How to work through your disagreements and resolve conflicts.
It wasn't a happy evening. From the moment I walked through the door I knew that Mary was in an irritable mood.
I didn't know whether the kids had gotten to her, or some church member said something unkind to her, or some appliance in the kitchen wasn't working, or she wasn't feeling well, or it was "just that time of the month." But I suspected that sooner or later she might turn her wrath on me. I hadn't had a particularly pleasant day myself and wasn't about to look for trouble by probing for the problem. I just ignored it.
We got through dinner and cleaned up the kitchen, and I sat down to read the newspaper. Then it started. "You're not going to read that paper, are you?"
"Well, yes. Why shouldn't I?"
"If you have time to read the paper, then you have time to bathe the kids and put them to bed."
"Mary, I've had a tough day, and I have to leave for a board meeting in forty-five minutes. Let me relax for a few minutes. "
"That's the trouble with you. You don't think about anybody but yourself. You just want me to do all the work, not bug you about anything, keep my mouth shut, be sweet all the time, and then be ready for you when you come to bed at night. You don't care about me or my feelings one bit."
I had suspected this would happen, but I still wasn't ready for it. I could feel myself getting tense and defensive, and my response was less than understanding. We argued until I left for the meeting. And when I returned home, the atmosphere was sullen and silent.
Now we were lying in bed, side by side, six inches apart physically, and yet hundreds of miles apart emotionally, both bodies stiff like two Egyptian mummies. Neither one dared to move an arm or leg lest it accidentally touch the other and be interpreted as a desire to talk it out, or--horror of horrors-- to apologize. Thoughts raced through our minds--some real zingers that would score us some points in the contest, or maybe a conciliatory word that might open the door to restoring harmony between us. But neither one ventured a comment. We were in for another long night of conflict.
Must there be conflict like that in marriage? Why do two people who profess to love each other have to quarrel with one another? Can't two reasonably intelligent and mature adults live together in peace?
Yes, they can. There will always be differences of opinion. No two normal people ever will agree on absolutely everything. But - they can work through those inevitable disagreements and resolve their conflicts.
Some people simply withdraw. They think the best way to solve a problem is to run from it. But that doesn't solve anything. It just builds a wall between them, as I can sadly testify.
Other people fight to win. They won't quit until they've proven that they're right and their opponent is wrong, even if they have to destroy him in the process. But that just drives their mates farther away from them, as Mary can unhappily attest.
A third style is to yield. The person who always yields may think he is right, but it's not worth the hassle to prove it, so he just gives in and tries to forget the whole thing. But that builds resentment in him which is sure to come out one way or another.
A fourth method is to compromise, each one give a little and try to meet in the middle. Sometimes that is the only way, but it does carry with it the danger that neither mate will feel he has been completely understood or that his needs have been met.
The best way to resolve the conflict is to seek a solution that will satisfy the needs of both. Here are several things we try to do as we work toward that desirable goal. We want to turn our conflicts into love-fights that not only will resolve the conflict but actually increase our love for one another.
Both of us will win in the end if we can both learn and grow through the experience. So we need to set that as our aim from the very beginning. Once we realize there is tension between us, the most important thing is not making the other person understand our point of view, convincing him/her that we are right, or winning the argument. Instead, the important thing is to learn something valuable that will help us become the people God wants us to be.
So if I really want to resolve this conflict, I will begin by saying to myself, I need to break the silence (or stop running off at the mouth--whichever is needed at the moment), then reach out and begin to work toward strengthening our relationship, even if that means making myself vulnerable and ultimately making some changes in my life. And since neither one of us has the natural inclination to do that, it will also help to pray, "Lord, help me to have a teachable spirit right now. Relieve me of my defensiveness, my self-righteousness, my anger and irritability, and help me learn something that will cause me to grow." If we can maintain that attitude, we're well on the way to resolving the conflict.
My normal response is to show Mary how unreasonable she is acting, how wrong she is in her judgment, to talk back, correct her inaccuracies, refute her illogic, pick at details, explain why I spoke and acted as I did. But an inspired proverb says, "He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise" (Proverbs 15:31). We will get to the root of the problem and work it out more readily if I will invite her to tell me what she is feeling, what her needs are, how she would have liked me to respond, and what I can do now to help resolve the problem in a way that will be best for her. My goal should be to listen attentively, to listen "with my eyes," and to understand not only her words but the feelings of her soul.
My hope is that she can share her thoughts with me without hurting me. But whatever she says, my goal should be to listen--without arguing, without answering back, without justifying my actions, without trying to get her to acknowledge my needs. My only comments at this point should be to agree, or to seek further clarification. If something sounds untrue or unfair, I should simply say, "What I hear you saying is . . . " and then reflect back to her my impression of what she said, then add, "Am I understanding you correctly?" At this point I must devote myself to listening.
Mary explains it from her vantage point.
"There are two things I would like from Richard--one is unconditional love as explained in the previous chapter, and the second is understanding. I want him to understand not only the meaning of the words I am saying, but what I really mean--the hidden meaning. I want him to try to feel with me, to be with me. I want to feel his support even when he does not agree with me. I don't want to feel put down when I don't see things his way. I want to be considered valuable to him.
"But if I want him to understand me, I have to make myself understandable. I must be willing to answer questions, to share my mind honestly, to avoid becoming defensive, to make myself vulnerable, to listen and think before I speak. And I must be willing to look at things from his viewpoint."
When we are falsely accused or misjudged, most of us get angry on the inside and reflect that anger in some way. We get intense, the frown on our brow deepens, the pitch of our voice rises, the volume gets louder, our tone gets sharp and has an irritable edge to it. And our spouses can feel our displeasure. Anger will never make a contribution to resolving a conflict and helping us grow, ". . . for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God" (James 1:20). God wants us to put it away from us (Ephesians 4:31).
How? Not by bottling it up. If we do that it inevitably will come out in one way or another (either by an explosion or by physical symptoms). Not by directing it at ourselves (that is one of the major causes of depression). But by admitting it audibly ("I'm feeling angry right now"). Second, by identifying the reason ("I feel angry when you speak sharply to me like that"). Third, by forgiving the other for failing to meet our expectations. Anger is usually the result of frustrated wishes or expectations (yielding those expectations to God will help us forgive). And finally, by kindly expressing our needs and desires (it is important to let our mates know our wishes).
Ultimately we both must share what we are feeling, what we want, what we think we need, and why it is important to us. As we verbalize it, we may discover that it is selfish or childish and decide to drop it. But if we decide it is a valid desire and we want to pursue it, then we will continue to share it calmly, kindly, considerately and non-threateningly. If we can do that, the resolution is just around the corner.
Some of us have our mouths in motion before our minds are in gear. And if we are trying to resolve a difference, that is like pouring gasoline on burning coals. Extended silence builds tension because we usually interpret it as disagreement. But some silence is good if we use it sparingly to think about what we want to say and how we should say it. Thinking before we speak will help us tell our mates what we are feeling and what we want from them without hurting them.
Most people have fairly fragile egos and prefer to be spoken to gently. Thinking before we speak will help us do that. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1). We certainly don't want to stir up any more anger when we're trying to resolve a conflict. We want our words to calm and quiet, and that will take some forethought.
Our natural tendency is to blame each other: "You started it. If you hadn't said what you said (or done what you did, or looked at me with that condemning look, etc.), we would never have gotten into this fight." Blaming others usually stems from our own low self-image. We feel that we must win in order to establish our worth. Sometimes we blame others simply to avoid looking at ourselves and admitting what we have contributed to the problem. But that keeps us at arm's length from each other.
If we are serious about strengthening our relationship, we must ask ourselves, What have I done to agitate this conflict? If my partner feels hurt, slighted, neglected, unappreciated, offended, criticized, condemned, disapproved or rejected, then I must examine my own attitudes, words and actions. What have I done to contribute to those feelings? Even if I didn't mean to do it, the tone of my voice or the expression on my face may have fueled the feelings, and I must be willing to acknowledge that.
While Mary admits to starting the greatest percentage of the arguments we have experienced through the years, only more recently have I begun to realize how I have contributed to them, if by nothing more than a disapproving glance, or a probing question that subtly belittled her. Her hostile attacks would send me scurrying to my study (which was in our home) where I would sit and sulk and pity myself for long periods of time.
Once in a great while she will still come at me rather aggressively, and my first reaction is still to run to the safety of my study. But I no sooner close the door than the Lord begins to deal with me. I don't hear any voices, but the thoughts are surely there: "What are you doing in here? "
"I just came in here to get away from the verbal barrage, Lord."
"You need to go out there and admit your part of the blame. "
"But, Lord, You heard what she said to me. That was totally unreasonable and untrue. It hurt. I need time to heal."
"Go out and admit your part of the blame. "
It doesn't take several days to confront the issue anymore, usually just several minutes. And by that time, Mary usually has started to think about her part of the blame as well. And we are both ready to acknowledge our wrong, seek the other's forgiveness, embrace, and go on joyfully and harmoniously.
As the years have progressed, I have been called on to do more and more traveling as a part of my ministry and good byes have been an increasing part of our relationship. There have been times when we parted without resolving some conflict and the thought in my mind has been, What if this were our last good bye? Suppose something happened to one of us before we were reunited. Could the other live with himself/herself? It would be extremely difficult. It is our desire to keep short accounts with each other, to resolve our conflicts quickly and completely in a manner that keeps our love for one another growing stronger.
Conflict is inevitable, but it can be resolved. Memorize the six suggestions for conflict resolution, and use them the next time you find yourselves arguing. Develop a "tough hide" as you work through the conflict, not taking things personally as a put-down, but trying to look at the situation objectively.