When we were dating, it never crossed my mind that we would have any major disagreements. We seemed so compatible. I was willing to do whatever she desired, and she seemed to be willing to follow my suggestions. That was one of the things that attracted me to her. To think that we would ever end up arguing with each other never occurred to me.
However, starting on the honeymoon and continuing for the first few years of our marriage, we found ourselves embroiled in conflicts. I could not imagine how illogical she was and she could not imagine that I could be so harsh and demanding. It was not that I wanted to be harsh; it’s just that I knew that my idea was the best idea. Of course, she felt the same way about her ideas. No one had ever told us that conflicts are a normal part of every marriage. There are no married couples who do not encounter conflicts, for one simple reason—we are individuals. As individuals we have different desires, different likes and dislikes, different things that irritate and please us. For example, I discovered that Karolyn liked to watch television, while I thought television was a waste of time. Why not read a book and learn something? “What has anyone ever learned from watching television?” That was my perspective. She argued that watching television was her way of relaxing and, contrary to my opinion, there was a great deal one could learn from watching television. So, this became a “sore spot” in our relationship that periodically erupted into a full-blown argument. Through the years, we discovered many more sore spots. And our marriage became an ongoing series of verbal explosions.
I knew that my idea was the best idea. Of course, she felt the same way about her ideas.
In those days, I embraced the thought, “I have married the wrong person. Surely if I had married the right person, it would not be like this.” I’m sure that Karolyn had the same thoughts. In talking with older couples, we later discovered that all marriages have conflicts. Some couples learn how to resolve conflicts in a friendly manner while others resort to heated arguments. We definitely fell into the last category.
For the past thirty-plus years, I have been sitting in my counseling office listening to other couples share their frustration with a lifestyle of arguments similar to what Karolyn and I experienced. Fortunately, I’ve been able to help many of them discover a better way. In this chapter, I will share some of the insights that I have shared with them.
First, we must begin by accepting the reality that we will have conflicts. Conflicts are not a sign that you have married the wrong person. They simply affirm that you are human. We all tend to assume that our ideas are the best ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our spouse has the same opinion of their ideas. Their logic will not agree with your logic, and their emotions will not mirror your own. Our ideas and perceptions of life are influenced by our history, our values, and our personality. And these factors are different for each of us.
Some of our conflicts will be major; some of our conflicts will be minor. The conflict over how to load a dishwasher falls into the minor category. The conflict over whether or not to have a baby is definitely in the major league. Large or small, all conflicts have the potential of destroying an evening, a week, a month, or a lifetime. On the other hand, conflicts have the potential of teaching us how to love, support, and encourage each other. This is by far the better road to travel. The difference is in how you process the conflicts.
Once you have accepted the reality of conflicts, you need to discover a healthy plan for processing your conflicts. Such a plan begins with recognizing the need to listen. When most of us have conflicts, we feel the need to talk, but talking without listening leads to arguments. The real need is the need to listen. I remember the wife who said to me, “The most helpful thing that came out of our first counseling session with you was the idea of requesting a ‘listening time.’ Before that I had always said to my husband, ‘We need to talk.’ That sentence always put him in a bad mood. Now I say, ‘At your convenience, I would like to request a time that I can listen to you.’ He never waits long until he says to me, ‘So, you want to listen to my ideas, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I respond and we set a time for listening. Requesting a time for listening creates a much different atmosphere.”
“So, how does your listening time begin?” I asked. “He normally says, ‘So, you want to listen? What’s the topic?’ Then I say, ‘The topic is, how are we going to spend the Christmas holidays?’, or whatever conflict I have on my mind. We have agreed to discuss only one topic at a time. He shares what he wants to do during the holidays, and I genuinely try to understand not only what he is suggesting but why he is suggesting it and how important it is to him. I often ask questions to clarify his statements such as, ‘Are you saying that you want us to spend Christmas with your parents because your father has cancer and you don’t anticipate he will be here next Christmas?’ Once I’ve asked all my questions to clarify what he is saying, I then respond, ‘That makes a lot of sense. I can understand that.’
“Then he says, ‘Now that you know what’s on my mind, I would like to have a listening time to hear your perspective on the topic.’ So I share my perspective while he listens and tries to understand. He may also ask questions to clarify such as, ‘Are you saying that you want us to spend Christmas with your parents because your sister from California is going to be there and she only comes once every five years and you would hate to miss this opportunity to spend time with her?’ Once he’s asked all his questions and listens to my responses, he says to me, ‘That makes a lot of sense. I think I understand what you’re saying.’ We have not yet resolved our differences, but we do understand each other and have affirmed each other’s ideas. We are no longer enemies. We have refused to argue. We are friends who are now going to look for a solution to our conflict.”
What this wife described to me was the process that I have taught many couples in my counseling office through the years. It is based on the concept of showing genuine respect for the other individual, giving them full freedom to think their own thoughts, have their own opinions, and have their own reasons for these opinions. It is expressing understanding and affirming that their ideas make sense. It takes away the adversarial atmosphere in resolving conflicts and creates an atmosphere of friendship.
In marriage it is never “having my way.” It is rather discovering “our” way.
After you have heard and affirmed each other’s ideas, you are now ready to look for a solution to the conflict. The big word in finding a solution is “compromise.” Often we think of the word compromise as a negative word. People are often warned about compromising their values or beliefs. However, compromise in a marriage is not only positive but it is necessary. Compromise means to find a meeting place. It requires each of you to be willing to give up something in order to have harmony in the marriage. If, on the other hand, we both insist on having our way, then we are back in the argument mode. In marriage it is never “having my way.” It is rather discovering “our” way.
“Meeting in the Middle”
In the illustration above, the couple agreed that if they flew instead of driving, they could spend three days at each of their parents’ during the Christmas holidays. However, this meant they had to come up with the money for the airline tickets, which was not in their budget. After sharing several ideas, they finally agreed to change their summer vacation plans for a trip to the Caribbean and take a less expensive vacation in the state where they lived. Then they could use the money they would have used on their vacation to purchase the tickets for the Christmas holidays. They reasoned, “We can go to the Caribbean another year, but this year it seems really important that we both be with our families over Christmas.” They both were willing to sacrifice their plans in order to do something that would be harmonious over the Christmas holidays. There is always a solution to conflicts. Two individuals who choose to be friends will find that solution.
Typically, there are three ways to resolve conflicts, once you are seeking them. One we have just described. You find a meeting place by agreeing to do a part of what each of you desired while each of you also sacrifices a bit. In the illustration above, they each sacrificed the idea of spending the entire holiday with one set of parents. And yet, they both received part of what they desired—contact with their parents and extended family over the holidays. Often conflicts are resolved in this manner. I call this approach “meeting in the middle.” It involves finding a meeting place in the middle of your original ideas that both of you agree is workable.
“Meeting on Your Side”
A second way to resolve conflicts is what I call “meeting on your side.” This means that after you hear each other’s ideas and feelings, one of you decides that on this occasion, it is best to do what the other has in mind. This is a total sacrifice of your original idea, choosing rather to do what your spouse desires and to do it with a positive attitude. You are choosing to do what they desire as an act of love because you care about them and you see how important it is to them. One husband said, “I agreed to have a baby after she explained to me that she was getting near the end of her fertility cycle. When I saw her heart, I didn’t want to take the chance of disappointing her. We had always agreed that we wanted to have children. I just thought it wasn’t the right time. I wanted to wait until we had a better financial base. But as I listened to her and saw how important it was to her, I agreed that even though I had some fears, I thought we should go ahead and try to have a baby now. We did and I have never regretted that decision.” Sometimes the decision to agree with the other person’s idea will involve great sacrifice. However, love always involves some sacrifice.
“Can we just agree that for the moment, we disagree on this?”
A third way of resolving a conflict is what I call “meeting later.” This approach says, “At the moment, I’m not able to conscientiously agree with your idea, and I don’t see a place to meet in the middle. Can we just agree that for the moment, we disagree on this? And we will discuss it again in a week or month, and look for a solution. In the meantime, we will love each other, enjoy each other, and support each other. This will not be a disruptive factor in our marriage.” This is a perfectly legitimate response to a conflict when, at the moment, you cannot find a long-term solution. A month from now, things may look different or new possibilities may come to mind so that you can find a compromise with which both of you will feel good.
In some areas of life, “meeting later” can be a permanent solution, especially in areas where there is no “right” or “wrong” answer, whether it is squeezing the toothpaste tube, loading the dishwasher, or personal tastes in entertainment. Essentially, we agree to disagree on what is the logical thing to do, and we choose a practical solution. So that, for instance, you can agree that when he loads it, he can load it his way; when she loads it, she can load it her way. Or one night let her pick the movie and on another night let him do the selecting.
In one of these three ways, you can resolve your conflicts. The key, of course, is creating a friendly atmosphere by listening to each other and affirming each other’s perspective rather than accusing each other of illogical thinking. When we learn to affirm each other’s ideas and look for solutions, we can process the normal conflicts in a marriage relationship and learn to work together as a team. I wish someone had told me how to do this before Karolyn and I got married. It would have saved hours of wasted and meaningless arguments.
Talking It Over
- Have you encountered any conflicts in your relationship in the past few months?
- How did you resolve them?
- At this point in your relationship, do you have any unresolved conflicts?
- Memorize this question and use it the next time you have a conflict: “How can we resolve this conflict so that both of us feel loved and appreciated?”
- In this chapter, we discussed three positive ways to resolve conflicts:
• “Meeting in the middle”
• “Meeting on your side”
• “Meeting later”
Did you use any of these strategies in resolving a recent conflict? Did each of you feel loved and appreciated?
- Can you think of an illustration where “meeting later” or “agreeing to disagree” might become a solution to one of your conflicts?
- In your opinion, how well are the two of you doing in reaching win-win solutions when you have disagreements? What do you need to change or continue in order to improve?
If you want to read more, you can locate any of the Christian bookshops nationwide and pay for a copy. You’ll be glad you did.