How to Handle Conflict in Marriage
My wife Joyce and I are very different. We met each other in the 4th grade, so I thought I knew her well. I didn’t realize how different we were until one day when we were on a Ferris wheel. For some reason it stopped with our gondola at the top, and I thought it would be fun to rock it back and forth. I discovered we are very different!
A wise man once observed, “All human conflict is based upon differing expectations.” If you think about it, that’s true. You get married expecting one thing; your spouse expects something else. You get home in the evening hoping to put your feet up—your spouse has a honey-do list. You hope your upcoming anniversary means a surprise trip to a bed-and-breakfast—but there’s a bass boat show all weekend. In all of life, not just in marriage, when what we anticipate is not what the other person had in mind, our differing expectations pave the way for disappointment and conflict.
By design, men and women are wired differently—but on top of that, individuals have different temperaments. We come from different family backgrounds and bring different traditions, habits, and thoughts into a relationship. We have to work at oneness.
Conflict is inevitable in life. Joyce and I know what it is to debate with our mate. Being saved doesn’t prevent this. The question isn’t whether we’re going to get into conflicts but how do we settle them?
Some folks don’t do a very good job of settling their conflicts. Rather than being married by a justice of peace, it seems they were married by the Secretary of War.
How do we handle conflict and deal with anger as our Lord would want us to? James 1:19-20 gives clear words of instruction:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
Our Lord knows us well. When we close our ears and spout off at the mouth, anger begins to build, and the result is anything but the righteousness of God. James sets up three rules for handling conflict—not just for husbands and wives but every relationship.
#1—Be Swift to Hear. TUNE IN.
Learn to listen. You don’t do it automatically; we must train ourselves to listen to what the other person is saying. All of us can learn to be good listeners.
The Benefits of Listening
When we listen, we encourage the other person to talk. If they sense you’re not listening, they’re not going to keep trying; they’re going to shut down. When you listen, you encourage them to open up. This will benefit you both because…
- Listening helps you understand. You can’t understand someone you’re not listening to.
- Understanding is going to bring you closer together. You’re going to achieve intimacy.
The Traits That Hinder Listening
- Defensiveness. We don’t want anybody to tell us anything. We think we know best. Ego raises its ugly head.
- Assumptions. We assume we already know what they’re going to say. We finish their sentence for them before they ever get to the end of it.
- Resistance. While they’re talking, we’re preparing our own little speech. Instead of concentrating on what our mate is saying; we’re planning our rebuttal! We’re not really hearing what they’re saying.
God gave us two ears and only one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we speak.
How We Should Listen
- Observe. We’ve all had that uncomfortable experience of trying to talk to someone whose eyes are focused somewhere else. Don’t just listen with your ears; listen with your eyes. Even in an argument, look straight into the other person’s face. If you turn and look away, they have every right to assume you’re not listening.
Body language and facial expression tell you a lot. In their eyes you will see “the mirror of the soul.” Do you see joy? Fear? Anger? Confusion? Observe. Lean forward; be interested. It will pay great dividends.
- Concentrate. Listen not only with your eyes and ears but your mind. Focus on what the other person is saying. Make a concerted effort to listen.
- Consider. Note the words your mate or your friend is using and the meaning behind them. Don’t assume you already know. Don’t jump to conclusions. Listen not only to what they say, but what they mean.
- Clarify. Let them express themselves completely, without interruption. Once they’ve said everything they want to say, and you’ve not interrupted them, then say, “Now let me see if I can correctly restate what you’ve said.” Repeat it as you understand it. Then if you’ve misunderstood, they’ll have the opportunity to clarify. You’ll be amazed how easily we get it wrong in the heat of conflict.
#2—Be Slow to Speak. TONE DOWN.
I’ve learned over time that my words may well get me in trouble. God posts warning signs along the way for all of us.
REFRAIN ● SPARE ● KEEP
In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise. (Proverbs 10:19)
He that hath knowledge spareth his words. (Proverbs 17:27a)
Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles. (Proverbs 21:23)
In contrast, “a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3b)
How To Speak When You Do Speak
First Corinthians 13 (known as “The Love Chapter”) applies everywhere, but certainly within marriage.
Charity [love] suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Don’t play judge, critic, historian (bringing up the past) or psychologist.
#3—Be Slow to ANGER. LIGHTEN UP.
James 1:19-20 says we are to be “slow to wrath.” The Amplified Bible says, “…slow to take offense and to get angry.” Don’t have a hair trigger. Don’t get upset so easily.
If you have an uncontrolled temper, given to temper tantrums, listen to what God says…
- You’re foolish. “…for anger resteth in the bosom of the fool.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). Don’t make excuses for your temper. You can’t blame it on your red hair, your family or your genes.
- You have a weak character. “An angry man stirreth up strife, and a furious man aboundeth in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22). Another word for transgression is sin. If you get uncontrollably angry, if you cannot rule your spirit, then you have a weak character. If you don’t learn to control it, your anger is going to bring many other problems into your relationship—and other areas of life.
practical helps for handling conflict—
the 3 “T’s”—Time, Tone, and TURF
The Right TIME
Do you know when most arguments take place?
- Before meals. It could be a drop in blood sugar!
- Before get-togethers. Have you ever gotten into an argument heading out to a party…or to church? We’re tense when we arrive, and we struggle among other people, just trying to act nice!
Be on guard at these times. If you sense an argument approaching, say “Let’s put a bookmark here and discuss this after dinner,” or after the event.
The Right TONE
Remember: “…slow to anger, swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath….” When you talk, keep your words soft and sweet; you may have to eat them one day.
The Right TURF
Never discuss problems when other people are around. For example, have you ever noticed sometimes a spouse will criticize their mate in front of good friends or in a social setting? They figure he/she can’t answer back in public. That’s a cheap shot.
the 3 “a’s”—ACCOMODATION, ACCEPTANCE, ADJUSTMENT
If you find each other are different, why don’t you accommodate yourself to them? Learn something about his sport; about her hobby.
Don’t think you’ll change a person so you can love them. If you want to change them, the best way is to love them. And never marry a person for what you hope they may become because they may never become that. Then where will you be? It will just be frustrating and tragic for both of you.
Be willing to change. If she wants to go to the museum, but you want to go fishing, go to the museum with her. If he wants to practice at the driving range, but you want to go to the mall, go with him and practice some strokes yourself. Rather than having a war where both lose, make adjustments where you both can win.
Happiness and joy in life comes about not because we are so wonderful. Very frankly, the only good thing about each of us is the grace of God. Were it not for the grace of God, my marriage would not have lasted. The reason it did is Jesus.
Every person needs three homes: a family home, a church home, and a heavenly home. Jesus Christ is the key to all three. Have you given your heart to Christ? Are you saved? Do you know that you know that He lives in your heart? If not, please visit http://www.lwf.org/site/PageServer?pagename=discover_jesus
Only by His love, “First Corinthians chapter 13 love,” can you really truly be the husband, wife or friend you need to be.
In this message, Adrian Rogers reveals six ministries each believer is called to undertake.