By Lori Hatcher, Crosswalk.com
In times of conflict, my mom was a hawk and my dad was a turtle. She pounced. He’d retreated. Her Portuguese/Italian DNA would kick in, and feathers (and words) flew. His peace-loving, avoid-conflict-at-all-cost personality forced him deep into his shell (or his backyard workshop). I was seldom privy to their resolution, but they must have sorted it out, because they celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary last year.
Despite Dad’s contribution to my DNA, Mom’s blood dominates my veins. My husband of 35 years, on the other hand, leans more toward the reptilian. Because his father took yelling to a whole new level, he vowed never to subject his family to the type of angry outbursts he experienced. Guess what that made him? Yep. A turtle.
While we haven’t experienced a lot of conflict in our three-plus decades of marriage, when we do argue, we try to fight clean. Sometimes we succeed. Other times we fail. We’ve found it helps to set some ground rules for healthy communication before the fight begins.
Here are a 10 of ours:
1. Because Conflict Is Normal, Don’t View it as “Bad”
Chip Ingram, in the study, Experiencing God’s Dream for Your Marriage, said, “Conflict is inevitable. Every time you bring two people together, there will be conflict. The question is not, ‘How do we have a conflict-free marriage?’ The question is, ‘How do we deal with the conflict that will come?’”
Knowing ahead of time that conflict isn't a bad thing, but is a necessary thing, will help you from falling apart when it happens.
2. Recognize Conflict, If Handled Properly, Is an Opportunity for Growth
Every time we disagree about something, we have a chance for a spiritual and relational victory. If, when conflict comes, we pause, take a deep breath, and say to ourselves, “This is an opportunity to navigate a trouble spot and come out stronger on the other side,” we position ourselves for success.
3. Tell Each Other If You're Not Ready to Talk about What’s Bothering You
Often, in the heat of the moment, we have so many thoughts and emotions swirling around that even if we wanted to talk about them, we couldn’t. In our marriage, I process stuff quickly. My husband needs more time. If I push him to communicate too soon, we don’t always have the best outcome.
He’s learned to say, “I’m not ready to talk about his yet. Give me some time to think.”
4. Don't Punish Each Other with the Silent Treatment
Turtle communicators often retreat inside themselves to process their thoughts. This isn’t wrong, just different from the more vocal hawk-style communicators. Needing time to process, however, isn’t permission to give someone the silent treatment.
When we withhold all communication for the purpose of punishment or manipulation, we’ve crossed the line from healthy to unhealthy communication. This is why it’s important to say, “I need a little time, but we’ll talk soon.”
5. Address the Issue in a Timely Manner If You Agree to Delay the Discussion
Postponing a discussion doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it at all. It means we set a time within the next day or so to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a respectful manner. We won’t sweep stuff under the rug until it accumulates into an ugly mess.
Knowing that a discussion is forthcoming helps both partners think through their thoughts, feelings, and ideas after the emotions cool somewhat. This almost always results in a better outcome.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
6. Continue to Act in a Loving Manner toward Each Other during Your Waiting Period
No monosyllabic answers, cold shoulders, or drawing uncrossable lines down the middle of the bed. Instead, we’ll talk about other subjects and remain affectionate.
Although we may not feel loving or respectful, we’ll treat each other the way we want to be treated.
7. Use “I Feel” Sentences instead of “You Always” or “You Never”
Applying this rule can prevent a smoldering disagreement from escalating into a bonfire of ugliness. When we pile on the kindling of past mistakes, annoyances, and failures instead of limiting the discussion to the issue at hand, we torch any hope of a healthy discussion.
Using “I feel” sentences and avoiding absolutes (“You always” or “You never”) keeps the conversation fair and focused.
8. Listen Actively, Repeating What the Other Says If Necessary
If we’re not careful, we can project our feelings onto the other person and twist their words into something they never intended to say. We can skew, “I don’t like it when we eat leftovers two days in a row,” into, “I think you’re a lazy cook.”
Instead, we can repeat their words and add a suggestion: “You don’t like it when we have leftovers two days in a row. Would you prefer I order take out on one of the days I work late?”
9. Acknowledge that While Conflict Can Come from Selfishness, it Can Also Arise from Differences in Belief, Perspective, and Style
Conflict doesn’t always come about because of sinful behavior. Sometimes it comes because two very different people live in the same household. He likes to sleep in on Saturday, and you prefer to get an early start. She wants to kick back and relax on her day off, while he prefers to tackle home improvement projects.
She wants to spend summer vacations with family, while he prefers to explore new places on his own. When we realize that “different” isn’t “wrong,” we can find ways to either compromise or yield our preferences.
10. Commit to Set Things Right between You Two
This usually involves each of us owning our responsibility in the conflict, confessing our sin (“I was wrong...”), and asking for forgiveness (“Will you forgive me for...”).
Responding humbly instead of defensively or self-righteously opens the door wide and invites reconciliation in. Once we’ve taken these crucial steps, we’re better positioned to develop an action plan to address the issue. Both partners then voice their part in the solution by saying, “I commit to... by (this time)."
God Gives Us Wisdom
I shake my head and chuckle when I picture my turtle dad heading out to his workshop in the heat of a conflict with my hawk mom behind him waving her arms in frustration. Even though they’ve managed to survive almost 60 years of marriage, I wonder if those years would have been more peaceful and fulfilling if they’d employed a few ground rules for fighting clean.
They didn’t have the benefit of marriage Bible studies and classes like my husband and I have, but they’ve had access to the greatest book on relationships ever written, the Bible. When we apply its wisdom and insight to our marriage, our relationship will not only survive, it will thrive.
Ephesians 4:29-32 contains possibly the best advice for how to fight clean and set the tone for every encounter you have with your spouse and others. If you apply these words to your relationships, you’ll honor each other and glorify God, even in your conflict.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
If you’re struggling with how to disagree in a way that strengthens your marriage instead of destroying it, I hope these ten ground rules will help.
Look them over, share them with your spouse, and adopt those that seem most useful. I’m sure you can add a few of your own. If you commit now to fight clean, when the next conflict comes, you’ll be ready.
Related Resource: Listen to our new, FREE podcast on marriage: Team Us. The best marriages have a teamwork mentality. Find practical, realistic ideas for strengthening your marriage. Listen to an episode here, and then head over to LifeAudio.com to check out all of our episodes:
Lori Hatcher is a pastor’s wife who lives delightfully close to her four grandchildren in Lexington, South Carolina. To fight spiritual boredom and provide a fresh resource for quiet times, she wrote Refresh Your Faith – Uncommon Devotions from Every Book of the Bible (Our Daily Bread Publishing). Her first book, Hungry for God…Starving for Time, Five-Minute Devotions for Busy Women , received the 2016 Christian Small Publisher Book of the Year award. Lori’s also a blogger, writing instructor, and inspirational speaker. You’ll find her pondering the marvelous and the mundane on her blog, Hungry for God...Starving for Time. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter (@LoriHatcher2), or Pinterest (Hungry for God).