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Conflict Management

Fighting Clean

Almost every couple enters into marriage determined to avoid the pitfalls and the problems that they see in so many other mar­riages. They are determined that theirs will be a lifelong friendship that is caring, respectful and loving. It seems unthinkable that they might have conflict with each other.

But for most couples their relationship changes and they become aware of fric­tion. They get annoyed with one another, they begin to argue about issues over which they thought they would never disagree. The glow and the thrill of their love seems to be diminishing and they wonder why things are going wrong. Some begin to have doubts. Did they make a mistake? Did they choose the wrong partner?

Conflict is a natural part of marriage

So let us begin with a fact:  every couple experiences conflict. Every couple experiences problems that threaten the closeness of their relationship. Such conflict is not extraordinary — it is a natural part of marriage. In fact the couple who does not experience any conflict is also a couple that avoids speaking about any important issues: at least one (if not both) parties are silently submitting to their partner’s wishes.

When two individuals become interdependent — living together, deciding together, sleeping together — their relationship will be exposed to all kinds of stresses and strains. The process of making decisions that affect the other will inevitably lead to differences of opinion. Conflict is an inevitable part of marriage. This for the following reasons:

Differences in formation and history

Each individual has a unique life-experience, set of beliefs, and cultural practices. For this reason it is easier to marry someone whose history matches your own. But even if you find someone who is compatible in this way, our individual strengths and weaknesses affect the way we think and react to life. That's what makes human existence so rich and varied. For this reason, when two individuals join their lives together, there is rarely a perfect fit. Adjustment to one another is necessary, which causes friction of one kind or another.  

The problem of making decisions together

When we are single we can make decisions on our own without having to consult anyone else. I have the final say. But mar­riage changes all this. Suddenly your partner has an equal say in the way life is to be lived – and an opinion on everything! Their views and their tastes must be considered, and because we are all individuals, we will always have differences of opinion. The issues of life that were easy for one person become complicated by the addition of another. Conflict arises in everything from “What do we do with our money?” to “What did you do with the toothpaste?” For this reason a good marriage is the result of good communication. If a couple has solid ground rules to steer their relationship, they stand a better chance of a better marriage

Marriage is hard work

Marriage is hard because we are complicated people, and we tend to hide our vulnerabilities—our fear, loneliness, shame, and confusion. Just because we are married does not automatically make us good at talking about the parts of ourselves that we don’t fully understand and try to ignore. Because of this, most couples focus on the stuff they can do together and immerse themselves in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of work, kids, and life – and defer the difficult internal stuff of relationships.

The problem for many is the assumption that that marriage is like walking — anyone can do it. This is similar to thinking that you’re a good listener just because you can hear. We know that listening requires certain skills. Dr. Heitler describes marriage as more akin to being a professional athlete. It “takes learning complex skills and lots of practice” to make marriage successful, she says. [1]

Constructive communication has various principles, some of which you or your partner might not know naturally. Or you might have different expectations and totally different communication styles. For this reason we need to reflect on the way we handle conflict, this will mean adopting guidelines to developing a constructive way of making decisions. The issue is not that we have differences of opinion - but how we handle them.

Rules of Engagement

The single biggest problem in communication
Is the illusion that it has taken place.
(George Bernard Shaw)

  1. Argue to Understand – not to win.

Though it cost all you have, get understanding (Proverbs 4:7).

When arguing, remember this is not your business partner, this is the person you LOVE. What that means is you are not just dealing with hard facts and bullet points; you must consider your partner’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and personal history into the equation. Listening helps us focus on the heart of the conflict. When we listen, understand, and respect each other’s ideas, we can then find a solution in which both of us are winners. The reason for the argument is that you have a deeply held opinion that you want heard – but just remember that the other person also holds their opinion just as deeply. A commitment to hear a partner out without jumping in to defend yourself, may not only make her feel cared for, but may also give you new information about her needs. In understanding, you will discover new perspectives and find an opportunity for an outcome that you never expected.

  1. Do not walk out – but Do ask for time out.

Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly (Proverbs 14:29).

Sometimes an argument with your partner can get heated, or maybe you feel like you're having the same fight for the 5th time this week. It can be tempting to storm out of the room, but exiting a fight as a statement is not a good way to do it. When you suddenly leave, you are sending all sorts of messages to your partner that you may not even realize.

Abandoning your partner is a put down of the relationship. It says to your partner that you do not value her/his opinion. A sudden departure from the argument teaches your partner that you can’t necessarily be relied on to work through issues together or stick around when times get tough. It is literally a ‘play for power’, where you betray the sacred vows of ‘for better or for worse’.

There are, however, good reasons to want to walk out of an argument. Sometimes an argument is escalating, and you need an opportunity to cool down; perhaps you are afraid that you might say things in the heat of the moment that you will come to regret; or you feel trapped by the argument, and need time to reflect. These are all very good reasons to want to stop speaking. For this reason each party to the relationship is allowed to ask for ‘time out’. If you do this you call a “time out”, convene a later time to pick up the conversation, and leave the room.. This lets your partner know that a) you are committed to reaching a resolution and b) you’re not just abandoning him. Take your break time to cool down and go into the room with a calmer demeanor. For this to work, the other person must agree to let you leave the room and not follow you to continue the discussion elsewhere!

  1. Do not let grievances fester beyond a 48 hours limit.

You shall not bear a grudge …but you shall love (Leviticus 19:18).

Sometimes it is not appropriate to raise an issue immediately. It might be that the disagreement is in company and you cannot deal appropriately with it. So you choose to avoid it. Or it might be that something happens and you want time before addressing it. It is entirely appropriate to pause and reflect on an issue, to ask if you were overreacting, or if this is an issue that you really need to pursue to its end. If so – you have 48 hours to broach the subject. This prevents a situation when one party raises an issue that is long forgotten by the other party. The consequence of such an action is that while the one person is aware of the issue simmering in her/his emotional memory, the other party is completely unaware of it, and will be bewildered by it being raised weeks later. It will lead to a lack of trust between the couple, with one wondering if there is anything else that is not being mentioned, but will come out as a surprise some-time in the future. Remember – the goal is a trusting, intimate relationship: do not hold onto grudges that get in the way of this.

  1. Do not resurrect corpses.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger …be put away from you (Ephesians 4:31)

The Afrikaans culture has a saying that speaks of  “ou koeie uit die sloot grawe”. This refers to digging up things from the past that were long dead and buried. It happens that a couple have had an argument, have resolved it and made peace, and moved on with their lives. Then another disagreement arises – and one party in the relationship is tempted to return to the original argument as ammunition in the new discussion. Words may be used such as “This is the same as last time”, or perhaps “You’ve done it again – remember the time when…”. While this may indeed be true, the fact is that the past was resolved and buried. Resurrecting the issue serves only to add fuel to the fire, because the other party is then tempted to recall the past as well. And all the good of past reconciliation evaporates, and as a consequence the discussion will become more spiteful and angry.

When this happens it destroys trust. Even while the couple are reconciling from an argument, the one who has asked for forgiveness will be left wondering when this issue will come back to hit him on the head. Choose to forget the past and focus instead on the present. This is a deliberate choice, because each will be aware of the past and of the potential of resurrecting the ‘dead corpse’. Choosing not to mention it, or rub a partner’s nose in her past mistakes will strengthen the trust and love of a relationship.

  1. Do not go to sleep angry.

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).

We all know the anger that drives us to say to another person “I am going to bed”. We then storm off to bed, leaving the argument unresolved. Sometimes we then sleep badly, worrying about the difference of opinion; and sometimes our self-righteous anger lets us sleep soundly. It may even be that you will wake the next morning feeling better, and begin the new day as if nothing had happened. But the fact is that something did happen!

One pervasive lie is that time heals everything. Time can definitely help in some circumstances — allowing our emotions to recede, releasing relational pressure, giving us perspective. But time by itself heals nothing. If we depend on time to heal what’s wrong in our relationships, we will carry wounds with us the rest of our lives. The truth is time can heal, but not without real, tangible confession, correction, repentance, and forgiveness.

It has also been shown that this anger does not just ‘go away’.  Studies[2] show that if you have a negative emotional response and go to sleep, the response is ‘protected’. This means that when you are exposed to the effect again, your negative response will be just as negative as the first time. The anger accumulates, and future arguments will trigger this hidden store of anger to fuel future arguments.

The fact is that making peace before going to sleep is good for the soul! This does not mean that the disagreement has to be solved before going to sleep. It is sufficient to say “I love you”, and we can come back to this another time. A useful practice in this regard is to make the decision that you will always kiss your partner before going to sleep – Try kissing someone who is angry!

Written by Rev Dr P Grassow

[1] A Denver based clinical psychologist who wrote The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage.

[2] Studies done at University of Massachusetts at Amherst by neuroscientists. https://lifehacker.com/5877576/science-confirms-dont-go-to-sleep-sleep-angry

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936)