Here is the final installment! Phew! But hopefully these will be helpful to you. If nothing else, we hope that it has sparked some great conversations (of which none ended in conflict : ).
Consider the content of your conversation.
Your conversation should consist of truthful statements (truth + love = growth—Eph 4:15). And while this may seem like a no brainer, it’s not always easy to unravel truth from our perception of the truth—especially when emotions are running high. For example, when Liz and I argue and we begin prefixing comments with either “you always” or “you never,” it is a sure sign that we’ve stopped checking our words against the truth (because no one is “always” or “never” anything). For us, this has become a red flag—something that we have agreed will grab our attention and warn us to review our heart motivations. Also, don’t act like you know what is going on inside your spouse’s head—only they and God know that (Psalm 139:2). Instead of saying something like “you did that just to hurt me,” ask why they did it. Or, say what you know to be true: “That statement hurt because of X, Y, and/or Z.” Of course, speaking the truth requires that you’ve sought the truth from scripture. Having a store of truth to draw from in moments of crisis will give you something helpful to say, and keep you from saying sinful, unhelpful things (Psalm 119:11). Truth is constructive. Wild and unfounded accusations are destructive. (Note: It is okay not to know the answer even after you’ve thought about it for a while, but if you don’t know the answer, don’t expect your spouse will figure it out easily either).
Finally, believe your spouse. Understandably, this may be one of the most difficult of the principles. It requires you to suspend disbelief when you really want to ridicule something your spouse has just said. In your mind you are hearing nothing but wild and outlandish comments (i.e. “I’m embarrassed by this purse” and other things well outside your personal experience). For example, when Liz declares that a cluttered house makes her brain feel cluttered, my initial thought is that she is just a crazy person. Seriously. How can the state of a house affect a person’s ability to think? When Liz first shared this fact about herself (and I do think that the first time she shared this particular nugget of truth was in a moment of extreme conflict :-) I had one of two choices. I could have laughed, mocked, turned on the sarcasm and tried to make her see the ridiculousness of such a view, OR I could believe her (I’ll let you guess how I first handled this particular situation :-). By now, I have learned to believe that for whatever reason, the clutter in her house somehow results in a “cluttered mind” (I’m not even sure what that means!). There isn’t anything morally wrong with this. It isn’t like she stops serving God if her house is messy, but doing what is right becomes more difficult for her. This is just the way her brain works. I can love Liz better by believing what she tells me is true. And then it becomes “What can I do to love Liz, since this is true about her.” That was a long illustration for something that I believe to be critical to a marriage. Rather than focusing on changing your spouse, or disbelieving your spouse, give them the same level of respect that you would want applied to your own statements (Rom 12:10).
There are a few caveats to this principle. Perhaps your spouse really is speaking in hyperbole and isn’t giving accurate statements. Or perhaps they relate a truth about themselves that points to a line of unbiblical thinking. Each of these presents a unique challenge (which we won’t delve into right now). However, in both of these cases, a spouse still needs to react to the information in a believing (and loving, if possible in the heat of the moment) way (Prov 15:1). Said another way, stop reacting to seemingly unbelievable statements with disdain. Scorn and disdain erode the bond of trust when they enter the conversation (Prov 12:18).
So, to recap…
Liz made an off-hand statement about feeling embarrassed by her purse. Paul should have reacted without disdain and instead asked Liz why she felt embarrassed.
Paul made a snarky comment about Liz’s embarrassment. Even thought this was ill-advised, Liz should have heard Paul’s words with grace and tried to find the truth content in Paul’s statement rather than responding with defensiveness.
After Liz responded defensively, Paul accused her of never admitting to fault. Paul should not have assumed he knew why she was acting the way she was. He shouldn’t have used sweeping statements that indicated he wasn’t really concerned with what was actually true. Rather, he should have asked Liz why she felt so defensive. Was she hurt? Did she feel inferior? Was there some way that he could help?
Liz accused Paul of never trying to understand her and begins to cry. Again, out come the sweeping statements. Instead, Liz should have evaluated Paul’s claim and tried to see her statement from his point of view. Was she defensive? Why? How could she explain what she was feeling to Paul without being overly dramatic? An illustration? Analogy? (How would you feel if you walked into a room of computer savy men and were carrying a junky piece of equipment?)
Paul stated that he just wants to go to church so could Liz please stop with the drama already!? Both Liz and Paul should have realized early on that the timing of this argument was very poor. They were in a time crunch and by Paul’s own admission, church was something that he valued and looked forward to during the week. It would have been wise and gracious to lobby for a continuum of the conversation.
Liz sat feeling misunderstood and disrespected. Paul stood feeling frustrated and unloved. Though extremely difficult, being able to step back from your argument and remember the bigger picture—the one where you are both sinners saved by grace and called to a marriage that is characterized by mutual love (Eph 5:25; Titus 2:3–4), honor/respect (1 Pet 3:2, 7), and servanthood (Philippians 2)—will prove invaluable during your moments of conflict.
In the end, conflict happens. Depending on the situations you find yourselves living through (new baby, new job, lack of job, loss of friends, etc.), they may happen more or less frequently. It is wonderful to look over our own conflicts and see a trend of fewer graceless moments and increasingly grace-filled resolutions. They can be an avenue toward biblical change and increasing love. We have a long way to go, and I’m sure we’ll get lots of practice resolving conflict if the past 9 years are any indication. However, we know that God will be faithful and will continue his good work in us.