Conflicts grow out of our uniqueness. Not only are males and females different, but each individual male and female is unique. Part of our uniqueness is genetically based. These generic differences are most observable in our physical characteristics. No two fingertips are exactly alike. Each person has unique facial characteristics. This is typically what allows us to recognize one another.
Other differences are non-physical. They sometimes fall into the category of what is commonly called personality differences. Though you can’t observe these differences by simply looking at a person, they are just as real. When we use the words introvert and extrovert, we are describing a personality difference. Our differences also show in the way we perform the necessary tasks of daily life, such as loading a dishwasher, squeezing a tube of toothpaste, or hanging a roll of toilet paper. We have different ideas on how to raise children, how to drive a car, how to spend our leisure time, and a thousand other aspects of life. It is because of our differences that we experience conflicts, but I don’t know anyone who would like to eradicate our differences and make us all clones.
The answer to conflict resolution is not in seeking to rid ourselves of our differences but in learning how to make our differences into assets rather than liabilities. The goal of a good marriage is for a couple to learn how to work together as a team, utilizing differences to make life better for both spouses. Resolving conflicts is one method by which we develop this teamwork. Sometimes, we don’t even know what our differences are until a conflict arises.
Conflicts are more than just simple disagreements
When I use the word conflict, I’m not talking about simple disagreements such as her favorite color is blue, his favourite color is yellow. That is not a conflict, it is simply a difference of opinion or preference. Conflicts are disagreements in which both spouses feel strongly and their differing opinions affect their behaviour, causing disharmony in the relationship.
Now, if the wife’s preference for blue and the husband’s preference for yellow is applied to painting the bathroom, their strongly held differences might erupt into a conflict in which they try to convince each other to paint the room a particular color. Conflicts can erupt in any area of life: driving, eating, money, sex, in-laws, spirituality, leisure time, and child rearing, to mention a few.
Conflicts are not necessarily bad—and they’re inevitable in every marriage. For one simple reason, it is impossible to be married and not have conflicts: You are married to a person and every person is unique. In marriage, our objective is not to get rid of conflicts, but rather to resolve conflicts and thereby learn how to work in harmony, as teammates, toward mutual objectives.
When I mentioned the conflict over what color to paint the bathroom, my mind flashed back to a young couple I counseled several years ago.
The case of Jerry and Iris
Jerry and Iris had been married for two years and considered themselves to be in the spring season of their relationship; that is, until they decided to repaint their small apartment. They readily agreed upon the color for each room, until they came to the bathroom. He wanted blue and she wanted green. They were surprised to find themselves arguing passionately over something that they both realized was ultimately quite trivial. Yet, they both felt so strongly about their opinions that, after a few rounds of argument, they agreed to go for counselling.
“We’re actually ashamed to be here,” Iris said. “This seems like such a trivial matter, but it has become very divisive in our marriage. And we don’t want to end up fighting over what color to paint the bathroom.”
With an apologetic shrug, Jerry said, “I bet you’ve never had a couple come to see you about a color to paint the bathroom.”
I smiled and said, “Well, let’s lay it on the table and look at it.” Turning to Iris, I said, “I’m sure you’ve told Jerry all the reasons why you would like the bathroom painted green. So, why don’t you share those reasons with me?” She ran through her list and I took notes. When she was finished, I said, “That makes a lot of sense. I can understand why you would feel that way.” She seemed relieved.
Next, I turned to Jerry and said, “I’m sure you have equally valid reasons why you would like the bathroom painted blue. So, why don’t you share those with me?” When Jerry had shared his reasons, I repeated my response: “What you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I can see why you would like to have the bathroom painted blue.” Jerry seemed relieved that I would agree with him, but Iris looked perplexed. She said, “But you agreed with both of us, and that doesn’t solve our conflict.”
“You are right,” I responded. “But I don’t think either of you is actually looking for a solution. You are still in the arguing mode and have not yet moved to the resolution mode.”
“What do you mean?” Iris said.
“How did you feel when I affirmed your list of reasons for painting the bathroom green?” I asked.
“It felt good,” she said. “It felt like you were respecting my ideas.”
I looked at Jerry and asked, “How did you feel when I affirmed your ideas as making sense and told you I could understand why you would like to have the bathroom blue?”
“I felt like you were hearing me,” he said, “like what I said made sense to you.”
“What I did for each of you is what you have not yet done for each other,” I said. “You have each argued your own position, but you have not affirmed the other person’s ideas.” I turned again to Jerry and asked, “Can you honestly say to Iris what I said to her? ‘What you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I can understand why you would want the bathroom painted green,’ I think her ideas made a lot of sense. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” he said, “but I like my ideas better.”
“That’s understandable, but would you be willing to affirm her ideas by saying something similar to what I just said to her?”
“You mean now?”
“Yes, now would be a good time.”
Jerry looked at Iris and said, “What you’re saying makes sense to me. I can see why you would want the bathroom painted green. And besides that, I love you,” he added with a smile. Both Iris and I smiled as well.
“Okay, that’s a good start,” I said. “And now, Iris, could you honestly make that statement to Jerry?”
She nodded at me and turned to face Jerry. “What you’re saying also makes sense. And I can understand why you would want to have the bathroom painted blue. And I love you, too,” she said.
“Now I think you are ready to look for a resolution,” I said. “You are no longer enemies; you are two friends trying to solve a problem. So, what are the options?”
“We could paint it green,” Jerry offered.
“Or, we could paint it blue,” Iris said. “Or we could mix blue and green together and paint it aqua.”
“I can think of another possibility,” I added. “You could paint some walls blue and some walls green.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Iris said.
“Neither had I,” said Jerry.
“I’ve never seen a bathroom with two colors,” said Iris.
“Neither have I,” I interjected, “but it would be unique, wouldn’t it? You would probably get lots of comments about it.”
“I like that idea,” Iris said. “What do you think, Jerry?”
“I think it’s a great idea. We will have the most unique bathroom in the development. And when the neighbors ask us why the two colors, we can tell them about our conflict and how we resolved it.”
“You might even save them a visit to a counsellor,” I said.
When a couple learns to resolve conflicts in this manner, when they work together to understand, encourage, and support each other, marriage becomes beautiful. The ancient Hebrew proverb “Two are better than one” becomes reality. Their deep, emotional need for companionship is met. They are connected with each other emotionally. They approach life with a sense of harmony and together will accomplish far more than either of them could accomplish alone.
How unresolved conflicts corrode a relationship
On the flip side, unresolved conflicts become barriers to harmony. Life becomes a battlefield and husbands and wives become enemies. By means of verbal bombshells, they fight the same battles over and over again, inflicting injuries that push them even further apart emotionally.
After an unrelenting series of unresolved conflicts, a husband might say, “We are just not compatible; we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. We are like night and day. I don’t see how we can ever get it together.” His wife might respond, with tears flowing down her face, “How could it come to this when we enjoyed being with each other so much when we were dating? I don’t understand where we went wrong.”
The academic answer to her question is simple: They never learned to resolve conflicts. Perhaps they never anticipated conflict. In the euphoria of the “in love” experience, couples seldom recognize differences and can hardly imagine serious disagreements.
The good news is that any couple can learn to resolve conflicts. I emphasize the word learn. The skill of conflict resolution does not come simply with the passing of time. As surely as you can learn to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or use a computer, you can learn how to resolve conflicts. It will require you to change some of your attitudes, learn to listen, treat your spouse with respect, and negotiate solutions, but it can be done. I’m not saying it will be easy, but the rewards for success are phenomenal.
Why is it so important to resolve conflicts? As one husband put it, “It’s the difference between heaven and hell. For years, we were both miserable. But when we finally began learning how to resolve conflicts, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I know what it’s like to be married and happy. I can’t believe we waited so long to get help.”
The three attitudes that make all the difference
Often the difference between resolving conflicts and arguing is attitude. Why do people argue? In one word, rigidity. We adopt a rigid attitude and dig in our heels. In essence we’re saying, “My way is the right way, and if you don’t do it my way, then I will make your life miserable.” This is the attitude of an arguer; a person who insists on getting his or her own way.
Conflict resolvers have a different attitude. They say, in effect, “I’m sure we can work this out in a way that will be positive for both of us. Let’s think about it together.” Spouses who adopt this attitude are looking for a win-win resolution.
The case of Bob and Jill
Let’s take the example of Bob and Jill, who were arguing about Monday Night Football. While Bob thought he worked hard all day and deserved to unwind, watching the sport, Jill thought it was a waste of valuable time they could’ve spent together. Obviously, each of them saw the other’s position as unreasonable. They created a miserable evening by arguing and were left with a huge barrier between them. But with a different attitude, the outcome could have been different.
What if Jill had chosen an attitude of accommodation? She might have said, “Bob, I know you really enjoy Monday Night Football. It’s a way for you to unwind from the stresses of the day. On the other hand, I’m beginning to feel lonely and shut out of your life. That’s not a feeling I want to have. So, at your convenience, I’d like for us to talk about it and look for a solution. I’m sure we can work it out. I love you, and I don’t want this to come between us.”
If Bob had chosen a conflict resolver’s attitude, he might have responded, “Honey, you’re right. I really do enjoy Monday Night Football, but I also value our relationship more than anything in the world. I want to meet your needs, and I’m sure we can find a solution that will be good enough for both of us. Why don’t we talk about it at halftime?”
The evening could have been pleasant for both Bob and Jill, and they likely would have found a solution that met their needs.
An attitude of respect
Finding a winning solution begins by choosing to believe that such a solution is possible and that you and your spouse are smart enough to discover it. It begins when you recognise that you are married to another human being who is created in the image of God and is thus extremely valuable. It begins when you choose to treat your spouse as a person of worth. Starting with an attitude of respect predisposes that a couple will find a resolution to their conflict rather than put each other down with condemning arguments.
We recognise that all human being are unique and that our differences do not diminish our worth. Thus, we choose to treat our spouses with dignity and respect. This means we will not seek to convince our spouses to be like us, to agree with all our opinions. We will give them the freedom to think and feel differently, and we will always respect their thoughts and feelings. When we choose an attitude of respect toward our spouses, we are less likely to allow ourselves to get caught up uttering condemning, harsh, cruel words.
Remember Jerry and Iris, who were having difficulty resolving their conflict about what color to paint the bathroom? What they discovered in the course of our counselling together was the calming effect of respecting each other’s opinions. Both Jerry and Iris articulated their opinions very clearly, and they genuinely felt that their opinions were more valid than their spouse’s. It was not until they expressed respect for each other’s ideas that they moved from attack mode to resolution mode.
As long as couples put down each other’s ideas and judge them as less worthy, they are not likely to find a satisfactory resolution. But when they choose an attitude of respecting each other’s ideas, even though they disagree with them, they create a climate in which they can look for a resolution together.
An attitude of love
Another characteristic of conflict resolvers is that they choose an attitude of love. As one wife expressed it, “I am committed to my husband’s wellbeing. I want to do everything I can to enrich his life and help him accomplish his objectives in life.” If her husband has the same attitude toward her, then together they will find resolutions to their conflicts that will be beneficial to both of them.
Selfishness is the opposite of love. Selfish people seek to impose their will on others. What is important to them is “getting my way.” Lovers, on the other hand, seek to do those things that are most helpful for their spouses.
The case of John and Betsy
I saw an attitude of love graphically demonstrated when I visited John and Betsy. They had recently moved to our city and had visited our church. During our conversation, I discovered that they had lost a three-year-old son in a tragic boating accident a year earlier. They had two other children, who were now five and seven, and they told me that Betsy was now pregnant.
“Being a marriage counsellor, Gary, I think you will find this interesting,” Betsy said. “Our decision to have another child did not come easily. John really did not want another child, but I was strongly in favour of having another one.”
I looked at John and he said, “The pain was so deep when we lost Josh that I couldn’t bear the thought of going through that again. I was happy with the two children we had left and wanted to invest my time with them.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
Betsy continued, “I felt that my loss was so deep that I could never find healing without another baby. It was a real conflict between the two of us.”
“So how did you resolve the issue? I asked.
“We both respected each other’s position,” said John. “I knew that she really wanted to have another baby, and she knew that I didn’t. And we knew that each of us was sincere.”
“We prayed for God’s wisdom,” Betsy said. “One day while I was praying, God brought to my mind the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar to God. I knew that Abraham did that because of his deep love for God. Then a question came to my mind: ‘Do I love John enough to offer my as-yet-unconceived child on the altar?’ I’ve never loved anyone like I love John. He is a wonderful husband and father. I knew that my answer was yes. So I told John about my prayer and what God had brought to my mind, and I wanted him to know that I was willing to not have another child because I loved him so much.”
“I cried like a baby when she told me that.” John said. “Maybe it was the pent-up grief within me, but I sobbed uncontrollably for 30 minutes. I felt so overwhelmed by Betsy’s love. I didn’t say anything that night. I just cried and hugged Betsy. The next day, I went to work and reflected on what had happened. I was overcome by a deep sense of my love for Betsy, and I knew in my heart that I could never deprive her of having another child. I went home that night and told her that I wanted us to have another child. She was confused at first, because she knew how adamant I had been, but before the evening was over, she realized that my heart had sincerely changed and I wanted us to have another baby. So, as you can imagine,” he said, “we’re excited about the baby that is now inside Betsy’s womb.”
I nodded affirmingly as my eyes filled with tears. Finally, when I was able to speak, I said, “I don’t know when I have ever seen such a deep demonstration of love. I think God has great plans for this child.”
Love does not demand its own way but seeks the well-being of the one loved. It is an attitude of love that moves us toward resolving conflicts. The attitude of demanding our own way leads only to arguments.
An attitude of togetherness
In the world of sports, success depends on teamwork. Whether in football, basketball, or auto racing, every team member has a job. When team members coordinate their efforts, they are more likely to meet their goals. Marriage is a team of two: a man and a woman. Marriage is not about “me and my happiness”. Marriage is about two people discovering and accomplishing God’s plans for their lives.
A husband and wife bring an assortment of abilities to their marriage. When they see themselves as team-mates, they realize that their game plan is not to compete against each other but to cooperate. It is this attitude of togetherness that creates a climate in which conflicts can be resolved. Conflicts are inevitable, but if a couple is committed to working together as a team, they can tackle the problem and not each other. An attitude of togetherness says, “We will not let this defeat us. We will find an answer.”
The case of Chuck and Rhonda
Chuck and Rhonda had a major conflict over the behaviour of their two-year-old son, Caleb. Chuck thought that the best way to discipline Caleb was to spank him. After all, that is what his own parents had done with him, and he turned out all right. Rhonda thought that spanking was barbaric. She never remembered being spanked by her parents. My first question was “Do you want Caleb to have two parents or one?”
“Well, two,” said Chuck as Rhonda nodded affirmingly.
“Of course,” I continued. “Do you want each of those parents to do what is right in his or her own eyes, or do you want them to have the same game plan?”
“We’ve got to get on the same page,” Chuck said. “What we’ve been doing is not working. It is destroying our marriage.”
“It tears me apart when he spanks Caleb,” Rhonda said.
“I don’t want him to grow up to be irresponsible,” Chuck said.
“I don’t either,” Rhonda replied.
“The two of you seem to have the same goal in mind,” I observed. “You both want Caleb to grow up to be a responsible young man.” Chuck and Rhonda both nodded in agreement. “The conflict lies in the method of reaching that goal. Can we agree that you are team-mates and not enemies?”
“Lately we’ve been acting like enemies,” Rhonda said, “but I think both of us want to be team-mates.”
“It’s fundamental that the two of you affirm that attitude,” I said, “because if you continue to be enemies, Caleb will likely grow up to be irresponsible. Now, I’d like you to hold hands and repeat after me…”
They both seemed a little shocked, but Chuck reached over and took Rhonda’s hand.
“We are team-mates,” I said.
Chuck and Rhonda repeated, “We are team-mates.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Then let’s get started.”
I gave them a reading assignment for the following week. They were to explore how other couples feel about spanking and to discover what child-development experts have written on the subject.
After Chuck and Rhonda did their research and we discussed their findings at some length, Chuck came to understand that there is more than one way to discipline a child, and Rhonda learned that spanking administered in the context of love is not as barbaric as she had assumed. Ultimately, they decided on three levels of response to Caleb’s disobedient behaviour: Level 1 was verbal reprimand; Level 2 was loss of privileges; Level 3 was spanking. They agreed to observe which type of discipline seemed to work best in changing Caleb’s behaviour. They also agreed that they would continue reading and would attend a parenting class for parents of preschoolers that was offered at their church.
It was the attitude of togetherness that provided the foundation on which Chuck and Rhonda were able to build a positive plan of discipline for their son. Without this attitude, they might still have been arguing when Caleb was 12.
We can choose our attitudes
In summary, it is an attitude of respect, love, and togetherness that leads to resolving conflicts. The good news is that we can—and do—choose our attitudes daily. Unfortunately, our default mode is selfishness, which leads us to proclaim, “My way is the right way.” By nature, we are all self-centered, and that is why arguments are so common in marriage. However, we can choose an attitude of respect, love, and togetherness. Many of the couples I have worked with have found it helpful to put the following statements on an index card and post it in a prominent place in order to help them choose a winning attitude each day:
- I choose to respect my spouse’s ideas, even when I disagree with them.
- I choose to love my spouse and do everything I can to help him or her today.
I choose to believe that my spouse and I are team-mates and that with God’s help we can find solutions to our conflicts.
P.S. To maintain sanctity of the source, this article follows American English.
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