We all know that differences of opinions, disagreements, and conflict are a part of marriage. What many couples don’t know, however, is how to make the move from hurt, disconnection, and isolation back to connection and intimacy.
In one day’s time, we can have disagreements over the dishes, the kids’ schedule, and let’s not forget—how much was spent on groceries. Recently, I (Erin) attended a personal retreat and was out of town for five days. Upon returning home, Greg and I had some unspoken expectations about how we would “reunite.”
I (Greg) thought that Erin would be extraordinarily grateful for all the hours of laundry and dishes that I had done, taking over kid duty and maintaining life while she was away. But, to my surprise, it didn’t seem that she noticed or cared. Erin returned and immediately started going on coffee dates with her girlfriends, having nights out with friends, and going to her Bible study groups. I was confused and hurt.
However, as is typical in any marriage, I (Erin) had a completely different perspective. Upon returning from this life-changing retreat, Greg was so busy administrating our family that I felt hurt because he didn’t seem interested in hearing about my experience. Since my friends were asking to hear about my retreat, I gave them my time instead.
The tension built throughout the week and culminated with a late night “discussion” while lying in bed—which as you know, never goes well.
I (Greg) couldn’t believe that Erin would confront me for not being interested in her experience. Obviously, I was interested, but I was frustrated that she noticed the one thing I didn’t accomplish while she was gone and not all that I had done to help during her retreat. How ungrateful! is what ran through my brain, while Erin was lost in her pain, thinking, How uncaring! We silently tossed and turned all night long in our individual worlds of frustration, hurt, and isolation. This is definitely not what God had in mind when he said, “the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24). As you can see, we were both hurt for different reasons.
The issues that cause conflict can be endless, but we often miss the heart of the matter. We get sucked into focusing on the topic at hand, going round and round in arguments over budgets, discipline, or how often we have sex. We get nowhere, failing to address the deeper emotional issues of feeling unappreciated, disrespected, ignored, or unloved.
But there’s another important issue that also gets little attention. In our 23 years of marriage and from our experience of working with thousands of couples, we believe the most destructive part of unhealthy conflict is a closed heart. Whenever we’re hurt, frustrated, or in conflict with our spouse (or anyone for that matter), our heart shuts down. We rarely notice that this is happening because it’s so subtle, but it is. Once our heart closes, we go into reaction mode—we fight back or flight away. Thus, anytime you react by saying something unkind or withdrawing from your spouse, we guarantee you that your heart is closed.
Over time, if we don’t learn how to reopen our hearts, closed hearts will harden. This is the kiss of death for a relationship. As Jesus explains in Matthew, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts” (Matthew 19:8). When our hearts are closed we lack understanding, insight, and awareness—because all we can really experience is our pain, our perspective, and our desires—which are usually being uncared for, hindered, or unfulfilled.
When we don’t understand that our hearts are closed or why (usually it’s because we feel unsafe), we can’t heal. We spend hours battling through topics until we’re blue in the face. If your heart remains closed, this leads to further disconnection, loneliness, and separation.
Where is your heart right now? Think about the last conflict between you and your spouse. Was your heart open or closed? The differences between our behaviors with open and closed hearts are profound. A closed heart is critical, annoyed, short-tempered, and self-focused, but an open heart is kind, considerate, patient, loving, and others focused. As you can imagine, this can have a great effect on the interactions you have with your spouse.
How Do We Reopen Our Hearts?
Here’s the good news: we can learn how to manage conflict in healthy ways, creating a marriage that feels like the safest place on earth. Although we can’t control our spouse’s heart, we can influence it, leading to a better chance for connection.
In order to grow the health of your marriage, always start with your heart first. We know this goes against the typical relationship advice like “be a better listener” or “seek to understand.” Now, don’t misunderstand us. It’s not that this isn’t great advice. But when was the last time that you were able to be a good listener or have a productive, Christlike discussion with your spouse when your heart was closed?
Trying to work out the conflict relationally first is terrible advice—it just isn’t going to work with a closed heart. The better place to start when resolving an argument is to get your own heart open first. This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
If you find your heart closed, take a step back from the conversation. We know from experience that the conversation will not go well if you push through it! Tell your spouse, “I love you too much to have this conversation right now, like this. I will be back.”
Then, go do something that will calm you down and get your heart to a better place. For me (Erin), cleaning helps my heart open. Crazy, I know. Others have said praying, listening to praise and worship music, jumping on the treadmill and running, talking to a trusted friend, journaling, or going for a walk outdoors has helped them. Our best advice to get your heart open is to spend time in prayer with the Lord. God’s promise in Ezekiel 36 is this: “And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart” (verse 26).
As you’re doing whatever works for you, start reflecting internally. Try to give your issue a specific name. For example, “I’m feeling unappreciated.” Or insert a number of feelings: “I’m feeling disrespected, unloved, invalidated, taken advantage of, failed, invisible.” This is a powerful step in getting hearts back open.
Finally, seek God’s truth and perspective on this scenario. Your initial prayer may be, “Lord, my spouse is your son—you deal with him.” But soon it will change to, “Help me, Lord, see him how you see him. What is true about him, me, and this situation?” You will begin to feel your heart softening. Then, when your heart re-opens, you can have a completely different conversation with your spouse. Remember, an open heart is caring, kind, compassionate, and others focused—it’s the essence of love.
As Greg and I lay in bed that night, our conversation didn’t go well. We broke every rule we teach. However, the next day, as I (Erin) arrived at work, Greg came out of his office and motioned for me to come in. We had an honest conversation about what was really going on and what we both needed. And suddenly, the “major issues” seemed pretty minor. Perspective is another sign of an open heart!
The Good Stuff
Throughout this entire article, you’ve probably wondered when we were getting to the part about the make-up sex. The truth is, restoring physical intimacy in a meaningful way after conflict is tied to restoring your emotional intimacy: both require an open heart. So now that we’ve covered the important emotional pieces, let’s get down to it.
First of all, we understand that for most guys, sex is connection. After conflict, make-up sex is how a husband knows that everything is right in the relationship. He doesn’t need to feel safe in order to have sex. This is why a man can end a fight by handing his wife two aspirin and asking her, “Are you in the mood?” Sex is typically how a husband reconnects relationally. Ladies, realize that opening yourself to sex after conflict is how you can meet your husband’s needs for intimacy and connection.
On the other hand, for a woman, sex is usually the byproduct of emotional connection—feeling safe. Guys, if you want your wife to respond sexually after conflict, figure out how to make her feel safe. Work to get her heart back open. Ask her, “What can I do in this moment to help you feel safe with me?” A heart will always open when it feels safe. Love and safety are what she needs from you.
When you work to create a place with open hearts and emotional safety, passionate make-up sex is more likely going to be a reality in your marriage. And who doesn’t want more of that?!
Erin Smalley is a popular author and speaker who works at Focus on the Family and is an active partner in marriage ministry with her husband, Dr. Greg Smalley, who also serves as Vice President of Family Ministry at Focus on the Family. They are the authors, with Greg’s father, Gary Smalley, of The Wholehearted Wife. Connect with them at SmalleyMarriage.com.