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Healthy Conflict?

6 habits to make arguments work for you

"I don't get why you're pressuring me to go to that stupid meeting," Chip told his wife, Cheryl.

Cheryl stared at him. "Pressuring you? I just asked if you'd be willing to go with me. It'll only take an hour. Why is that such a problem for you?"

"Because you 'asked' me in that tone of voice that says I'll be in real trouble if I say no."

"What?" Cheryl said. "Why do you always make such a big deal about a simple request? What's your problem?"

"Well, why do you always have to wait until the last minute to ask me?"

"Fine!" Cheryl said. "I'll just stop asking. You never want to do anything with me anyway."

Wow. It started with one person's simple request—or what she thought was simple—and ended with hurt feelings, a ruined evening (or maybe an entire weekend), and no physical intimacy.

Wouldn't it be nice if marriage were a smooth ride where we always get along, our spouses see things exactly as they "should," and nary a conflict arises?

Unfortunately, as much as we try to avoid conflict, we still find it winding its way into our most intimate relationship. But what if God allows conflicts in marriage to grow us rather than simply frustrate us?

In my more than 30 years of working in marriage and family counseling and 27 years in my own marriage, I've discovered that the deepest levels of intimacy are achieved only at the price of facing our differences and negative feelings, listening, understanding, resolving what we can, and managing the differences we can't resolve.

Conflicts aren't really the problem. What we do with them determines the depth of the problem—and whether or not our marriages will succeed.

When a conflict arises we have two options:

(1) We can personalize it, interpret it as an attack, and continue the dysfunctional patterns we learned from our families of origin;

(2) We can see the positive potential and cultivate simple habits to make that conflict work for us rather than against us, to help us understand our spouses and, in the process, understand ourselves better, and to build the trust that can lead to deep levels of intimacy.

If you choose option two—which I highly recommend—here are six habits that will serve you well.

Healthy Habit #1: Look for the Growth Potential

Conflict is a necessary and valuable part of two becoming one. Unfortunately, since most of us don't understand the potential of healthy conflict, we avoid it and the growth it can bring. We sit on it, hoping the issue will go away, which it never does.

Instead, unresolved conflicts go underground and grow into bigger problems. The more we deny, hide from, overlook, and avoid conflict, the greater the problem becomes. And the more our relationships move into stagnation, deterioration, discouragement, and despair.

When Chip and Cheryl came to see me, they could see only the negative side of each other. "She never plans ahead" and "He always finds something to criticize" were statements they'd both heard and said too many times to count. Rather than looking for the growth potential in working through the conflict, they found it easier to label and lob verbal grenades at each other.

I challenged them the next time they were tempted to throw out a negative comment, to hold their tongues and think about what they could learn from the conflict to help them grow closer.

Healthy Habit #2: Study Your Conflict Patterns

Before a conflict arises be aware of the situations that set you up for a clash. When are you most likely to disagree? What time of the day or what days of the week do most of your conflicts occur? What are your most frequent conflict issues? Since most conflicts tend to be around recurring issues, identifying the common "land mines" can help you avoid them or be prepared for them.

Many of Chip and Cheryl's conflicts revolve around timing issues. Chip doesn't like surprises or last-minute decisions and invitations, whereas Cheryl loves to live in the moment. When Chip gets blindsided by a last-minute "surprise," his response is usually negative. When Cheryl feels minimized and rejected, she goes on the attack.

As I worked with this couple and helped them to identify their conflict patterns, they both were able to take responsibility for their unhealthy reactions and understand what they needed to look out for.

Healthy Habit #3: Communicate in Healthy Ways

Choose healthy ways to communicate your concerns.

Chip and Cheryl's problem was that they verbally attacked each other, which served only to escalate the problem. So I offered them some simple suggestions to make their conflicts more manageable and productive and in the process help them avoid behavior that breeds unhealthy conflict. I encouraged each of them to pick one behavior and work on it for a week.

  1. Stay focused on the one issue at hand. When you start to get sidetracked, call a quick "time" and get back to the main point.
  2. Speak for yourself. Try to say "I" ("I believe," "I feel") rather than the more inflammatory "You" ("You should").
  3. Stay in the present and don't bring up past events and old wounds. Even if you feel they'll help you win, in the end you'll lose.
  4. Don't interrupt. If your spouse is a talk-hog or monopolizing the discussion, set a timer so that you each get a turn to state your feelings and responses. In the meantime, keep your mouth clamped.
  5. Don't generalize ("You always" or "You never").
  6. Don't stonewall your spouse by running and hiding behind a "stone wall" and refusing to discuss the issue.

Healthy Habit #4: Define the One Issue

Make sure there is only one issue and that both of you are discussing that same issue. Sounds simple, right? But most couples don't define their issues, so they end up arguing about different issues when they think they're talking about the same thing.

Chip and Cheryl really blew this one. The surface issue was whether or not Chip would go to the meeting, but in a matter of 60 seconds the covert issues of him once again feeling pressured, her tone of voice, his negativity, her critical spirit, and his minimizing something she thought was important overtook the discussion, and they were off and running.

When I asked them to replay the scenario, they were able to define what for each of them was the core issue: going to the meeting.

Healthy Habit #5: Learn from Your Spouse's Point of View

Too often we enter conflict with the goal of winning and wanting above all else for our spouse to understand us. Instead, make your primary goal to understand your spouse's point of view. Ask clarifying questions that will help you see the issue through his eyes, hear it with his ears, and feel it with his heart.

Constructive conflict involves a commitment to stop, look, and listen, and then, maybe, to speak.

Proverbs 25:12 says, "Valid criticism is as treasured by the one who heeds it as jewelry made from finest gold" (NLT). Listen to what your spouse has to say. Even if you think 90 percent is hooey, you can choose to listen for the 10 percent that might be true. Look for even the 1 percent that God could use in your life to help you deepen and mature. And even if you think your spouse is 90 percent of the problem, you can choose to take 100 percent responsibility for your 10 percent.

Regardless of what your spouse chooses to do, you can choose to listen. Listening is one of the most powerful skills in conflict management. If a husband chooses to listen to his wife, she is more likely to think, I must be important to him if he thinks I'm worth listening to. If a wife ignores her husband, he's more likely to think, If she doesn't think I'm worth listening to, she must not care that much about me.

I encouraged Chip and Cheryl to do a 20/20, where each person has 10 minutes to state a concern with no interruptions and then the spouse has 10 minutes to ask clarifying questions. At the end each person has to share one thing he or she learned that can help each be a better spouse. They flipped a coin, and Cheryl won the toss, so she went first. For them it turned into a 30/30, and they each came away with several "aha's" that they were able to apply immediately.

"The biggest 'aha' for me," said Cheryl, "is that listening and trying to understand really aren't that difficult!"

Healthy Habit #6: Ask Yourself One Question

Ask yourself, "What is my contribution to the problem?" It took me years to learn this one. Like most people I found it much easier to identify my wife's contribution to the problem, how she needed to change, and what she could do different, rather than to identify my own stuff. Psalm 139:23 says, "Search me (not search my spouse), O God, and know my (not my spouse's) heart." Practicing this one habit alone has had a profound effect on thousands of marriages.

Cheryl owned the fact that she could often spring things on Chip at the last minute, and Chip acknowledged that he could often assume the worst and react by "checking out." Once they began to understand and take responsibility for their parts and they stopped making those same bad behavioral choices, their intimacy and trust levels began to deepen.

What is your desire for your marriage? Do you want to decrease those stupid disagreements that blindside you, rob you of joy, and ruin your day? Do you long to be understood and enjoy a greater sense of safety, security, and trust? Do you want to enjoy even deeper levels of intimacy? Every one of those desires is realistic and achievable, and as you choose to cultivate healthy habits, you'll find yourself moving closer to the marriage you've always dreamed of.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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