Marriage Preparation (2 of 3): Conflict

8th June 2003

1. Quiz: His Needs, Her Needs
2. The context of conflict
3. Conflict avoidance
        3.1. Knowing yourself and being able to express it
        3.2. Listening
        3.3. Sensitivity
4. Conflict resolution
5. Coping with each other's families
6. Summary of the rules

1. Quiz: His Needs, Her Needs

Give marks out of ten to rate how important you consider each of the following needs in your marriage. Guess what marks your partner will have given. (They are listed here in alphabetical order.)

When you're both finished, compare your priorities see how yours differ from his/hers. Then check each others predictions to see where your perceptions each others' needs is right and wrong.

The book His Needs, Her Needs makes the point that you will naturally tend to try to meet your spouse's needs in the same way you'd like to have those needs met in you (for many men: by sex). That's not always how your spouse wants those same needs met. Example: suppose you both come in from work tired and discouraged. How do you meet each others' needs?

2. The context of conflict

Rule One is to understand that your conflict is taking place within the context of a covenant relationship. You will resolve it because you both promised to in your wedding vows. Realise that the other person is as keen to get it sorted out as you are, and God is yet more committed to your marriage than either of you. You'll find the solution, with his help, and get on with your life together - this is not a permanent blight on your marriage.

(This seems almost too obvious to say; but we know a couple, both mature Christians. When they had their first big row, she left the flat in despair and went to the wife of one of the church leaders, crying and saying that their marriage was over. Not so: their second child is now on the way.)

Once you're married, it's a done deal. Together, you will sort out whatever problems cross your path. There will never be any point where you can claim that your problems arise from having married the wrong person or at the wrong time or any such thing. The answer to ``Am I married to the right person?'' is always, ``You are now''.

3. Conflict avoidance

Before we even talk about confict resolution, we want to start with conflict avoidance - stopping problems before they even get started. In general, the key to this is good communication.

A warning: this section makes it sound rather as though marriage is one long sequence of conflicts. Not so, of course: that's just what we're focussing on here. In a good marriage with right foundations, conflict is very much the exception rather than the rule - but it's important enough that you need to know how to deal with it.

Conflict arises less often in marriages where there's a lot of fun, romance and variety. (See also the third session in this course :-)

3.1. Knowing yourself and being able to express it

You must be able to tell each other anything - for example, if you start to find someone else attractive, or if there are things about each other that irritate you.

Women, particularly: bring out your resentments when they start to appear, rather than waiting until they get too big to handle neatly. (Men too, although it seems to arise more often with women.) This is so important that we're going to call it Rule Two.

Please please please, don't wait for your spouse to spontaneously notice that something's wrong and raise the issue - just come right out and say it. Men in particular will usually not figure something like this one. We know a church leader (not Nick!) who never intuits when his wife has an issue - she's just had to learn to spell things out.

Learn from negative experiences what you do and don't like: so if you go to, say, an opera together and one of you realises that you didn't enjoy it, don't do that next time. Not everything you do together when you're going out is necessarily a real shared interest.

3.2. Listening

The book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus makes the point that it's useful to understand the difference between validation and problem-solving. If a woman makes a complaint, she is often not asking for the problem to be solved, but just for the man to empathise. Offering solutions may be actively unhelpful, e.g. interpreted as an assertion that the problem is the woman's fault for not having solved it already.

Be aware of the truth behind the gender stereotype that women constantly want to talk about their feeling and men never do. If the man doesn't want to have constant deep-and-meaningfuls, it doesn't necessarily mean that anything is wrong: it might just mean than he wants to watch Have I Got News for You?

3.3. Sensitivity

Choose carefully when to raise important subjects: not in the middle of a football match; not in front of the children; not when you're tired and you've just got in from work.

Recognise that there are particular times when one of you will be weaker than usual, and make allowances at those times. (That doesn't mean sweeping issues under the carpet, but raising them at a time when they are most liable to be resolved fruitfully.) Examples include late preganancy, early motherhood, during bereavement.

One of you may be more averse to public conflict than the other. Be sensitive to this. Some issues just shouldn't be discussed in public at all; others can be, but you still need to think about who you're with and whether they need protecting (the most obvious example being your children).

When you are clearly right and the other person clearly knows it, leave space for him to figure that out for himself - there's no need to hammer it home (e.g. Spring Harvest soft play area.)

4. Conflict resolution

Rule Three: use words. (No sulking.)

And straight on to Rule Four: ``Don't let the sun go down on your anger.'' (Ephesians 4:26) Never storm out of an argument and sleep separately. That said, the equal-and-opposite counter-rule is ``Don't go into deep issues at 2am.'' Sometimes it's best saved for the morning. Use your skill and judgement.

However, while one of you should never walk out on an argument with the other, it can be sometimes helpful if you agree to take ten minutes apart to cool down and pray separately; then reconvene with clearer heads and emotions.

Rule Five: Figure out quickly what the argument is actually about. (This was one of the first things we ever learned.) Once you see past the red mist to the actual subject of an argument, it often becomes ludicrously easy to resolve. For example, we had a big argument a few years ago that, when we looked objectively at it, turned out to be about which one of us was tired. The answer was: we both were. How easy is that? (By admitting the other is tired, you are not abdicating your own claim on also being tired!)

Problems do need to be resolved, and shouldn't just be shelved while there is still resentment; but conversely, once they are resolved they must be dead and buried, never brought back to life again. ``Forgive and forget.''

Sometimes the right answer is just to Snap Out Of It. Be prepared to be told that when appropriate. (Usually after having your complaint indunged for a certain amount of time.)

This hasn't been an issue for us but: don't shout, don't say anything intended to hurt - because it can't be unsaid afterwards. Don't say anything that you don't really mean.

In a bad argument, when neither of you is prepared to back down first, it's helpful to have an established protocol for breaking the cycle: we blow raspberries. Also: ``How are we for napkins''? [include quote]

If all else is failing, go and ask someone you respect for help.

Specific tips:

5. Coping with each other's families

Remember back in Genesis 2:24, you have ``leaving and cleaving'': not being dependent on parents. Always turn to your spouse first, before your parents, when facing problems; be loyal to your spouse when talking to parents about him or her. Always avoid the tempatation to complain about your spouse to a parent, even or especially if the confidence is invited.

Coping with in-laws can be an issue. Recognise that you each bring in unspoken assumptions about how things are done, e.g. Christmas, birthdays, laundry(!) Those expectations are excacerbated when with in-laws. Obviously you'll want to fit in with each other's families where it's possible; but it's important to put up a joint front when it's not: you must both, together, refuse to travel to Bolivia for Christmas if that's not what you want to do.

Look at your own parents' marriage. What's good that you want to emulate? What's bad that you want to avoid? Beware of unconsciously assuming elements of the role your own parents played in their marriage. For example, if your mother tended to be critical and your father tended to be harsh, be especially careful of repeating those flaws in your own marriage.

6. Summary of the rules

  1. Understand that your conflict is taking place within the context of a covenant relationship.
  2. Bring out your resentments when they start to appear, rather than waiting until they get too big to handle easily.
  3. Use words.
  4. ``Don't let the sun go down on your anger.'' (Ephesians 4:26)
  5. Figure out quickly what the argument is actually about.

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