by Juli Slattery


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The Very Important Difference Between Conflict and Fighting

I’ve shared with you in past blog posts that my husband, Mike, and I are very, very different. Early in our marriage, these differences created a lot of tensions. There were days when I wondered if we could make it with such divergent views on everything from money to movies.

Mike and I are still very different. While that continues to create disagreement, we rarely fight anymore. We discovered a secret that has made our marriage immeasurably more enjoyable. Are you ready?

You can have conflict without fighting.

Because we typically use the two words interchangeably, most couples don’t know the difference between a conflict and a fight. Conflict in marriage is absolutely inevitable. Because you are two separate people with your own thoughts, desires, and beliefs, you will have conflict. Fighting, however, is optional.

A famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, discovered that one of the primary indications of whether or not a couple would stay together was how they handled conflict. Please note: the difference wasn’t how much conflict the couple had, but how they handled it. You and your husband may disagree about many things, but if you have the skills to resolve conflict without fighting, you can have a harmonious marriage.

When you think of the word fight, you probably imagine a couple yelling and screaming at each other. However, you and your husband can “fight” without ever raising your voices. A couple can also be fighting in their marriage when they become verbally aggressive, contemptuous, or withholding in marriage. I used to pride myself in not losing my temper like my Irish husband did. Then I realized that I was doing just as much damage with quiet sarcasm, an arrogant attitude, or giving him the cold shoulder for days.

It is never God’s will for us to fight in marriage. We will most likely have some important and emotional conflicts, but those do not have to include fighting.

I want to share with you three primary differences between conflict and having a fight.

1. Conflicts Are Intentional and Fights Are Impulsive

When Mike and I address a conflict, we are intentional about bringing up an issue that needs to be resolved. Sometimes that means that I’ve spent several days praying about the issue, thinking it through, and perhaps getting some perspective from a trusted friend.

A fight always begins with an impulsive reaction to how we are feeling. He said something insensitive or I did something that ticked Mike off, and away we go. When we get into a fight, it usually feels for one of us like we have to talk about it right now—not because it’s urgent but because we can’t control how we are feeling.

One of the greatest lessons we’ve learned is that almost all conflicts are more likely to be resolved if we give each other time to process, pray, and get perspective. As a young bride, I bought into the advice, “Never go to bed angry.” I took this to mean that we had to solve every problem before going to sleep. You know what I learned? Two in the morning is not a good time to talk through an issue.

Most important issues in a marriage don’t have to be resolved today. You don’t have to decide on what car to buy, where to send the kids to school, or how to pay the credit card bill. Although it may feel like you need resolution, find your own peace in bringing the issue before the Lord before seeking peace with your spouse.

2. Fights Are Rooted in Fear and Pride While Conflict Requires Humility

When you and your spouse are engaged in fighting, you both want to win. You are convinced that you have the better argument, are more justified in your anger than he is, or you want to hurt him as much as he hurt you.

Fights typically end with a perceived winner and loser. Someone got the last word or overpowers the other one.

The goal of conflict is to end up on the same page. Conflict isn’t motivated by getting your way or proving your point. The goal is to become like-minded and understanding each other at a deeper level. Even if you and your husband will never see an issue exactly the same, through conflict, you can gain an appreciation for each other’s perspective.

One of the most powerful things you can do to switch a fight into a healthy conflict is to take a step toward humility. Although I’m the psychologist, my husband is often better at practicing this than I am. When a fight begins to escalate, Mike will sometimes say something that demonstrates that he’s not simply motivated to win.

Juli, I don’t want to fight with you. I love you! Remember that you and I are on the same team.

This immediately disarms me and helps me gain perspective.

Apologizing for your part of a misunderstanding is another way to demonstrate humility. “I’m sorry I said that the way I did. I didn’t intend to hurt you, but what I said was uncalled for. Will you forgive me?”

While those words may be very difficult to utter in the heat of the battle, they will likely turn a contentious fight into a meaningful conflict. In essence, you are telling your husband, I care more about us than I care about getting my way.

3. Fighting Is About the Moment; Conflict Is About the Marriage

One Sunday as Mike and I were driving with the kids to church, a yellow light prompted a fight between us. Mike was driving and I saw the light turn yellow when we were still a good distance away. I said something about how he should stop instead of stepping on the gas. This made Mike hesitate. His instincts would have certainly been to “squeeze the lemon.” In his frustration, Mike swore.

Then I retorted with a snarky comment, “Really nice for you to swear in front of the boys because we will get to church a minute later. That’s just a great example!”

Let’s just say neither of us was in the mood to worship that morning.

Can you relate to this episode? Even with something as benign as a traffic light, you get pulled into the moment and begin to do long-term damage to each other.

God is teaching me that I could win every argument and still lose my marriage. That perspective helps me practice the self-control and humility required to do conflict well.

Remember that Conflicts Are Still Conflicts

I’m not suggesting that you walk away from an issue when you walk away from a fight. There are some conflicts you must walk through. Avoiding them is neither loving nor beneficial. There are some conflicts in your marriage that will be really stressful. It’s no fun to confront your husband on his porn use or decide as a couple whether or not to declare bankruptcy. These are very important issues that you need God’s wisdom and grace to work through.

Switching from a pattern of fighting to healthy conflict means refusing to make your spouse the enemy and being patient to wait until the right time and setting to talk the issues through in a loving manner. Ask the Lord to give you the wisdom you need to make this change in your heart and your marriage.

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