Conflict in marriage can be healthy, if you know how to handle it


In their pre-marriage counseling, a young bride-to-be boasted that she and her fiancé had been going out for two years and had never quarreled. "If a difference of opinion arises and I'm right," she said, "my fiancé gives in."


"And what if he's right?" asked the counselor. "Oh, she responded. "That's never occurred!"


If we are going to experience authentic, healthy relationships in our family lives, we must face the fact that, unlike the young bride-to-be, we will all face conflict. The Apostle Paul acknowledges that we will experience anger, but he also says that we are responsible for what we do with it. "In your anger do not sin." (Ephesians 4:26)


In some households, family conflict may lead to healthy dialogue and compromise. For others, it means shouting, screaming, name-calling, threats or even physical violence. How can we avoid these hurtful behaviours and turn conflict into something constructive?


Here are tips to healthy conflict resolution as found in Denise Van Eck's article The Conversation You Dread (Leadership, Fall 2004), and my own Couple Care Pre-Marriage Manual:


Identify the issue. Stop long enough to get in touch with what has pushed your buttons. Because anger can appear in a split second we often miss the hurt behind it.

Clarify your intentions.  Is your goal to set him straight?  Get your way?  These one-sided expectatiions will not lead to positive results.  Instead of seeing confrontation as a way to "fix" someone, try seeing it as an opportunity for everyone to grow.

Begin with empathy.  When preparing for a difficult conversation, ask yourself: "Can I put myself inher shoes for a moment?"  By taking a moment to see the other side of the situation, you can avoid the heat of anger.

Choose the right time.  Make sure you can both give your undivided attention to the issue.  If needed, dismiss yourself respectfully by saying something like, "I am so angry right now that I am afraid I might say something I regret.  Let's discuss this after I cool down a bit."  Return to the issue soon.  Tomorrow is too late.  Set the time and honour it.

Hold up the mirror. Get real with yourself. How have you contributed to this arguement? Are you bringing any of your own issues into it? Is the person you are confronting exhibiting behavior that you struggle with yourself? Practice humility by taking responsibility for your contribution to the conflict. Own up before you show up.

Affirm the relationship.  Remind each other that you are attacking an issue, not the person. Say things like: "We are in this relationship together" and "We care enough about our relationship to work through this difficult issue."

Take turns sharing your views. While one talks, the other listens.  Interruptions should not be permitted unless clarification is needed. Use ‘I' statements such as I feel like..." to shift the emphasis off blaming, which can easily result in defensiveness. 

Reflect the other persepctive.  Being a listener can be hard work.  Often we can be thinking ahead to our response or wanting to interrupt to make our point known.  Listen carefully and then restate the other person's argument to show you have listened and know where she is coming from.

Brainstorm together.  List some solutions tha can be applied to the situation.  Working together requires both parties to give up the need to "win."  The goal is to find a solution that works while keeping the harmony of the relationship intact.

Practice forgiveness.  Holding on to resentment is like a tug of war. Two people are pulling different ends of the rope, but when one let's go, the war is over. Forgiveness is a choice that brings peace and contentment. 

Move on.  Once the issue has been resolved, agree to put it to rest.  You may not be able to forget about it and you may feel the lingering hurt, but you can determine not to visit the issue again.  Bringing up past hurts that have already been dealt with is like tearing scabs off healing wounds.

Trust the Holy Spirit.  It's tempting to feel that it's all up to you to get the issues solved. The truth is you can't control what another person thinks, feels or believes. You can bring truth and love, but it is the Spirit of God who changes a person's heart.

Ten Attitudes That Keep You From Expressing Your Feelings

Conflict phobia. You are afraid of angry feelings or conflicts with people. You may believe that people with good relationships shouldn't fight or argue. You may also believe that the people you care about would be hurt and couldn't take it if you told them how you felt or what was really on your mind. I call this the "ostrich phenomenon" because you bury your head in the sand instead of dealing with the problems in your relationship.

Emotional perfectionism. You believe that you shouldn't have irrational feelings like anger, jealousy, depression, or anxiety. You think you should always be rational and in control of your emotions. You are afraid of being exposed as weak and vulnerable. You believe that people will look down on you if they find out how you really feel.

Fear of disapproval and rejection. You are so terrified by rejection and ending up alone that you'd rather swallow your feelings and put up with some abuse that take the chance of making anyone mad at you. You feel an excessive need to please people and to meet everybody's expectations. You are afraid that people would not like you if you expressed your own ideas and feelings.

Passive-aggressiveness. You pout and hold your hurt and angry feelings inside instead of sharing them openly and honestly. You give others the silent treatment and try to make them feel guilty instead of sharing your feelings.

Hopelessness. You feel convinced that your relationship cannot improve no matter what you do, so you give up. You may feel that you've already tried everything and nothing works. You may believe that your spouse is just too stubborn and insensitive to be able to change. This acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you give up, things get stuck and you conclude that things really are hopeless.

Low self-esteem. You believe that you aren't entitled to express your feelings or to ask others for what you want. You think you should always please other people and meet their expectations.

Spontaneity. You believe that you have the right to say precisely what you think and feel when you are upset. You may feel that any change in the way you communicate will sound phony and ridiculous.

Mind reading. You believe that people should know how you feel and what you want without your having to express yourself directly. This gives you a perfect excuse to hold your feelings inside and to feel resentful because people don't seem to care about your needs.
Martyrdom. You are afraid to admit that you're angry, because you don't want to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they've upset you. You take enormous pride in controlling your emotions and suffering silently.

Need to solve problems. When you have a conflict with someone, you go around and around in circles trying to solve the problem instead of sharing your feelings openly and hearing how the other person feels.  (The Feeling Good Handbook, Dr. David Burns)



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“Everyone wants an amazing love relationship.  Getting there through a great marriage takes commitment, patience, sacrifice, a lot of support, and a solid spiritual foundation.  I recommend The Couple Care Marriage Preparation Manual as a resource for pastors and mentors who want to prepare couples for marriage through Christ centered instruction and discovery.  Bob & Penny Armstrong have leveraged their marriage and parent experience with their pastor and counsellor wisdom to give us a practical and valuable tool for guiding couples toward an amazing marriage!”
- Steve Berg, Former Conference Minister for the BCMB/Current

“As a pastor of the Christian & Missionary Alliance for some 34 years this resource comes as a refreshing and practical help for busy pastors. The way in which you have arranged the material is helpful and interactive. Couples of all ages including those who choose to remarry have indicated thanks for the hands on use of this manual. I would recommend its use by any counselor who wishes to furnish couples with good tools that help frame a good marriage. Today we need to offer couples Biblical help that they can take with them for life. This manual accomplishes that feature. Thanks for the gift of this good work. I will continue to use it here. In fact, our present Intern was one of the couples I walked through this material.”
- Pastor Ernest Gray, Nanaimo Alliance