There’s been conflict in every home I’ve ever lived in. As a child, I would fight with my parents over doing the chores, having to go to bed, or whatever else upset my tiny sinful heart. In college, I lived with a metric ton of roommates as was subjected to all kinds of conflicts and participated in even more. There were fights over what kind of milk we should buy, the best way to assign chores, and every imaginable minor disagreement. And now with my wife, I find myself arguing about how big of a TV we should have or how many pets is a reasonable amount to own. She even tries to convince me that there are health benefits to salad… ridiculous.
Conflict is inevitable, especially with those we spend a lot of time with. There is no one in our lives we will spend more time with (apart from Jesus) than our spouse. That means we will have the most disagreements with them. As married people, we will have conflict with our spouses.
How we respond to our disagreements and conflicts reflects where our hearts are at. The very words we speak reflect the deepest desires of our hearts (Matthew 12:34). Those desires become the foundations of all the conflict that rages between us (James 4:1-2). But we deceive ourselves and convince ourselves that our motives are justified and right (Jeremiah 17:9). In our deceived and fallen state we actively work to make our conflicts worse in nine different ways:
- Avoid the person. John takes a long time to come home from work every night, looking for places to stop and errands to run because he’s afraid that fighting will begin as soon as he walks in the door. Avoidance makes the matter worse because it does nothing to actually resolve the issues. This method of “dealing” with conflict avoids the truth that we ought to love one another (John 15:12). The most important example of loving another is Jesus’s love for us. He did not avoid our hatred and resistance to him, but descended from heaven and confronted us on our sin. We too need to be loving and confront the sin our spouse and confess our own sins against them repenting and asking forgiveness for them.
- Change the topic. Redirecting the conversation might make us feel better about the state of things, but it is really a way to deceive and manipulate the situation. We deceive by making lite of issue (Proverbs 12:22) and we manipulate by turning the conversation to more pleasant things. This is another way of avoiding the conflict and it doesn’t help resolve the issues. There may be times where we need to change the topic for a time until we’ve had a chance to search our hearts, study Scripture, and pray to God, but this should not be our default. Nor should we use this tactic without making the person aware that we want to have a heartfelt and real conversation with them, but we need some time to talk with God and center our hearts in truth before we do.
- Say nothing. This is the most common avoidance tool of those long relationships that have the boldness to say “we never fight.” One of them is hiding their disagreements but not being honest and real. Instead of having hard conversations they “keep the peace” through falsehood and deception. God desires that none should lie (Proverbs 24:28) as that way leads to bitterness. Instead we must remember that this is a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7), and our words should be loving (1 Corinthians 13:1-7 & Ephesians 4:29-31). We are sanctified by our spouse and we sanctify our spouse, not through silence buy through our words and our actions (1 Corinthians 7:14).
- Hiding or obscuring information. This is the husband who doesn’t talk about finances because he knows it will start an argument that he overspent the budget again. It’s the wife who won’t tell the husband the full story of her day because he’ll get upset that she missed an important appointment. It is impossible to be united with someone who is not honest with you. If you hide your hurts and disagreements from your spouse you are lying to them. Scripture calls you to lay aside falsehood and speak the truth (Ephesians 4:25).
- Wait for time to heal it. The lie is ingrained in our culture: “Time heals all wounds.” If it did, then God will eventually forgive us all regardless of the number and intensity of our sins. Those wounds will be healed for him over his infinite lifespan. But that’s not how God works, and it’s not how we work either. Time is not what we need to heal our wounds. Time won’t magically fix our conflicts. In fact, time makes wounds worse. The longer a sin goes unaddressed the more our heart aches that the offender hasn’t repented. Over time we lose sight of the good times and focus in on the painful ones. It can become very difficult for us to move on from the biggest pains in our lives. This is why God wants us to deal properly with sin quickly (Matthew 5:23-24 & Ephesians 4:26).
- Using busyness to avoid it. This is the person who takes extra hours at work, or spends extra time with the kids or friends to avoid being around their husband/wife. They try to cover up the memories of the incident by busying their life with anything that might help them forget. The unfortunate side effect of this kind of behavior is that it often comes with more negative emotions like: bitterness, depression, anxiety, and sometimes even physical illness. Looking back to Jesus again, we don’t see him doing this. He was in conflict with the pharisees and his disciples constantly throughout his ministry years, but never once did he busy himself with healing people and use that as an excuse to not deal with the conflict. Jesus took conflict head on, even when it cost him his life.
- Pretending the conflict never occurred. There is a place for letting love cover sins (1 Peter 4:8), but when your spouse hasn’t forgotten the conflict neither should you. Just because you don’t remember yelling at her doesn’t mean she won’t flince when you raise your voice. The consequences of your actions remain even if you forget what caused them. You must work to resolve your disagreements so that you can live in unity. True unity will never happen if your problems are ignored. Trying to forget conflicts instead of resolving them prevents that from happening, and it makes your relationship superficial.
- Wait for our spouse to start the conversation. They started this fight. They sinned. So they need to start this conversation and repent to me. Isn’t that how we feel sometimes? This isn’t my problem… it’s theirs! But Scripture says that sin is a communal problem. If you sin you must go and repent (Matthew 5:22-24), but also if you are sinned against you must go and point out the sin (Matthew 18:15-17). The command is simple, whoever is aware that something is wrong must be the one to start the conversation. Since you’re aware of it, you must go and begin the restoration process.
- Punish our spouse. I’ve heard of many different ways this has played out. There are those that withhold spending money, give them the silent treatment, are overly harsh, refuse to have sex, or even divorce instead of attempting to resolve the conflict. In many cases we’re tempted to keep the punishment going until our spouse changes and takes 100% of the blame. But if our goal is to restore sinners gently (Galatians 6:1) is that the right way to do that? Scripture calls us to outdo one another in showing honor and to not repay their sin with our own sin (Romans 12:9-20), when we punish our spouses we neglect this sacred call as we continue to pile on our own sins to this conflict. Instead of punishing them, we should pray for God’s wisdom and self-control (James 1:5). We should pray that we would admonish, encourage, and help them with all patience (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Conflict is inevitable in our lives, but how we deal with it is something we can control. When we do the things listed above is builds a dark and depressing divide between us and them and between us and God. But when we pursue God and seek to love our husband/wife as Jesus loves us, our hearts are drawn closer to God and closer to each other.
So, take a moment and think. Which of these methods of dealing with conflict are you most prone to? What are you doing to make sure you take off that old sinful habit and put on righteousness by loving them sacrificially, just as Jesus loves you? If your answer is “nothing” let me encourage you that now is the perfect time to change your thoughts and behaviors. Lookup the verses above and memorize them. Meditate on them when you’re tempted to be short, hostile, distant, or deceptive with your lover. Remind yourself of Biblical truth! Think about Jesus dealt with you when you sinned against Him and live that out toward your spouse. Confess your sins and strive to live repentant and different for the sake of the Gospel and the health of your marriage.
Conflict sucks, but with dedication to your walk with God things can be different. Conflicts can be shorter, and your love can grow deeper. As you mull this over, consider also reading this article by Jeff Potts: 7 Keys to Diffuse Conflict.