It is not possible for a married couple to never come in conflict. Anyone who tells you differently about their marriage relationship is either a fool or oblivious to reality. For the Scriptures tell us — “for there is no one who does not sin” (1Kgs 8:46 and 2Chron 6:36 ESV1). In the early days of a marriage the glow of love, and indeed passion, can mask any disagreements, but with time the real world sets in and a myriad of potential situations arise that can present conflicting choices. If both partners agree on an approach to deciding which choice(s) is appropriate in a situation, then that is magnificent. However, when that doesn’t happen, conflict raises its ugly head. Some of the issues that can cause conflict can cover a wide path — to cite a few examples; where to live, financial issues, parenting, dealing with in-laws, housekeeping, and issues over intimacy. This list obviously isn’t intended to be comprehensive, and some of these examples have been discussed in previous chapters, but the focus of the present essay is on how to resolve conflicts, in general, on matters that marriage partners cannot a priori agree upon.
Biblical ways of dealing with anger
Being angry at times with our partner isn’t the problem; the dilemma is how we act when we are upset and how we proceed to resolve the issue that is in contention. Two passages in the New Testament appear to give diametrically opposite instructions on anger and Bible critics sometimes refer to these verses as proof that the “Word” is inconsistent. These verses on anger that I am referring to are from our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, as follows:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;” (Matt 5:22) And, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).
In the gospel passage the message to brothers (which of course applies equally to sisters since the Greek word here can have that broader application); our Lord Jesus is saying we should not harbor anger against anyone, period! How do we reconcile this with the Apostle telling us to be angry. The key, of course, is the context of the Ephesians passage. A person will get angry at times and while it is behavior that should be avoided, nevertheless our human nature will let us down.2 BUT our anger can be dealt with in an acceptable manner if two conditions are concomitant with that anger: 1) it does not lead us to sin and 2) we don’t let it fester, resolve anger before bedtime, i.e. get over it quickly.
What practical measures can we make part of our behavior that can prevent our anger from turning into sin? First and foremost, never let your anger result in either verbal or physical abuse.
“A man of quick temper acts foolishly…” (Prov 14:17).
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers…” (James 4:11, and of course James 3:1-12).
Secondly, don’t jump to conclusions, neither should you make assumptions about what your partner is thinking, nor should you question their motives.
“Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,for anger lodges in the bosom of fools” (Eccl 7:9).
Before opening one’s mouth it generally pays to listen.
“Let not your mouth lead you into sin…” (Eccl 5:6).
Do’s and don’t
If you are so intent on making your own case that you never give your partner a chance to tell their side of the issue then certainly nothing can be resolved. Worse of all we can start throwing epithets and dragging up old issues that are not germane to the current dispute. A good rule to adopt is for both partners to agree to limit the discussion to the issue immediately at hand. If you find yourself having differences over parenting, for example, then it doesn’t pay to draw into the discussion the fact that he always leaves the bathroom a mess, or that she is hogging 90% of the closet space! To generalize this idea one should try the utmost to eliminate the following types of phrases from one’s vocabulary:
You always or You never — (Dragging in previous failures is not helpful, in a healthy relationship they should have already been forgiven and forgotten).
You don’t love me — (A marriage relationship should be one of unconditional love).
I can’t — (Why? Isn’t that the whole point of resolving a dispute, i.e. that one can do something about future behavior.)
I’ll try — (This is pretty weak response, an issue in conflict isn’t resolved by trying, but by doing!))
In the course of an argument people sometimes say very hurtful personal things that have nothing to do with the issue in dispute, but are solely aimed at insulting their partner. For example, questioning the intelligence of your mate for not perceiving an issue the way you see it is definitely a non-starter.
“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Prov 11:12).
If you make it a rule to never say derogatory things about your partner’s thinking, appearance, or personality you will find conflict resolution far easier to achieve.
The idea that every problem can be decided by a 50-50 compromise is simply unrealistic and actually not worthy of a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just because you are correct in an argument doesn’t mean you have to insist on winning. If each partner in a relationship makes up their mind to assume 100% of the responsibility for solving a dispute then you will find your marriage a lot happier. This is the essence of what Jesus meant when he said:
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt 5:40-41).
If you start an argument with the idea that you have to win then you are already in trouble. In the end, the bottom line has to be that the marriage has to win and the partners’ commitment to each other has to transcend whatever little differences may arise as the years go by.
There will be times when you will be dead wrong about an issue and in that case one needs to have the humility to admit it and move on — … he who hates reproof is stupid.3 On the other hand, even if your partner is completely at fault, don’t gloat! Instead you should make it as easy as possible for them to move on. (Consider giving a box of Chocolates or a Dozen roses to her and for him a good book or tickets to a sporting event! These are just examples, if you know your spouse as well as you should you will know what to do.)
Most importantly the way to avoid conflict in a marriage needs to start with each partner being honest about his or her own position. Before even discussing an issue that disturbs you it pays to first think it over carefully and quietly by yourself. Make sure you have all your facts straight and think through the possible alternatives. Be honest about your emotions, but strive to keep them under control.
“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Prov 15:18).
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov 29:11).
Cooling off period
Sometimes the best thing to do is to hold off any discussion at all and postpone dealing with the issue until emotions cool down. However, this should not be an excuse for not dealing with the problem that has caused the argument. Clamming up and refusing to work out a problem can drive even a worse wedge in a relationship than a heated argument that comes out loudly, but quickly to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. This is probably a cultural thing — having grown up in an Italian family, emotions were always on one’s shirtsleeve, but deep abiding love was never lacking. I never knew anyone in my large extended Italian family who ever got divorced. Emotions in the family could get very heated, but they also evaporated quickly and were forgotten in a flash. The key thing to avoid is festering problems that go on and on, building with time into a chasm that swallows the marriage. Endless strife4 will be the result:
“The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out” (Prov 17:14).
Hence, a simple disagreement can lead to a full-scale war if we let matters get out of hand. What Solomon is advising us to do is try to avoid strife in the first place. Settling issues in a loving, considerate, kind way may not always be the easiest thing to do, but it is certainly a goal that we should try to achieve. Forgive me for using a sports analogy, but it seems most appropriate as a metaphor for a husband and wife to consider themselves to be on the same team, i.e. not competing against each other but rather working together! Thus, it is not a matter of who wins or loses; the important outcome desired is to resolve the conflict in a loving considerate manner so that the marriage team wins!
Where can a married couple turn to if a disagreement turns into an impasse? Sometimes counsel can be obtained from parents or other in-laws who are capable of providing guidance without being judgmental. However, in-laws may not exist, or they may be unavailable living far removed from the couple. Alternatively they may themselves be part of the problem, or they could be too emotionally involved in the issue; in such cases seeking advice elsewhere would be the wisest course of action. In this case an elderly married couple in the meeting might be the right vehicle for serving as mentors to newlyweds. This can work successfully in ecclesias that have sufficient resources to make this kind of arrangement possible. It is best for newlyweds to identify the source of wise experienced guidance in the ecclesia, in advance, long before any difficult disagreement may occur. Here is where an ecclesial family that is close knit can be invaluable. Intergenerational friendship doesn’t automatically happen, but it can work very effectively if both younger and older members of an ecclesia can relate to each other socially as well as merely formally at fixed ecclesial functions. Too many times we are tempted to hang out, as it were, only with our own age peers because this is what makes us most comfortable. My advice to young as well as old married couples is to strive to get to know each other better so that you can be a trusted help to each other in time of need. The critical issue here to remember is that any mentoring arrangement must be sound in judgment and also one practiced with the utmost discretion otherwise it will not work.
“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Prov 19:20, also Prov 12:15, 13:10).
If conflicts arise that go beyond the “you’re late for supper – why didn’t you call” stage, then more professional counseling is in order. This includes a range of extremely serious issues that have been discussed previously, such as alcoholism, abuse, infidelity and drug addiction.
Finally, have I always followed the hopefully sound advice that I have given above in this essay? Of course not, and I would be a total hypocrite for claiming otherwise. We will all fail at times and thankfully the Lord has provided us with abundant guidance on forgiveness.5 When the Lord Jesus Christ said to forgive seventy times seven6 he surely meant that to apply to marital disagreements. If both partners in a marriage have committed their lives to serve the Lord Jesus Christ then the commitment to each other can never be severed by a disagreement. I am sorry, forgive me, I will do better in the future is a good way to terminate any argument.
John C. Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. All references are from the ESV.
2. Rom 7:18.
3. Prov 12:1.
4. The word “strife” in Prov 17:14 can have the sense of “brawling”.
5. Forgiveness is the subject of an extensive series that has been running in The Tidings, hence we will not overly elaborate on the subject in this essay.
6. Matt 18:21-22.