Is It a Fair Fight?


Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Pastor Mark Jeske shares his observations and lessons on managing conflict in relationships.

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Sigh.

Not only will two people always see things a little differently; they aren’t always seeing Jesus clearly. They are both sinners, broken in mind and heart and will. That means that every relationship on earth will be poisoned with some measure of ego, pride, jealousy, control obsession, lust, selfishness, carelessness, depression, and self-pity. Is that enough of a dreadful list of dysfunctions? There are more . . .

Conflict is inevitable. But as Winston Churchill said, some problems can’t be solved. They can only be managed. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself in conflict management? How would you rate your significant other? Do you know how to fight fair, surface and deal with the issues without doing even worse damage?

Here are some things I’ve learned about how my wife and I are sometimes irritatingly different, to which I add observations on marital friction I’ve seen in other couples.

1. What’s the problem?

Ask a bunch of guys in a bar if they’ve ever been in an argument with their wives but had no idea why the little lady was so upset. They will laugh uproariously, roll their eyes, and wince. Many will share variations on the same line they claim to have heard from her: “If I have to tell you why I’m so angry, I don’t want to talk about it.” Dear ladies, tell us straight up what’s bugging you. Make it plain. Keep it simple. We can’t read half your cues and hints. Your wife performance score will not be lowered if you spell it out for us.
Men have the reverse problem. We bury our trash in the basement of our hearts. But it never goes away. It just stays down there in the dark, and if we don’t pump out that toxic sludge at some point, bad things happen. Like destroying our self-confidence and our feeling of manhood (more fragile than women think). Like erupting into violence against others. Like damage to self or suicide. Women don’t need to be encouraged to develop some close friends with whom they can dump the bag. Men do. It’s hard for us to look weak in front of a woman. It’s less hard with another man we have come to trust.

2. Trust the goodness in each other’s heart. Men run away when under stress. And we have developed many and sophisticated ways to run away. We hide behind newspapers, lurk in our basement shops, get immersed in sports in the man cave, tinker with the car, and arrange to work insanely long hours at the office just to avoid having to talk to you when we know there will be unpleasantness. Of course male evasion only enrages women all the more.
Women have their own dysfunctions. Carol for years thought she could read my mind, and she was right, uncannily right, just often enough to sustain the delusion. But sometimes she was not only wrong, but opposite-wrong. The way out of this swamp for both men and women is to trust the goodness in each other’s heart at all times, especially when you’re upset. We need to practice a dialogue with ourselves: “She couldn’t possibly mean that in so hurtful a way.” “He loves me—he can’t possibly realize how badly his words just hurt me.” Ask for clarification. Restate what you think you’re hearing and ask if that’s what your partner really meant.

3. Don’t judge, correct. When there’s something in your partner’s words and actions that is hurtful or wrong, try to correct the behavior without judging the entire worth of the individual. If you hear the words “You always” or “You never” coming out of your mouth, you’re already doing major damage.

4. Watch your mouth. Angry words blurted not only can never be unsaid; they are like knives in your partner’s back just out of reach of the hands. Angry words can wound forever and leave people doubting the partner’s love and commitment. “Does she really think I’m stupid? Does he really think I’m fat?”

5. Practice your lines. Satan will see to it that certain words and phrases can barely get out of your throat and past your teeth. Will you take the Jeske challenge right now? Practice saying these phrases several times to get your tongue more used to them: “My fault.” “I’m sorry.” “Will you forgive me? “I forgive you.” “I was wrong about that.” “How can I help make this better?” “I love you.”
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