Overcoming Patterns of Conflict in Marriage

In my work with couples I have found that we tend to follow certain predictable patterns when we allow our relationship to drift or get out of control. We all want to experience happiness and closeness in our marriages. None of us married our spouse because we wanted to learn how to fight better or because we wanted to work on patience. We genuinely thought this person would make us happy and we thought we would be happy together. Happiness is not a bad thing. In fact if you got married for any other reason there is something wrong. But when we make our happiness dependent on what the other person does and allow that person’s actions to dictate our mood, we have set up unrealistic expectations that are bound to lead to anger and despair.

Typically what happens in most relationships is the man pursues the woman to the point where they get married. He is the most charming man in the world and does things he normally wouldn’t have done all in the name of love. Once they get married, he thinks that his life just goes on as it used to with the addition of a wife in the picture. He doesn’t really think much in his life will change and, in fact, he is off to the next thing he feels he needs to pursue like a career. The woman has bigger plans for the relationship. She sees a man that she can talk with and relate with and feel safe with. Someone who will always cherish her and someone she can trust. During the dating phase she is caught up with this man who always thinks of her, is thoughtful, talks to her, and makes her feel safe. She admires and respects him and let’s him know it not only by what she says but in how she even looks at him. She knows her life will change when they get married and she abandons everything to put her attention on the marriage.

Once they get married these expectations hit reality and things don’t seem to work like they thought they would. The wife suddenly feels like she went from first place to somewhere down the list. While she wants to spend every minute with him, he wants space. So she pursues thinking that something must be wrong. He interprets the pursuit as her trying to control him or smother him so he withdraws to create space. She pursues even more because his withdrawal confirms for her that something really is wrong and he’s just not willing to talk about it. They might start to argue over things that don’t matter. He feels he can’t win a fight so rather than engage he starts to play the silent game where he communicates he is mad non-verbally but won’t engage in the discussion figuring he can’t lose if he doesn’t play. She starts to feel more insecure in the relationship because she has no idea what is happening in his head. Since he won’t talk she starts to be more critical of him which gets him mad but she figures bad engagement is better than no engagement at all. He takes the criticism as disrespect which causes him to withdraw even more. His withdrawal makes her feel insecure. Eventually he has completely checked out and she hates his guts for making her feel that way. So how does a couple get past this point?

In every marriage it takes two to cause an argument or a conflict. It really doesn’t matter who started it or who each feels is more at fault. Bottom line there is no perfect anyone in a marriage. If a couple is to move past this crazy situation there are a few things they need to consider:

Get Control of Your Mood
As I stated earlier, it is important that your mood is not dictated by your spouses behavior. If you tie your mood and how your respond to your spouse or your interpretation of how they act, you will feel bad more than you will feel good. Feels are not a good gauge of reality and to make someone else responsible for how you feel is a totally unfair situation that will only set you and your spouse up for disappointment. Feeling happy should not be the main goal. Connectedness is what you should be after and connectedness can only be developed when both parties own their own mood and responses.

Pinpoint Your Part
It is easy for each of us to point out what the other person is doing wrong. We are experts on our spouses failures. Yet when it comes to labeling our part most of us tend to struggle. Or, if we do admit we did something wrong, it always seems minor compared to what we claim our spouse has done to us, as if it is a scoring system. The reality is, there is no conflict without two people doing something wrong. The sooner you are able to label your part, the sooner you will be able to move towards a solution because your attitude and behaviors are really the only thing you can control. So know what your part is.

Seek Forgiveness
Be the first one to admit your wrong, label it, express your regret, and ask for forgiveness. The fastest way through an impasse is when one party is quick to admit, confess, and seek forgiveness for their part. When was the last time you said, “I’m sorry” and meant it?

Gain Empathy
The more you see the cycle you and your spouse have gotten into, the better you are able to have empathy for your spouse instead of blaming your spouse for all the things that have gone wrong. Just as you have been caught up in the cycle so has your spouse. The more you are able to see those things, the better you will be able to have empathy for your spouse and give him/her the benefit of the doubt. When we give our spouses the benefit of the doubt we create an atmosphere of understanding which causes us to draw near one another instead of apart.

Choose to Engage in a Positive Way
This is probably one of the more difficult things to do. The husband needs to stop disengaging for fear of being criticized or “losing” the fight and start engaging his wife in order to bring back a sense of security that she needs to move towards him. This won’t be easy and won’t even be believed at first. But if you choose to be consistent and engage, you will have more opportunities for positive things to happen than if you take your ball and go home because you don’t feel you can win. The wife must stop trying to make her husband into what she thinks she needs to be secure by pointing out all of his failures and choose to see the things in him that she can respect and point those out. Realizing that your happiness is not dependent on your spouses reaction and choosing to look and speak to him the way you did when you were dating, will cause him to want to draw near to you.

Conflict in marriage is something every couple that has ever walked this earth has experienced. It is not the end of the world, nor is it a sign that the relationship is in trouble. How we handle that conflict and how we choose to interact with one another is where most marriages get into trouble. If husbands would truly understand their wives needs for security and work hard to make her feel secure in the marriage, their wives would be their biggest supporters and their conversations would be richer. If wives would understand their husband’s need for respect and look for ways to speak into his life through that language and choose to define him by his successes instead of his failures, their husbands will be drawn to them. When this happens you have a marriage that is not perfect, because no one is perfect, but one that is connected.


What's the Right Answer?

Today I read Job 40-42. The end of the book of Job is an interesting study in what it means to speak correctly about God and the danger of trying to figure out His motives. Here you have God putting Job in his place. Job has been asserting that he was innocent and this shouldn’t be happening to him. While he was right, even without knowing the conversation that God had with Satan behind the scenes, the issue God had with Job was not that assertion but the assertion that somehow God had made a mistake. It is dangerous ground to tread on when we try to figure out God’s motives and try to put him in the box of our own making that helps to make us comfortable with what he is doing. God spends time educating Job on how powerful he is and that Job doesn’t know enough to question Him. Job of course responds with repentance and new found realization of who God is in relation to who he (Job) is. Then in an unexpected turn of events God turns to Job’s friends and says that they had it all wrong in how they spoke about Him and that if it wasn’t for the sacrifice they were about to give and Job’s prayer on their behalf he would punish them. How did his friends speak wrong of God? Where did they go wrong?

As I shared earlier in my journal on putting God in a box I think Job’s friends relied more on their theology and systems of thought in explaining an unexplainable action of God. Their comfort was not in trusting God’s character and his ways but in their ability to come up with sound explanations that they could trust in. There is a subtle turn that any one of us can take when we make our answers as important as our faith and trust in God. This event was unexplainable so to speak. God had allowed injustice to happen to test Job’s faith and resolve. There was no debate over the fairness of that test. There was not really an explanation as to why God felt it necessary to prove Satan wrong by putting an innocent man like Job through this. Only in the mind of God is there an answer and He wasn’t giving it. Our attempts at coming to terms with the unexplainable things in life show where our faith and trust truly is. Sometimes the only answer is to wait and renew our faith and trust in God.

As I think about all the things I have seen and gone through in life, none of them is as horrific as what we see in the life of Job. Yes some are as painful and do include loss, but not at the magnitude that Job endured. I think of how I have handled some of the situations in a God honoring way with my faith in Him being my only strength. I can also think of situations that I handled terribly and trusted my surroundings, or my own understanding, or my own theology and ended showing how weak I really am and how my faith is very frail. Faith really is a tricky thing because it is a moment by moment thing and just when you think your faith is strong something will happen and your reaction to it shows just how weak that faith really is. I want to be a man whose faith is the mark of who he is. That people are inspired to trust God more instead of look for more answers that make them feel better.

Lord, please strengthen my faith. I want to be strong in my faith and trust in you but I fall so short. Please make a me a man after your own heart and help me to model for my boys and those around me what it looks like to walk moment by moment with you. Amen.