Fighting is one of the ways we resolve marital conflicts. Here are ten guidelines to help you do it in a healthy way.
1. Face your fear of confrontation.
Do you cringe at the thought of confrontation? Due to past experiences, you may perceive any conflict or confrontation as an emotionally crushing experience. You may believe, If we clash, I'll be judged, or worse, rejected.
Pastor Luke Perry, a licensed marriage counselor, notes that a fear-based mentality is the root of this perception. "Spouses who think this way are caught in a cycle of self-condemnation," he says. "This is often due to a lack of acceptance while growing up. When this fear controls a person, confrontation can be very painful."
Overcoming this fear starts with understanding that confronting your spouse is an act of love. According to 1 John 4:18, perfect love casts out all fear. It may be helpful to write down a list of the benefits that will result when the hurtful issue is resolved. This will keep you focused on the reasons for talking about the situation. Refer to it when either you or your spouse becomes defensive. Shining a positive light on a delicate confrontation will help keep peace between you.
2. Discuss the conflict as soon as possible.
The old proverb, "time heals all wounds" does not apply to conflicts in marriage. But the modern-day saying, "timing is everything" does. When an irritating issue is unresolved, it builds emotional distance between you and your spouse. And just like a splinter, the issue gets under your skin and continues to fester until it is dealt with. When your spouse's behavior bothers you, make a decision to confront your mate as soon as possible. If the issue needs your undivided attention, choose a time when no one else is around—even if you have to ask for a few minutes alone together.
3. State exactly what is bothering you.
Donna was upset. She had repeatedly asked Frank to pick up his clothes. But, once again, she stared down at his dirty socks lying on the bedroom floor.
I shouldn't make such a big deal out of it, she thought. After all, I'm the one who's home all day.
Justifying an irritating action or hoping an issue will just go away doesn't work. Hiding the pain that you feel today will only resurface in the form of sarcasm, criticism, or anger later. When you choose to overlook a potential conflict, you allow resentment to build, while inviting strife and division to take up residence. It also means that you are giving your mate permission to continue his or her bothersome behavior.
For a marriage to remain on equal footing, both spouses must take responsibility for their actions. Be willing to state exactly what is that you don't like. Then the two of you can discuss some specific solutions.
4. Stick to the subject at hand.
In many marriages, confronting an issue is the gunpowder that ignites World War III. Defenses kick in. Accusations fly. And by the time the smoke has cleared, spouses have bombed each other with everything that has happened since the day they were married.
When you decide to face an issue, don't allow yourself—or your mate—to drag in past hurts. Deal with one issue at a time. Make a rule between yourselves that if neither is willing to discuss a sore point as soon as it happens, then the issue cannot be used as ammunition for future fights.
5. If your spouse says you do, then it's true.
When confronted with an issue, your first response may be to hide behind statements such as, "No I don't" or "You're just exaggerating." When your mate states that you're doing something irritating, trust him or her. Consciously choose to look past your defensive walls and ask your spouse, "Why does this bother you?" Then listen to what is being said. Try to see his or her point of view, and be willing to change for the good of your marriage.
6. Avoid generalizing.
"You're always putting down my family," Tom fumed to Becky as they left his parent's house. "Can't you ever say anything nice about them?"
"Always?" Becky yelled. "You think that I'm always putting down your family?"
Extreme words such as always, never, right, wrong, good, or bad will cause your mate to be defensive and lash out at you. These words generalize a situation without giving proof that what you are saying is true. Stick to concrete examples of present-day behavior. Then your spouse will have a vivid illustration of his or her actions.
7. Avoid personal insults and character assassination.
"Attacking your mate's character is the best way to make an enemy for life," says Pastor Luke. "To avoid this, it is important to see the issue as the problem—not your spouse. This is how God deals with us. He tells us of his infinite acceptance, yet confronts us on issues that do not line up with his word." Stay focused on the issue at hand. This will help you to remain objective and express your thoughts clearly without alienating your spouse through personal attacks.
8. Confront with truth. Affirm with love.
"Honey, I really appreciate all of your hard work around the house. But when I asked you to bring in the mail, you ignored my wishes. Why is that?"
The best way to talk about something negative is to start with something positive. Next, state the issue, and give your mate the opportunity to reflect on the problem you've presented. Your partner may not realize that their actions are upsetting you. And when you give your spouse a chance to think things through, he or she may surprise you with a positive response.
9. Listen to learn.
"When couples come into my office we rarely deal with the real issues during the first session," says Pastor Luke. "Sadly, many couples have never learned the art of conversation. And they are so buried in their hurts, they cannot put their feelings into words."
Be ready to listen to your spouse after you confront him or her. Just as you want to be heard, so does your spouse. If there are hurt feelings involved, be patient as you wade through the tough issues together. As you ask your spouse to see from your perspective, be willing to see from his or hers as well. Are there changes that need to be made on your part? Confrontation can be an opportunity to learn new things about your spouse, as well as develop greater teamwork and accountability together.
10. Confront to heal, not to win.
Some people view conflict and confrontation as a win-lose situation. These spouses see being right as far more important than the marital relationship. But working out a hurtful issue is not about who's right and who's wrong. Your goal should not be to win, but to confront a conflict and restore the harmony in your relationship. Whenever possible, the solution to a problem should benefit both parties. When both spouses feel good about a resolution, it will reestablish the emotional bond between the two of you. Confronting to heal instead of to win will keep your marriage on healthy ground.
Simon Presland is a freelance writer living in Essex, Ontario.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.