Managing Conflict in Marriage

Constructive arguing involves expressing negative feelings in a positive way ... It is not unlike learning to speak a new language.

Deal with your own anger

When we have negative feelings, we need to look inward before we can relate outward. Dr. Harriet Lerner, in The Dance of Anger, points out, "When emotional intensity is high, many of us engage in nonproductive efforts to change the other person, and in so doing, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves."

She suggests several questions to ask yourself:

  • What am I really angry about?
  • What is the problem and whose problem is it?
  • How can I sort out who is responsible for what?
  • How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless?
  • When I am angry, how can I clearly communicate my position without becoming defensive or attacking?
  • What risks and losses might I face if I become clearer and more assertive?

When dealing with our own anger, remember that we can change no other person by direct action. We can only change ourselves. But an interesting thing happens when we change our responses others may change in response to us.

Dr. Lerner notes we are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people's reactions; nor are they responsible for ours ... We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reactions that other people have in response to our choices and actions.

Steps for resolving conflict

There are a number of problem-solving formulas, but most contain four steps:

  1. State the problem. Too often couples try to resolve conflict without agreeing on what the conflict really is! We find it helpful to write it out so that we're both trying to resolve the same thing.
  2. Identify what is at stake and what each has invested. Who has the greatest need for a solution?
  3. List possible solutions. The more the merrier. We brainstorm and think of as many solutions as possible. And remember, adding humor will relieve stress and lighten up any situation.
  4. Choose one and try it! If your first choice doesn't work, don't give up, check your list and try another possible solution and then another till something works . . .

Three ways to resolve issues

  • Give a gift of love. We ask if whatever we are talking about is more important to one than to the other. Then the one to whom it is less important may simply agree to give in and give a gift of love. The Scriptures tell us it is more blessed to give than to receive, and this is certainly true in marriage unless it's one person who is doing all of the giving, and then you have another problem!
  • The second way to find resolution is for each to give a little; to meet somewhere in the middle. Many times we compromise.
  • There are other times when we simply agree to disagree, and that's the third way to settle an issue. Some things aren't that important, and as we said, we don't need to agree on everything. We agree with Ray Ortlund: "Why do we have to agree, or win, or conclude every discussion? Some great truths are opposites and must forever be held in tension ... a little turbulence can be healthy for the second half of marriage ..."

So let us encourage you to let anger, conflict and humor enrich your relationship. One of these days, it may save your life. It did ours!

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