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All's Not Fair in Love: Handling Conflict in Your Marriage

Posted by Wayne Johnson on

Shakespeare said, “The course of love never did run smooth.” That may be an understatement! 

Not too long ago a non-churched couple came in to see my wife, Dee, and I about their marriage.  Dan (real names are not used) was now motivated to seek some help because Mary was finished.  She wanted out of the marriage. Dan was remorseful and wanted to know what to do. Mary was skeptical, perhaps giving it one last attempt to see if there was any hope. For an hour Dee and I listened to charge and counter-charge, complaints, accusations, and self-justifications. Dan and Mary could not talk to each other without anger. Hostility, hurt, anger, and suspicion were palpable in every exchange.

Dan and Mary’s marriage is an extreme case, but every marriage runs into conflicts. When we were engaged, most of us couldn’t imagine there would be conflict with this wonderful person we were about to marry. But inevitably conflicts come. Sometimes conflicts explode into marriages like two rams vying for superiority. Often conflicts infiltrate our marriages more slowly and subtly. Regardless, conflicts happen. It is how we handle these conflicts that makes all the difference between marriages that are personally satisfying and God-honoring and those that are not.

Much can be said about how to handle conflicts in marriage. I recommend that you listen to Ron Moore’s Marriage Enrichment session four, entitled, “Let’s Fight Fair: Resolving Conflict,” for a good overview of the topic along with a specific strategy for resolving conflict. Other books on marriage will also discuss this topic. Here I want to make three simple but critical suggestions based on the marriage counseling situations that I have been involved in.

  1. Start with humility.

Rick Warren has said, “Marriage doesn’t create problems. It reveals them. You bring unresolved stuff in to it.” The fact of the matter is that both husband and wife are sinners. We are fallen and come with a lot of shortcomings and at least some baggage. James 4:1-2 hits the nail on the head when it says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” The source of conflict is selfishness and sin. Both husbands and wives need to own this and recognize our contribution to the conflicts. When we start with this mutual humility we are laying a good foundation for God to work in our lives and in our conflicts. 

  1. Communicate.

Consistent and good communication is essential for a healthy marriage. As couples we have to be intentional about communication. One area that is woefully lacking in the communication of marriages that struggle is the ability to listen. Listening is the foundation of good communication, but too often we are too busy forming our own arguments to hear what the other person is saying. We may have lost interest in what our spouse has to say, or we assume what our spouse means, having heard this argument so many times that we close our ears to what is being said. Real communication ends when listening has ceased.

Drawing upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Janet Dunn, editor of desiringGod.org, David Mathis has made six observations about listening as a ministry of grace that applies well in marriage.

  • Good listening requires patience. We can’t be preoccupied. We can’t be formulating our response. We must concentrate on what our spouse is sharing and expressing.
  • Good listening is an act of love. Bonhoeffer says, “just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren [or spouse] is learning to listen to them.”
  • Ask good questions; questions that seek to understand what your spouse is saying and what he/she is feeling without judging or disagreeing with what is said.
  • Good listening is ministry to the other person. It affirms and respects the other, and puts into practice the Christ-like quality of considering the other as more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3-4).
  • Good listening better prepares us to speak wisely. Proverbs 10:19 reminds us that “when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise (NASB).” Good listening enables us to speak from understanding and empathy.
  • Our ability to listen reflects our relationship with God. Bonhoeffer said, “He who can no longer listen to his brother [or spouse] will soon be no longer listening to God either. . . This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life . . .” Sobering thought: our lack of active listening will not only undermine our marriages but it will also undermine our relationship with God.
  1. Practice kindness in your communication.

The first descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians 13 are that love is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). It is wise and strategic because it deflects anger rather than inciting it (Proverbs 15:1).  Too many of our words to our spouses are harsh, uncaring, and disrespectful. It doesn’t take too much of this for us to build up emotional walls that block communication and foster conflict. Be committed to speak only in ways that respect and build up the other person. That does not mean we don’t disagree with our spouse. It does mean that we treat him or her as a child of God dearly beloved by the Father.

Kindness will go a long way in fostering the kind of communication that will resolve conflicts in marriage.

“All is fair in love and war,” the saying goes. Not so for followers of Jesus Christ. Life is not always fair and sometimes one spouse suffers unfairly at the hands of the other. But the solution is not to fight fire with fire. The best prospect for resolving conflicts in our marriages is to respond with biblical fairness – with humility, active listening, and kindness in our communication.

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