The Power of Healthy Conflict
Your marriage needs conflict.
And yet, sadly, people rarely believe this. It’s probably because conflict is a topic that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. It can bring fear to our hearts and remind us of past failures and acts of which we are ashamed. Our lives are pockmarked by battles and arguments with our loved ones, like the one I experienced while returning from a date night with my wife.
“You’re speeding,” Erin warned.
“I’m driving the speed limit,” I snapped. “Quit trying to control me.”
“I’m telling you that the speed limit is thirty-five,” Erin shot back, “and you’re doing forty-five. You’re going to get a ticket!”
“This is a brand-new road in the middle of nowhere,” I argued. “Why would they make it thirty-five? I’m positive that it’s forty-five. Besides, why would anyone care if I’m going a little fast on a deserted road?”
Apparently someone cared, as evidenced by the blue and red lights flashing behind me.
Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.
—WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING
And before I could give her that look that says, “Don’t you dare,” Erin gloated, “I warned you. But maybe you’ll learn to believe me after our insurance rates go up.”
This was one of those moments when I desperately wanted to run far away from my wife, but I figured that fleeing my vehicle might present a whole new set of problems for me.
As the officer approached my window, he asked the one question that I was hoping he wouldn’t: “Do you know how fast you were going?”
Haven’t you ever wanted to smart off by saying something like “No . . . it’s really difficult to see over the beer can,” or “I don’t, but I bet you do!” I’m so glad I only think these things and don’t say them out loud.
Well, before I could actually say “No, kind sir, I don’t know how fast I was going” in my politest voice, Erin snapped, “He knows. I told him he was speeding, but he chose not to listen.”
To make matters worse, the officer said, “So you don’t know how fast you were going. I guess that means I can write anything I want on the ticket, huh?”
Again . . . ouch! Who were these two, a comedy team?
I probably should have stopped there, but I thought that after the drubbing I’d received from my wife and the officer, he’d have compassion for me.
“Any way you’d let me off with a warning?” I begged. “The real punishment will be having to endure the ‘I told you so’ all the way home. A ticket would be over the top—like beating a dead horse.”
When will I learn that some people don’t find me funny?
“You want a warning?” the officer said graciously. “Okay, I’m warning you that if you go above the speed limit again, I’ll give you another ticket.”
With that, I was done. Unfortunately, Erin wasn’t finished. After she directed some additional choice words and phrases at me, we spent the rest of the drive home in silence.
You may be wondering, “How could an interaction like that be something my marriage needs?” Let me explain.
CONFLICT: BEAUTY OR THE BEAST?
What images come into your mind when you think about conflict? Perhaps you fought with your parents, kids in the neighborhood, school bullies, friends in junior high, or teachers. Maybe your marriage is riddled with conflict today, or perhaps you never fight. Whatever your past or current experiences, how do you perceive conflict? Are these images positive or negative? Conflict has the potential for beauty, but at the same time, there is also a “beast” lurking in it if we mishandle our conflicts.
In an unhealthy sense, if we avoid conflict, pretend it doesn’t exist, gossip to others about it, get angry, or intimidate others into doing what we want, the greater the problem will become, and the greater the relational damage will be. Couples who do not work out their differences and manage their conflict issues are at risk for divorce.
The apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15).
Many couples hate to confront disagreements and hurts because they’re afraid of rocking the boat, so they choose to keep the peace at any price and sweep their issues under the rug. However, this strategy usually does not resolve the problem, because suppressed conflict is always buried alive, and it often festers until it becomes a much bigger problem. In the end, buried issues end up exploding like a massive volcano, leaving our spouse and family members in its wake of destruction. Dallin H. Oaks said, “Peace . . . is not just the absence of war. It’s the opposite of war.”1
In Matthew 5:23–24 we are encouraged to deal with relationship problems so that our hearts will be right when we worship the Lord. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
The difficulty with mishandled conflict is that it creates an unsafe environment. Spouses feel like they are walking on a thin layer of volcanic crust, while underneath rages a river of molten lava ready to consume those trapped nearby. And when people feel unsafe, their heart closes and they disconnect. This is why, when asked about divorce, Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). A hard heart is the kiss of death to a marriage, and that is exactly what prolonged, unhealthy conflict creates: a hardened heart! King Solomon deeply understood the reality of a hard heart: “An offended friend is harder to win back than a fortified city. Arguments separate friends like a gate locked with bars” (Proverbs 18:19). Indeed, not confronting and managing conflict often causes long-term resentment, which eventually destroys feelings of love in a marriage. The bottom line is your marriage may not last if you do not work through issues. This is why two of the world’s top marriage experts, Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, claim that managing conflict is the key to staying in love and staying married. Their thirty years of research indicate that if couples learned to work out their conflicts, the overall divorce rate could be cut by over 50 percent.2
No pressure, no diamonds.
That’s amazing! Who knew that actually facing our differences and managing our conflict in a healthy way could produce such results? It’s true that conflict can be a beast, but there also exists a beauty. I love marital-art master Thomas Crum’s image of conflict:
One of the myths is the idea that conflict is negative. . . . Nature doesn’t see conflict as a negative. Nature uses conflict as a primary motivator for change. Imagine floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Quiet water flowing into exhilarating rapids. Hidden canyons with shade trees and wildflowers. Clear springs of drinkable water. Solitude and silence that can be found in few places in today’s world. And those majestic cliffs looming above, with fantastic patterns in the rock and all the colors of the rainbow displayed. The Grand Canyon is truly one of the world’s greatest wonders and provides us with a profound sense of harmony and peace. Yet how was that amazing vista formed? Eons and eons of water flowing, continually wearing away the rock, carrying it to the sea. A conflict that continues to this day. Conflict isn’t negative, it just is.3
Let’s face it, unless you’re a black belt like Thomas Crum, few people are genuinely excited about conflict. And yet it’s essential that we recognize conflict for what it is: an unavoidable and potentially beneficial part of being in a relationship with another human being.
Let me explain these two truths about conflict. First, conflict is inevitable. Any person involved in a sustained relationship is bound to experience conflict with that other person eventually. It’s a part of getting to know and adjusting to a person, his or her habits, values, and ways of functioning. Two people will never have the same expectations, thoughts, opinions, or needs. In fact, marriage expert Dr. Larry Nadig believes that a relationship with no apparent conflict may be unhealthier than one with frequent conflict.4
Absence of conflict suggests the presence of deadened emotions or a hardened heart, or that one spouse is being suppressed or giving in to his or her mate. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it’s very dangerous to the marriage. Anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be more intense than it needed to be. Second, although conflict is unavoidable, it can also bring amazing benefits to a relationship. Watch how this happens.
THE HIDDEN VALUE OF CONFLICT
Few people know that Murfreesboro, Arkansas, is home to Crater of Diamonds State Park, the only diamond-producing site in the world where the public can search for diamonds. For a small fee, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep whatever they find.
The park is located above the eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe. This “crater” is actually a thirty-seven-acre open field that is plowed from time to time to bring diamonds and other gem-stones to the surface. I will never forget my first impression of this place. It wasn’t pretty. What they don’t tell you in their lovely brochure is that the volcanic field (don’t forget the eroded part) is a treeless wasteland of dirt and rocks and, apparently, diamonds. At first glance, it seems impossible that there could be anything valuable hidden beneath the ancient volcanic dirt. This is actually a perfect picture of the hidden value of conflict. On the surface, conflict is not pretty. For some, it feels rocky and treacherous—full of tension and anger. Other couples experience conflict more as a distant wasteland—filled with avoidance and withdrawal. Either way, most couples experience conflict as frustrating and painful, something they should definitely avoid. However, as the person who found a 40.23-carat diamond at the state park discovered, conflict is loaded with potential treasures as well.
Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.
I know it may be hard to believe, but there really is something amazing about conflict. Yet most people, for good reason, view conflict in a negative light. They believe that the arguments and angry interactions between a husband and wife are not just stressful but unhealthy. In the end, many couples see conflict as a sign that their relationship is in trouble. This belief is understandable yet unfortunate. Conflict is not negative; instead, it’s an inevitable part of marriage that will be managed in either a healthy or an unhealthy way. I prefer the word “managing” over “resolving” conflicts. Rather than making it our goal to resolve arguments, we must learn how to manage conflict. Research suggests that 31 percent of couples’ major continuing disagreements are about resolvable issues. However, 69 percent are about unresolvable perpetual problems that never get resolved but must be managed.5
The good news is that if we manage conflict in a healthy way, like Crater of Diamonds State Park, it is loaded with treasures to be unearthed. Marriage expert John Gottman agrees:
If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of research it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim “we never fight” is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.6
Satisfied couples are more likely to discuss issues of disagreement, whereas dissatisfied couples are more likely to minimize or avoid conflict.
This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matthew 18:15).
In the same way that the Grand Canyon expands as the Colorado River fights its way through, healthy conflict helps a marriage to grow and evolve. If handled right, arguments have the potential to create greater understanding, trust, and connection. You can literally “win your spouse over.” Many people fail to see the true value of disagreement because it’s housed in something unpleasant and unglamorous—like that wasteland of ancient volcanic dirt. Most couples fail to notice the diamonds lying just under the surface, waiting to be discovered. Here are a few of the diamonds buried within healthy conflict:
• Brings problems into the light and helps couples face their issues instead of denying or avoiding them
• Helps you to better appreciate the differences between you and your spouse
• Gives you a chance to care for and empathize with your spouse
• Provides an opportunity to break old, ineffective patterns
• Can restore unity and oneness
• Humbles us and God gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6)
• Gives you great insight into your own personal issues
• Helps you learn how to anticipate and resolve future conflicts
• Brings you closer together as you listen, understand, and validate each other
• Provides a great source of information. For example, conflict can reveal the need to spend more time together
• Can raise you to higher levels of marital satisfaction every time you manage the conflict well
• Is the sole reason we have the amazing experience of makeup sex
Isn’t this a great list of what conflict can do if we learn to walk through it in a healthy way? As the prophet Isaiah put it, “to bestow on them a crow of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3).
So what is the real value of conflict? If we compared each potential conflict benefit on that previous list to a 2-carat diamond, the most valuable aspect of relational disagreements would be like the 40-carat diamond discovered at the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Here is the real value of conflict.
Fear not those who argue but those who dodge.
THE DOORWAY TO INTIMACY
Conflict and arguments have the ability to strengthen or deteriorate a marriage relationship. On one hand, healthy conflict can facilitate deeper understanding, trust, connection and respect—true intimacy. On the other hand, arguments can be unhealthy, causing frustration, hurt, disconnection, and hardened hearts. As Larry Nadig puts it, “How the conflicts are managed, not how many occur, is the critical factor in determining whether your relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold.”7
The reality is that a conflict like the one I had with my wife when I was speeding doesn’t guarantee intimacy; it only provides a foundation where deep connection can occur. That doesn’t mean we keep fighting just so we can enjoy the deeper intimacy of making up. But when a conflict does occur, it can bring an amazing benefit (like a 40-carat diamond) if we use it in the right way. I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true: Conflict provides the opportunity to deepen your understanding of your spouse. This is the real treasure. Notice I said the opportunity for intimacy. Marriage expert John Gottman expresses this same sentiment:
The idea that conflict is healthy may sound like a cruel joke if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the negativity in your relationship. But in a sense, a relationship lives and dies by what you might loosely call its arguments, by how well disagreements and grievances are aired. The key is how you argue—whether your style escalates tension or leads to a feeling of resolution.8
You and your spouse are different in some amazing ways, which is one of the many reasons your marriage is so valuable. However, people often associate their differences as the cause of their marriage problems. And yet this isn’t true. The evil one wants you to view your differences as the problem. But the truth is that your differences aren’t the problem; it’s how you manage your differences. The conflict around your differences is the real culprit for frustration and heartache in your marriage. Most of us ultimately view conflict as something to avoid rather than something that can be used to help us better understand each other. As noted marriage expert Gary J. Oliver explains, “The real problem isn’t that we are different or that we disagree and experience conflict. The real problem is that most of us automatically view conflict as negative rather than as a tool that God can use to help us better understand ourselves and each other.”9
The most important thing for a good marriage is to learn how to argue peaceably.
Healthy conflict is the entryway to better understanding our spouse. The moment we get into an argument, there is that open door to discover our spouse’s most important feelings and needs. Instead of reverting to old patterns of reaction when our buttons get pushed, our mind-set should be “I’m thankful for this disagreement because it gives us an opportunity to deepen our understanding and intimacy.” Doesn’t this sound like 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus?” This is how we strengthen our relationship through conflict.
Let me illustrate how this doorway of intimacy works. After Erin and I returned home from our date where I got the ticket for speeding, I felt like the old Bobby Fuller Four song “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.” As we walked into our house, we weren’t speaking to each other and were disconnected, to say the least. I must admit it didn’t seem like much of a doorway; it felt more like a stone wall.
Later that night, I approached Erin in our bedroom.
“I know I acted like an idiot tonight,” I said softly. “Would you forgive me?”
“Absolutely,” she responded. “But why did you get so defensive? I want to know what was really going on.” She is so wise. I completely understand why King Solomon wrote, “A man’s greatest treasure is his wife. She is a gift from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).
As we talked openly about the driving incident, I was able to better understand that Erin felt invalidated when I wasn’t open to her concern about speeding: “I knew that the speed limit was thirty-five, but I felt extremely marginalized.” She helped me understand that when I dismiss her opinions, she feels devalued and disconnected. I was able to help Erin understand that when she criticizes my driving, I feel controlled and disrespected. To make matters worse, once I got pulled over by the police, I felt as if I had failed. “Feeling like a failure is a huge issue for me,” I explained. “I quickly shut down when I feel like I failed.” Deeply listening to, understanding, and validating each other’s feelings is an enormous treasure for our marriage.
Going even deeper through the doorway, conflict can take us past simply talking about our feelings (which is good) all the way to discussing the core of what we really want and need from each other (which is great). Erin wants me to be open to accepting her influence when she shares a concern, instead of outright dismissing her or marginalizing her feedback. It helps her feel loved when I listen and communicate to her that I’m taking her concerns seriously and considering them. As a matter of fact, since that time, I’ve learned to say in all seriousness, “I’ll pray about what you just shared and then get back to you.”
John Gottman says that marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband accepts influence from his wife: “A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership occurs only when a husband can do so as well.”10
These researchers are killing my ego!
Conflict isn’t good or bad, right or wrong . . . conflict simply is. It is how we choose to respond to conflict that produces the growth or creates the real problem.
—GARY J. OLIVER
That night I was able to help Erin understand that it would help if, before correcting my driving, she would consider whether she was being critical or sharing a concern. Sometimes her words, tone, and facial expressions communicate criticism. I also shared that I feel like she rubs it in my face when I make a mistake or when she is right (which is often). I disconnect or log off pretty fast when I feel piled on by her.
Certainly we didn’t handle the beginning of the argument in the car very well. Some might even suggest that it was rather unhealthy. And yet what matters most is not how you begin but how you end. Ultimately, we walked through that doorway and discovered several relational diamonds. This is something that I’ve learned over and over in my marriage: When conflict is managed in a healthy way, people feel safe to open their heart and reveal who they really are. They feel open to display their uniqueness and opinions and to share their concerns, hurts, fears, and frustrations. This is why conflict is a doorway to intimacy and why your marriage needs conflict. This is exactly what my dad, Gary Smalley, explained as well:
Conflict is inevitable in relationships. It rears its head in even the healthiest, most deeply intimate of marriages. It is how you handle conflict that will determine how it affects your relationship, for better or for worse. Again, the most important aspect is not how much you love each other or how committed you are to your relationship or the strength of your faith; optimum relationships depend on how adeptly you handle conflict. Every instance of conflict represents two divergent paths: you can use it to either grow together or grow apart. Open the door. Walk through—and you learn more about the delights of marriage than you ever dreamed possible.11
I love that thought: We can use conflict to grow either closer together or further apart. I hope you see that tapping in to the power of healthy conflict is a matter of opening the door, not closing it. Sometimes I want to slam the conflict door shut and lock it when I know Erin has an issue with me. But look at the growth opportunities I’d be missing out on. You have the same choice. You can either return to old patterns of dealing with conflict or walk through the doorway of healthy conflict and into the deepest levels of intimacy and connection, to the place Peter envisioned for our relationships: “Love each other deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). The choice is yours!
Before I continue, I want to be perfectly clear about the intended audience for this book. Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage is for those who struggle with common conflict issues that prevent them from reaching the deepest levels of intimacy and connection. It is not intended for anyone in an abusive marriage. When I talk about “unhealthy” conflict, I am not referring to abuse (intense or extreme degrading language, intimidation, shoving, slapping, hitting, threats of violence, raging, forced sex, etc.). If these types of destructive behaviors are present within your marriage, I would never recommend putting yourself or other family members in danger by remaining in an abusive environment. Instead, safety is your primary concern, and I would recommend that you get help immediately from the police, a professionally trained counselor, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233).
Within the pages of this book, I will teach you how to turn your everyday conflicts into healthy conflict so your marriage can reap the amazing benefits. We will begin by looking into what is at the heart of every conflict—in other words, what drives every single experience when you get hurt by or frustrated at your spouse. It has everything to do with the fact that people push your buttons and then you react. This creates a nasty relationship cycle that closes your heart and keeps you stuck in a pattern of unhealthy conflict. You will discover how your buttons are really lies that have been written on your heart. Then I’ll show you how to heal your heart through God’s truth. Finally, you will learn the power of working together to find solutions as teammates—decisions that both people feel great about.
Next, we will examine what to do, in a practical manner, when your buttons get pushed. Then we will focus on how to create the right environment for you to have a productive discussion with your spouse. I’ll also show you the greatest communication method that I know, called L.U.V.E. talk, to help you and your spouse reach the deepest levels of intimacy and connection after any argument.
More than anything, I want to show you a process of working through every problem that you will face. My goal is not to solve specific problems; instead, I want to offer you a step-by-step system of managing conflict in a healthy way. Ultimately, I want to help you understand your spouse’s deepest needs. One of the best opportunities is through conflict. The essence of this book is learning to make conflict work for you rather than against you. I want to help you “fight” your way to a better marriage.