How to Handle Conflict in Relationships
My wife Joyce and I are so different. I thought I knew her well. After all, we met in the 4th grade. But didn’t realize how different we were until 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. A wife hopes her upcoming anniversary means a surprise trip to a bed-and-breakfast—then she hears there’s a bass boat show all weekend. In all of life, not just 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. We bring different traditions, habits, and thoughts into a relationship. We have to work at oneness.
Conflict is inevitable in life. Some folks don’t do a very good job settling conflict. Rather than being married by a justice of peace, it seems they were married by the Secretary of War.
Joyce and I know what it’s like to debate our mate. Being saved doesn’t prevent it. The question isn’t whether we’re going to have conflicts, but how do we settle them?
How do we deal with anger and disappointment as our Lord would want us to? James 1:19-20 tells us straight out:
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 builds, and the result is anything but the righteousness of God.
James lays out here three rules for handling conflict—not just for husbands and wives but every relationship.
#1— TUNE IN. BE SWIFT TO HEAR.
You don’t learn to listen automatically; you have to train yourself to listen to what the other person is saying. All of us can learn to be good listeners.
Listening Offers Rewards
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.
Traits That Hinder Listening
Defensiveness. We don’t want anybody telling us anything. We think we know best. Ego on parade.
Assumptions. We assume we already know what they’re going to say. We finish their sentence 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 this uncomfortable experience: while trying to talk to someone, we see their 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 speak volumes. Look into their eyes. You’ll see “the mirror of the soul.” What do you see there? Joy? Fear? Anger? Confusion? Observe. Lean forward; be interested. It will pay great dividends.
Concentrate. Listen not just 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 friend is using and the meaning behind them. Don’t think you already know. Don’t jump to conclusions. Listen not just for 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 repeat back to you what you’ve just 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— TONE DOWN. BE SLOW TO SPEAK.
I’ve learned over time that my words may well get me in trouble. God posts warning signs all along the way.
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 (“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— LIGHTEN UP. BE SLOW TO ANGER.
James 1:19-20 says we’re to be “slow to wrath.” “…slow to take offense and to get angry” (Amplified). Don’t have a hair trigger. Don’t get upset so easily.
If you have an uncontrolled temper, given to temper tantrums, here’s what God says about you…
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).
“Transgression” is just another word for sin. If you get uncontrollably angry, if you cannot rule your spirit, you have a weak character. If you don’t learn to control it, your anger is going to bring many other problems into your relationships 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 coming, say “Let’s put a bookmark here and discuss this after dinner” or after the event.
The Right TONE
When you speak, keep your words soft and sweet; you may have to eat them one day.
The Right TURF
Never discuss your problems with each other 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
In your differences, accommodate yourself to each other. Learn something about his sport; about her hobby.
Here’s disaster in the making: Thinking you can change the other person so you can love them. If you want to change them, the best way is to love them. Never marry a person for what you hope they may become…“He’s got great potential”…because they may never become that. Then where will you be? It will 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 come about not because we are so wonderful. Frankly, the only good thing about any of us is the grace of God. Were it not for His grace, 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 https://www.lwf.org/discover-jesus
Only by His love, the love we see in First Corinthians chapter 13, can you truly become the husband, wife or friend you need to be.