I don’t think any married couple likes conflict. It’s a part of being together that seems to cast doubt and negativity over the entire marriage. If we argue, are we destined to fail? Is he going to get fed up with me and leave? Will we always have this same argument? Pretty soon, the thought of bringing up a hurt brings on heartburn. With the divorce rate hovering right around 40-50% and fewer people even bothering to get married in the first place, marriage is clearly difficult. It begs the question – how can I make this work?
As a counselor, I’ve a lot of clients who have trouble with conflict, particularly in their intimate relationships. I used to think I was good at conflict, until I had to start learning how to navigate transatlantic conflict when my husband deployed for a year. Suddenly, I felt as inept as my most clueless clients.
One of the most powerful things a person can learn how to practice is the eliminating of what relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism (a more global character assassination than a specific complaint), Contempt (the mean cousin of sarcasm), Defensiveness and Stonewalling (pretty straightforward). If marital conflict is consistently made up of these bad habits, the marriage is on a slow road to failure. Fortunately for most, it’s unlikely that all of these horsemen are running rampant in marriages. It is more common to struggle with one or two specific horsemen. Take my client, Jenny*. She had been married only a few years, and struggled with Defensiveness. For whatever reason, when conflict began, she felt the need to defend herself; each complaint was a personal attack. I find that this distracts from the actual point of conflict, which is resolution. Getting defensive brings in an unnecessary level of emotionality, which then seems to send the conflict spiraling into other directions.
I’m also a big fan of the apology. A sincere apology can go a long way to extinguishing conflict. There’s a reason we teach our children to “say you’re sorry” as soon as they can speak.
That said, something else I’ve learned is that tone matters. If someone says, “I’m sorry I hurt you” in a bored tone with a sense of obvious obligation, it grates. It hurts more. It doesn’t say, “I love you more than myself, and that’s why I’m sorry I hurt you.” It says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but since you won’t drop this until I apologize, I’m sorry.” My husband and I’s wedding vows were a sort of re-write of Philippians 2:1-4, which says, “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
On our wedding day, we committed to humbly treating each other as more important than ourselves, to loving each other as selflessly and sacrificially as Christ loves us.
That means that when we do or say something to hurt each other, an apology should come naturally and willingly, because it is a truly awful thing to hurt the one you love.
The partner to the apology is forgiveness. Learn how to forgive the way Christ forgives you: unconditionally and completely. He sets our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NIV), and demonstrates the same mercy to us that He did to the Israelites when he promised to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Who am I to offer any less to the man to whom I’ve given my heart? Circumstances (like deployments) have the ability to suck the energy out of a vital marriage, and conflicts seem far worse than they would within the ease of a face-to-face relationship. So working through conflict during difficult circumstances demands higher levels of patience, humility, mercy and sincere apologies than one might expect.There’s nothing else to say… just, “I’m sorry, my love”.
The first step of good marriage counseling is for each partner to focus on themselves – their individual perceptions, beliefs and actions. That’s what you have control over. Yourself. When each partner is focused on living in a way that is truly loving and self-less in their marriage, conflict becomes easier to handle. No one needs to be defensive, because no one is on the attack. No one is stonewalling, because each partner wants resolution and peace. Love in your marriage is not about winning or being right all of the time. Be responsible for yourself, and work to appreciate the marriage you have.
*Name was changed for privacy.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2018). The seven principles for making marriage work. London: Cassell Illustrated.