9. Solving Marital Conflicts
No matter how well we are communicating with our marriage partners, there are bound to be some areas of disagreement. I have heard some couples claim that they never had a difference of opinion during all their married life. What a drab and colorless existence they must have had! The couple either possessed very little personal individuality or else were afraid to express their true inner feelings. It is hard to believe that God ever made two people so alike in every way that their opinions coincided in everything!
Disagreements will come. Any of several causes can produce them. The first cause could easily be the rude discovery that our mates do not possess all the glowing qualities we visualized in them before the ceremony! Since we want to see desirable traits acquired and distasteful ones eliminated, we mentally enroll our mates in our school of marital reform! Then we proceed with the monumental task of remaking them into ideal mates.
The wife’s favorite teaching method seems to be nagging, assisted by occasional ridicule, and, if necessary, by a periodic outburst of tears. The husband’s favorite teaching method seems to be the dig, that is, the cutting comment or sarcastic remark. He may also use an occasional angry lecture, interspersed with long periods of withdrawal and silence. Two sinful self-wills, each of which is torn between love of self and love of mate, are now interacting with each other and testing each other’s right to self-determination, with each seeking supremacy in the relationship. The result is conflict.
At the heart of every conflict is self. Most people blame their conflicts on their circumstances: the unacceptable job, the small house, the fussy children, the poor neighborhood, the lack of money, the interfering in-laws. But the true problem is that the human ego wants unrestrained freedom to do as it pleases, expecting at the same time the unqualified approval of its mate. In other words, it wants to be the sun around which its mate orbits as a devoted planet. If two such stars would vie for centrality in the same solar system, the results would be chaotic—but that is exactly what has happened in many marriages!
Sometimes young people are in a hurry to get married, often to escape an unpleasant situation at home. The real problem is not usually their home or their parents, however. It is their own sinful egos, and they invariably take them along with them when they get married! This ego begins to interact with another selfish ego, and the previous home problems are eclipsed by the new marital ones! First God wants us to learn how to deal with our old sin natures. Then we will be ready to interact happily with a partner in marriage.
When meaningful communications have broken down in a marriage, arguments may erupt over the most trivial things, sometimes becoming so frequent and so heated that the couple begins to feel that they are incompatible. I seriously doubt that there is any such thing as incompatibility in God’s sight—just two wills that need to be conquered by Jesus Christ. When He becomes the center of the marriage, with each partner living for His glory, harmony and happiness will reign supreme.
Suppose the conflicts do exist, however, and the couple is willing to make the spiritual adjustments that need to be made. How, then, do we resolve the dissension in our marriages? We need to realize, first of all, that an argument need not always be a destructive force. It could be the very thing needed to open the channels of communication and expose the festering sores of the soul that have been widening the gap between us. There may be some changes that need to be made, but neither the nagging nor the cutting comments are making them. They only tighten the tension and drive us farther apart. A good, lively discussion may be the only thing that will get our true feelings into the open. If so, then we need to get to it, to get started with the argument. But we must set some ground rules before we begin. Here are some suggested guidelines for a profitable argument.
First, we must establish as our goal a deeper understanding of each other. If we can accomplish this, we will ultimately thank God for the disagreement. The goal of the argument is not to decide a winner and a loser. Nor is it to bring about changes in our mates. It is to gain fresh insight into how our mates think about the issues that affect us. It might be a good policy for each partner to restate the other’s point of view to his satisfaction. That will guarantee the accomplishment of this goal, at least to some degree.
Second, we must ask God to help us control our emotions. We often say things under emotional stress that we do not mean, things that hurt and cut and destroy. These things are not soon forgotten. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control, and we need to let Him manifest His calmness and control even in the face of unjust accusations or serious provocations. This is not to say that emotions should be excluded. We would probably never reveal how we felt in our hearts if emotions were not present. But though it is legitimate for our emotions to be present, they must be guarded closely by the indwelling Holy Spirit. One wife told me that whenever their discussions begin to heat up, her husband says, “Let’s pray about this,” and he begins to pray, out loud. It has a tremendously tranquilizing effect on their marriage!
Third, we must attack the problem itself—not the personalities or the motives. It is easy to become overly critical in any argument, and to make inaccurate character judgments of our opponent or to falsely accuse him of evil motives. When a wife fails to clean the house or a husband postpones some chore, the impatient mate may level an accusation like, “You’re just plain lazy.” That may not be the problem at all, and such an accusation could cause a great deal of unhappiness for a long time to come. “You did that just to get back at me,” is a favorite when your mate hurts you in some way. But who made you a mind reader or gave you the ability to discern motives? The Apostle Paul made an astute observation about people who judge others. “Therefore, thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”121 We have a tendency to project our own motives to others; our angry accusations against our mates thus often reveal more about our own hearts than of theirs. Christ said that we will be judged by the same standard we applied to them, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.”122
Fourth, we must remember that angry attacks against us are sometimes provoked by exasperating incidents totally unrelated to us. Often when husbands or wives are irritable, their mates just happen to be the most convenient target for their angry outbursts. For instance, the pressure of the house and the children may have been building up in a wife all day long. She is tense and on edge when her husband comes in the door, happy as a lark. He hangs up his coat as a thoughtful husband should, but forgets to close the closet door—and she blows her top! A husband filled with God’s love and understanding realizes that there is something more behind this than a closet door, and he responds tenderly and gently. Maybe the husband comes home acting like an angry bear. He is short with the children and critical of the dinner. A Spirit-filled wife understands that his actions are probably the result of pressure at work and not of hostility toward his family. If we would listen to our mates calmly and patiently instead of reacting indignantly at the first provocation, the real problem would soon emerge. Then, instead of an irate retort, we could offer sympathetic understanding, thus averting the trauma of an argument.
Finally, we need to learn when and how to bring an argument to a conclusion. Some fights never end; they just go on for years! Others seem to die without coming to a conclusion, thus deepening the underlying resentment. “Let’s just forget about it” usually means, “If we discuss this much longer, I may have to give in!” If we are wrong, we should admit it. If we need time to think about it, we should say so. “I’m beginning to see your point, but I need some time to think it over.” Then do just that—think it over before the Lord.
Now the problems are out in the open. We have communicated with each other and therefore share a little deeper understanding. Now where do we go? How do we solve the conflicts? There are several biblical principles that should help us.
First, we should concentrate our attention on our own faults, thinking first of those areas in which we can improve ourselves. The temptation when conflicts arise is to sulk over the wrongs committed against us, rehearsing all the old offenses and injustices we have suffered through the years. Then we begin building our case for the next confrontation! Forget it! Turn your mind to your part of the blame, however small it may be. Our own self-will and pride are invariably responsible for part of the conflict. It may have been the little demands we made of our mates for our own convenience. It may have been the indifference we showed toward our mates’ needs. It may have been the coolness we expressed because our feelings were hurt. All of this is selfish pride, and all of it helped intensify the conflict. Whenever there is a conflict pride is the cause,123 and each of us is usually guilty of some of that pride. We need to admit it.
It’s so easy to let our minds drift to our spouses’ part of the blame. We are tempted to think that we acted as we did because of what our mates said or did. We think they are really the guilty ones. But this is a ploy of Satan. He wants us to think about our mate’s blame rather than our own in order to promote dissension. Jesus called this hypocrisy. “Hypocrite! First get rid of the board. Then you can see to help your brother.”124 Let us ask God to help us acknowledge our own part of the blame. We must be ruthless with ourselves. It is so easy to be severe with others and lenient with ourselves. But this is egotism. True humility is tolerant of others and exacting with self. Once we acknowledge our sin of pride, God bestows both forgiveness and renewed marital harmony.
Now that we have acknowledged our part of the blame and received God’s gracious forgiveness, we can ask Him to give us victory over our sinful self wills, so that we relinquish our craving to have everything our own way. We must ask Him to help us change what needs to be changed in our lives. When we are in the middle of a marital crisis we usually feel that our problems would be solved if only our mates would change their ways. It seldom occurs to us that we need the changing! By God’s grace we can become new mates. We never really change others for the better by carping, criticizing, and complaining. We only deepen the wedge that lies between us. We must give our attention to the one thing that we can change by God’s grace and power—ourselves! God does not expect us to improve our mates; He expects us to provide for their needs. When we improve ourselves, our marriages will also begin to improve.
When our husbands or wives realize that we have stopped badgering them and have instead made significant changes in our own lives, they will begin to respond in kind. It will take terribly cold and callused hearts on their part to keep them from making some worthwhile changes of their own. What a gratifying reward for our unselfish attitude!
Having dealt decisively with our own shortcomings, we are now ready to move on to the next step.
The second biblical principle for solving conflicts is to forgive completely our mates’ faults. It is hard to forgive when our mates have not apologized. But look at it this way. If we have really acknowledged our part of the blame, we will have to admit that the offenses they committed against us may have been, at least in part, a result of the way we treated them. We have no choice but to forgive, even if they have not admitted their wrong. Eventually we are going to have to apologize for our part of the blame if we want a sweet spirit of harmony restored, and we will not be able to apologize in the proper way if we continue to harbor hard feelings. The only way to rid ourselves of those hard feelings is to forgive our mates fully for every offense that they have committed against us. There is no indication that the person who was wronging Peter ever apologized for it, yet Christ told him to forgive as many as 490 times.125 He was teaching that there is actually no end to forgiveness.
“But the hurt is too deep. I can’t forgive.” That is an interesting comment. Listen to Christ again: “Your heavenly Father will forgive you if you forgive those who sin against you; but if you refuse to forgive them, he will not forgive you.”126 At first sight this would seem to teach that our own forgiveness is based on our forgiveness of others, instead of on God’s grace in Christ. However, this would contradict Christ’s other teachings. I believe He is saying, instead, that if we refuse to forgive the person who has wronged us, God knows that the confession of our own sins to Him has been less than genuine, and that we have not really received the forgiveness which He has made available to us. When a person has admitted the vileness of his own sin and has experienced the blessing of God’s forgiveness, he cannot help but respond with forgiveness toward others. If we refuse, we admit that we have really not known what it means to be forgiven by God. No honest person can receive God’s forgiveness himself but refuse to forgive another.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of forgiveness. When we grant forgiveness, resentment and bitterness disappear and our harsh and intolerant attitudes are replaced with genuine love and concern for our mates.
Now we are ready for the final step. We have admitted to ourselves our own guilt and have forgiven our mates for their share of the blame. Now we must openly and frankly apologize to them for our part of the blame. It is a mistake to try to apologize before we have acknowledged our own guilt and forgiven our mates for theirs. Our apology will be far less than what God wants it to be. It will come out all wrong, and may even do more harm than good. “I was wrong, but you were too.” “I’m sorry I did that, but it wasn’t all my fault.” “I’m sorry I said that, but what could I think after what you did?” “I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you.” None of these statements really admits to anything. They are not true apologies and really won’t fool anybody—least of all our mates!
Only after our hearts have been set right before the Lord can we offer a genuine apology. “Honey, I’m sorry I …” (and we list the specific things we did or said to offend, or the exact attitude that has contributed to the conflict)—period! No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” The words “Honey, I’m sorry” spoken from a broken and contrite heart are the sweetest sound on earth, and they will minister healing to our marriages. This is what James meant when he wrote, “Admit your faults to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”127 Though he was referring primarily to physical healing, the same truth can be applied to the mending of marital relationships. Open and sincere admission of guilt is a powerful healing force.
Why is it so hard for some people to apologize? Possibly they tried apologizing once or twice but were rejected. Now they are afraid to try again. But the reason for their rejection may have been their own improper attitude when they offered the apology. Some men think that admitting guilt is a sign of weakness. Actually, however, it is a sign of spiritual and emotional strength—a mark of a healthy, well-balanced personality. Some people are afraid that they will lose face with the ones they love if they admit their faults. But the very opposite is true; by being honest about themselves, they will actually gain more respect than they ever had before. Some insist that it would be hypocritical to apologize, since they will probably do the same thing again. But God says that we are to confess our faults to each other. Refusal is disobedience to Him. We must deal with the issue at hand as He directs, trusting Him to help us in future situations.
Jesus taught that we must be reconciled with others before we can truly worship God. “If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and suddenly remember that a friend has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar and go and apologize and be reconciled to him, and then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”128 If someone has something against us, it is probably because we have offended him. It is our responsibility to go to him, admit our fault, and be reconciled to him. Our worship will be less than it should be until we do. “But isn’t he supposed to forgive me even if I refuse to apologize?” Yes, he is. But each person must nevertheless answer to God for himself. We must do what God wants us to do, leaving the failures of others in the hands of God.
The question “Who started it?” or “Who ought to make the first move?” is irrelevant. It makes no difference who started it. We ought to take the initiative in confession regardless of the situation. Even if we have been deeply hurt, to admit our part of the blame in unselfish and forgiving love will make it easier for our mates to admit theirs. No matter how minor our fault is, we ought to focus our attention on that and frankly apologize for it. God will then use our selfless spirit to resolve our marital conflicts.
I shared some of these concepts with a young wife and mother named Lynn. Her husband had a job that often demanded long and unexpected hours. He felt no obligation to keep her informed when he worked late, and many lovely meals were thoroughly spoiled because of his lack of consideration. When he did come home, he would rush through his dinner, sometimes without saying a word to her, then leave home immediately to enjoy his hobby late into the night. He spent no time whatsoever with their three small children, and they barely knew him.
After our discussion Lynn agreed that, with God’s help, she would concentrate on the things that needed improving in her own life, giving special attention to meeting Jack’s needs. She would commit his inconsiderateness to the Lord in faith. Shortly afterward I learned that Jack’s job would take them nearly five hundred miles away. About a year later I received this encouraging letter from Lynn:
Dear Dr. Strauss,
I just wanted to write and thank you for your advice. It really worked. Our marriage and our personal relationship have completely changed. I began to forget about myself and the things I felt I deserved and needed, and tried to think about Jack and his needs. At first it was most difficult, but as I yielded myself to the Lord, it became easier and easier each day. Soon I didn’t even have to try—it just seemed to come automatically.
Then things began to change. Jack started calling me from work to tell me when he would be later for dinner than he had planned. He never did that before. He started taking time to sit down and play with the children instead of running out right after dinner. It’s so much easier to talk to him now about the disagreements we have periodically. He doesn’t get mad as easy as he once did. Our family is so much happier than before, and it wasn’t really so hard to follow your suggestions. Thank you ever so much.
No, it really isn’t so hard to do what God asks us to in His Word! If we honestly want to see our marriages changed we will trust Him to help us make the first move.