(This post about handling conflict appeared last week on Ann Voskamp’s site, one of the most beautiful corners of the digital world. I’m sharing the words in this space today, but if you want to read them with all of Ann’s exquisite photos mixed in, click here to access the original version.)
When Christopher proposed to our daughter Virginia, he arranged for both families to be there to celebrate. As I looked around the room at two sets of parents and four pairs of married siblings, I realized we had more than one hundred years of marital wisdom between us. What, I asked, was everyone’s best piece of advice?
The group offered up plenty of pearls, from caring about your partner’s interests to finding new ways to serve each other, but the takeaway I remember most came from our son-in-law Geoff, who talked about how to approach conflict in marriage.
“Remember,” he said, “that you are on the same team. It’s easy to forget that in the heat of the moment, but ultimately, a win against your spouse is actually a loss because if you’re winning an argument, then they are losing—and that is a loss for your team. Your team is bigger and more important than any individual victory.”
Approaching marriage with this mindset—that you are a team and you want each other to win—becomes even more powerful when you realize who your adversary really is.
It’s not your spouse.
You may think they are the problem—they never help with the housework, they spend too much money, they always make you late, they whatever—but those issues are just spillover symptoms of our self-centered nature. The real problem—the real enemy—is Satan.
Jesus calls him the thief, the one who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Satan hates marriage, plain and simple, because it reflects God’s love for his people.
It doesn’t matter how conflict-riddled your relationship is. Satan’s purpose—his goal—is to completely destroy it. And when we buy the lie that our spouse is our adversary, we play right into Satan’s hands.
The apostle Paul knew we’d come up against Satan’s schemes. “Be careful how you live,” he wrote in Ephesians 5:15-16. “Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do.”
So what does that look like, in practical terms? How do we live like those who are wise, making the most of the tension or quarrels we share? Can conflict become a catalyst for growing in grace?
Growth will look different in every marriage, but let’s look at five things we can do to protect our marriage and fight on behalf of our team.
1. Believe you will make it.
The average couple argues about 312 times per year. And according to researcher Shaunti Feldhahn, how we think about conflict can make all the difference. If we think things will never get better—if the ship is going to sink anyway—we may decide to stop bailing and just work on escaping the wreck. But if we hit stormy seas and think we’ll survive, we will do what’s needed to “right the ship, patch the holes, and keep sailing.”
2. Don’t go to bed mad.
Getting angry isn’t a sin; it’s a normal human emotion. But holding on to that anger—letting it fester and put down roots in your heart—is a no-no. “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “and do not give the devil a foothold.” Sometimes we won’t be able to resolve differences before the sun sets. When that happens, don’t keep talking, lest you say something you’ll later regret. Table the discussion until the next day, when your heads are clear.
3. Don’t fight in public.
Don’t argue in front of other people. Bring a trusted professional counselor into the mix, but don’t complain about your spouse to your friends. And if your friends are people who trash their spouses (to their face or behind their back), get new friends. The writer of Proverbs might well have had married couples in mind when he dished up this pointed advice: “Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch your life fall to pieces.”
4. Be kind.
Being kind doesn’t mean we can’t express anger. Rather, kindness can shape what our anger looks like. You don’t have to throw spears at your spouse; just put into words why you’re hurt, disappointed, or angry. It may sound impossible to be kind during a fight, but don’t let contempt or aggression get the better of you.
My mom tells the story of how irritated she was when her husband repeatedly left dirty dishes in the sink—until God prompted her to time herself as she loaded the dishwasher. Thirteen seconds. Thirteen seconds was all it took to clean up after her husband—and to pray. “Now,” she says, “John sometimes loads the dishwasher on his own, but even if I have to do the dishes for the rest of my life, I’ll cherish the chance I get to pray for him for those few extra seconds.”
As she prioritized prayer over provocation, Mom discovered what researchers have long known to be true: Prayer takes the edge off.
Studies show that it calms our nervous system, makes us less reactive, and shuts down the fight-or-flight response that can cause a conflict to escalate in a flash.
Not only that, but when you pray for the spouse who hurts or offends you, it’s hard to stay mad. When you commit to bringing someone before the Lord—asking God to bless them, protect them, and pour good things into their lives—you begin to have a vested interest in their well-being. A warmth starts to soften your heart. It may not be full-on love, at least at first, but it will grow.
Conflict can become a catalyst for grace—and that’s always a win for your team.
Read more about handling conflict (and discover how you can talk about it with your spouse) in Praying the Scriptures for Your Marriage. If you want a preview of what’s inside, click here to download two sample chapters. And thank you, Ann Voskamp, for the cover photos I’ve shared in this post. You make everything beautiful.