prayer, study of God’s Word, and regular worship, they will not only be individually consecrated (or sanctified) for God’s purposes, but they will sanctify one another (cf. 1 Cor. 7:16; Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Pet. 3:1-7).

6. Celebrate. While in the midst of marital strife, it's easy to forget the positive things that exist within the relationship. These could include a wonderful relationship history with many uplifting memories. They may also include a number of strengths or positives that could be capitalized upon. I often ask couples I am working with in marriage counseling the following question: “What are some things within your relationship that are actually going fairly well, that you would like to see continue?” I’m often astounded by the numerous strengths and positives that both partners are able to articulate. Often, because problems become so pronounced and appear to overrun the relationship, positives are largely overlooked or ignored. Therefore, it is important to look for the exceptions to the problem—the strengths of the relationship that need to be celebrated—and build upon them.

7. Copulate. Though mutually gratifying sex ought not to be viewed as the highest good, purpose, or function of marriage, it certainly plays a significant role (see 1 Cor. 7:1-5). It is important to take respite from the arguing and emotional tension on occasion to reconnect physically in the bedroom. Unselfish sex has a way of evening the playing field, releasing built-up relational tension, and rebuilding hope, satisfaction, and trust. It also diminishes the temptation to step outside of the relationship to have one’s sexual and/or emotional needs met. Sex ought to never be used as a weapon to punish one’s spouse through withholding it or using it to oppress the weaker vessel. However, it should be used as a gift from God to facilitate greater intimacy in the marriage relationship. Hebrews 13:4 (ESV) says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” 

In conclusion, the marriage relationship is unequivocally one of the greatest gifts that God has given humankind. We must remember that it isn't a contract but a sacred covenant. However, along with this magnificent institution invariably comes certain formidable challenges and troubling conflicts. We must do everything in our power to protect the sanctity and well-being of the marriage relationship within the family, church, community, and world.

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