Addressing Conflict in Marriage


The way you fight is crucial to the health of your relationship with your spouse. How well do you fight?

Conflict sometimes seems like a necessary evil in marriage. All couples disagree about something—money, the in-laws, sex, who does the laundry, and so on. Yet one thing I've learned over the years in my marriage and counseling with others is that what you fight about is far less important than how you fight.

Some of my arguments with Mike (especially early in our marriage) were about petty things like how much to spend on an extension cord, whether or not to answer the phone (before caller ID), or why Mike always seemed to eat a huge bowl of cereal right after eating a small portion of the meal I had prepared that evening. Although the subject of our disagreements is usually pretty minor, the way we fight about it is crucial to the health of our relationship.

Although the subject of our disagreements is usually pretty minor, the way we fight about it is crucial to the health of our relationship.

A couple can do incredible damage to the trust and safety in their relationship even as they argue about what kind of toothpaste to buy. Name calling, criticizing each other's character, bullying with threats, or even a pattern of appeasing in order to avoid conflict will leave a lasting impact on the relationship far after the issue in question has been resolved. Couples can deal with the consequences of just about any decision as long as they build trust rather than chip away at it in the process of coming to a decision. Even with the big issues, the process is far more important than the outcome. For example, what's more important: buying the "right" house or building a healthy marriage?

Central questions about the safety of your relationship underlie each of the issues you and your husband argue about. While you may be making the case why you should go to your parents' house for the holidays, you are also asking your husband, "Do you understand me? Are you listening? Can I count on you to consider my needs?" Your husband is silently asking similar questions like, "Do you respect my opinion? Do you care about me as much as you care about getting your way?"

Many marriage casualties lie in the wake of good people so invested in winning the argument that they have lost the big picture of love. Conflict isn't just a necessary evil, but it's the refiner's fire in which we are confronted with our fears, blind spots, and selfishness. Conflict always presents choices: Will I be defensive or receptive? Cowardly or courageous? Humble or self-righteous? Merciful or stubborn? So, go ahead and fight. But remember what you're really fighting for.

By Dr. Juli Slattery

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