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Conflict is a natural part of human relationships. But great marriages have learned how to use conflict for the good of the relationship.
“I don’t think anyone ever gets completely used to conflict. If it’s not a little uncomfortable, then it’s not real. The key is to keep doing it anyway.”
– Patrick Lencioni
As we explore marital conflict, I’ve grouped conflict into three styles. Good, Bad and Corrosive.
Good conflict is a key requirement for growing intimacy because it requires the couple to disagree without manipulation or threats. Intimacy is one of the primary goals of marriage, so some conflict is actually a benefit. Why is this?
Conflict arises when we express our like/dislikes/fears/doubts/preferences and our spouse disagrees. This is part of the transparency and honesty of a good relationship. Hiding them is not being honest with our spouse but we often do that to avoid conflict. But avoiding conflict means avoiding the opportunity to grow. We never learn to appreciate our differences, practice active listening, speak the truth in love and work through forgiveness and reconciliation. These critical skills are all necessary during conflict.
In Good conflict we are choosing to not dominate or control our spouse. We are engaging because a difference of viewpoint/opinion exists, emotions are high and a mutually acceptable solution needs to be found.
In maturing marriages, many issues never rise to the level of conflict. Why? Because these couples are learning to overlook minor offenses and be flexible. However, even mature couples will have a disagreement on a principle or important issue. When they do, they are committing to stay engaged (avoiding withdrawal) and avoiding personal attacks on their spouse (“you are just ….”).
This type of good conflict is generally respectful, honest, takes time for breaks and looks for a win-win solution to the problem. It’s not easy to do well.
It stresses the relationship like strong winds can stress tree limbs. And tree limbs become brittle without regular winds. A good conflict stresses but doesn’t break the relationship. Instead the relationship is stronger because of it. Plus the couple walks away feeling confident that they can “weather the next storm”.
Signs of Good Conflict are:
- Communicating respectfully with each other
- Loving each other despite the disagreement
- Being open to new ideas
- Not seeing the disagreement as a win-lose situation
- Being honest about our feelings (fears, doubts, uncertainties).
- Being self-aware of our personal sin tendencies
- Allowing time-outs to let emotions settle
- Understanding what biblical forgiveness and reconciliation are
- Asking for the Holy Spirit to work in each of us
- Being hopeful realizing that there are no “new” problems in marriage
That said, this type of conflict isn’t just a calm discussion. It may include raising our voices, separating for short periods to cool down and feeling angry.
I can think of three types of bad conflict. Most of us have done these.
- Aggressive – loud, threatening, physical, manipulating, win-lose approach, out-of-control (win-lose)
- Passive – quiet, silent treatment, gossiping, criticism/humiliation, scheming (win-lose)
- Denial – ignoring the situation, faking normal, separating emotionally/physically (lose-lose)
Each of these types of conflict clearly reduce intimacy, trust and are NOT loving.
The worst type of conflict is when it involves several of these behaviors. If you see these, don’t delay, talk with a trusted couple and get help.
- Verbal abuse (threatening harm or abandonment, ridiculing/demeaning statements, screaming at one another)
- Physical abuse (pushing/slapping/hitting, limiting freedoms of other spouse, intimidation)
- Emotional abuse ( gaslighting, trivializing , stereotyping, enlisting allies against the spouse, secretive behaviors, blame-shifting)
Summary on Conflict
In each of these three types of conflict, the difference is in how it is approached, how well we focus on the issues, how it is worked through and how we choose to love.
If done right, our conflict should glorify God, challenge us to grow and strengthen our love, acceptance and appreciation of each other.
Questions for a Great Marriage!
What percentage of our conflict is “good”, “bad” or “corrosive”?
What are the common areas of conflict in our marriage?
How much do we practice forgiveness and reconciliation when we have conflict?
Who should we meet with to discuss our situation and get help?