Making Conflict Work in Your Marriage

This article is an excerpt from 9 Lies that Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

No matter how your parents handled (or didn’t handle) conflict, you can create a new legacy for your marriage and family. You have the opportunity to use conflict—those times when you’re hurt, annoyed, frustrated, wounded, confused, angry, and discouraged with one another—to actually grow closer together.

We’re not giving you fancy double-talk or a sales pitch. This is how we live out our marriages, and this is how we help couples handle the inevitable conflicts that will occur in their relationships simply because they are different.

Sadly, many couples don’t see the potential value of conflict because of past negative experiences. Maybe they didn’t see healthy conflict modeled growing up, or they haven’t handled disagreements successfully over the course of their marriage. But when you and your partner learn to manage your conflicts in a healthy way, both of you will actually feel safer. You will be more willing to open your hearts and reveal who you really are. You will create a marriage where being two different people is not only tolerated; it is prized. This is true intimacy.

via Unsplash by taylor hernandez

Conflict can be a doorway to this kind of intimacy, as our good friend and relationship guru Dr. Gary J. Oliver put it: “Conflict is the process we go through and the price we pay for intimacy. Intimacy is always achieved at the price of facing our differences and negative feelings, listening, understanding and resolving them.”

As you make conflict work for you, both of you will experience more of the love and healing you never fully experienced when your buttons and reactions were ruling the day. Couples who learn the lesson of conflict management will find conflict helps them in many ways. It can:

  • bring problems into the light
  • provide an opportunity to break old, ineffective patterns
  • help you to better appreciate the differences between you and your spouse
  • give you a chance to care for and empathize with your spouse
  • humble you (James 4:6 says that God “gives grace to the humble”)
  • give you great insight into your own personal issues—especially the ones you bring with you into marriage. We all have them, and they repeatedly show up in our views, our reactions, and our perspectives of our spouse and situations.
  • cause you to grow into a healthier individual and ultimately a healthier husband or wife
  • help you learn how to anticipate and resolve future conflicts
  • bring you closer together as you listen, understand, and validate each other
  • raise you to higher levels of marital satisfaction every time you manage the conflict well
  • be the sole reason for the amazing experience of “make-up sex”
via Unsplash by Steven Coffey

Exercises for Managing Your Buttons and Reactive Cycle

Don’t React

The key to breaking the Reactive Cycle is to create space between your button and your reaction—this means don’t react! It takes self-control to stop the cycle, and if you are really triggered, it may feel like it takes superhuman strength, but you can do it! Developing this level of self-control can feel like one of the single most empowering things you can do. The cycle can only continue if both people are participating, so you can single-handedly stop the cycle by choosing not to react. You may need to take a deep breath and step back. As soon as possible, enter into the Care Cycle[RB1] , care well for yourself, and figure out what is going on for you so you can get and keep your heart open and remain true to the person God created you to be.

Call a Time-Out

If you leave without letting your spouse know what you’re doing, it feels like withdrawal, and he or she will probably follow you around the house. I (Greg) say something like this to my wife, Erin: “I love you and want to hear you, but right now I’m pretty shut down, and I’m unable to really listen to you. I’m taking a quick time-out, but I’ll be back to finish our discussion.” Notice that I’m not asking Erin’s permission. Instead, I’m letting her know that I need a break, but I’ll be back. We’ve made a rule that whoever calls a time-out has to initiate getting us back together to finish our conversation. The difference is that our hearts will be open, and we’ll be better able to really listen.

What about you? Talk to your spouse about what you can say in the moment that that will help him or her to understand that you are taking a time-out and aren’t withdrawing. Maybe it’s a special phrase such as “Code Red” or a signal (for example, the time-out signal that basketball players make). It could be a funny word like platypus. Whatever you come up with, make sure that the meaning is that you’re taking a break but will return.

via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

Accept Your Feelings and Move On

The powerful feelings both you and your spouse experience should not be judged as good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, they should be seen as providing you with valuable information you need. When powerful feelings arise, treat them with curiosity for the purpose of providing valuable information about you and your spouse. Take a few minutes to discuss each other’s buttons and reactions. Remember that your goal is not to judge or fix but simply to understand and care.

Study Your Reactions

Have you ever been surprised by how you can react when your buttons are pushed? We want you to study those reactions. Reactions don’t happen by accident. Your reactions are intended to get a certain result. In essence, reactions operate as strategies, even if they are largely unconscious strategies. What result are you trying to achieve through each reaction? What underlying desires motivate you to use that strategy as a way to get your “want”?

How did you come up with your ideas about how to handle conflict? Was it from watching your parents, seeing someone else do it, or just a creative moment of inspiration? How consistently or successfully do your reactions get the desired results?

Map Your Reactive Cycle

Take a close look at how both of you react. Write down some examples of your Reactive Cycles when different buttons are pushed. Map this out and share it with your spouse. Then consider and discuss possible ways you each can demonstrate caring toward the other when your buttons have been pushed.

9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

Lies about marriage are rampant in our culture and the church. They’re killing marriages. But the corresponding truths can strengthen marriages and even save the most troubled relationships. In this book, marriage experts Greg Smalley and Robert Paul identify the lies, explain how they work to destroy marriages, and reveal the truths that not only can improve marriages but rescue those that are floundering.

Hope Restored, the renowned crisis marriage program created for Focus on the Family, is the basis for the discovery and understanding of these specific lies and their impact. Dr. Greg Smalley, a general marriage expert, and Robert Paul, the therapeutic director of a program that resuscitates nearly dead marriages, bring an unusual but powerful combination of perspectives that restore hope and healing in any marriage.

9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage includes several self-tests to help you assess the extent to which your own marriage has been affected by each of the nine lies.

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