Conflict in Marriage

There can be a lot of conflict in marriage. There is a lot of conflict in most relationships. But why focus on this in a blog on sex. One of the primary reasons is that the patterns of conflict in the relationship are often reflected in the patterns of conflict in the sexual relationship. Working on one effects the other in very important ways. Research has shown that conflict can either lead to greater connection and intimacy or it can lead to withdrawal, disconnection, and/or problems with sexual intimacy. Dealing with fear and anger and having good conflict resolution has been shown to improve sexual problems.

So what level of conflict is problematic? I do have couples who come to see me and say, "we really don't fight much. We don't have a lot of conflict." That can be quite true when comparing themselves to other couples. I have found, however, that even those who do not think they have a lot of conflict often feel some of the same feelings as those in high conflict. An assessment I use with couples has statements such as: "My partner is able to put him/herself into my shoes"; or "My partner has a hard time seeing things from my perspective." This piece of feeling like my partner understands is huge in dealing with conflict and disconnection vs. connection and intimacy in marriage.

In this entry, I am going to focus principally on a couple of the underlying factors for the listener that are crucial to healthy conflict resolution: Seeking Understanding and Getting rid of the Pointing Finger. Other entries will deal with other factors for the listener and factors that are important for the one initiating talking about the problem.

Seeking Understanding

Before discussing understanding, a caveat. Being understanding gets very confused with the idea of being a doormat, which is not what God has in mind at all in this scripture. Having clear boundaries is important in any relationship. It is healthy to know when to say yes and when to say no (Matt 5:37) and when and how to speak the truth (Eph 4:15) and how to deal with someone who is being hurtful with their words. Proverbs advises, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will like him yourself" (Prov 26:4). Paul also advised, "Those who oppose him (The Lord's servant) he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." There are times in many relationships when someone says and does things that are not from God. They are in need of coming to their senses and we are called to deal with these kinds of opposition with the firmness and gentleness of Jesus. No doormats here.

So how about when someone comes to you with hurt or anger about something you have done. The bible does call us to be humble and take correction (Prov 12:1). God also calls us to seek understanding. Prov 4:7 says, "Though it cost all you have, get understanding." It is expensive, though, to understand someone; to truly grasp how they felt and what they experienced. To do that, you often have to truly set self aside and consider them better than yourself.

"In humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Phil 2:3-4)

When you strive to understand someone else, to truly hear them when they come to you with something they feel about something you have done or not done, or something that has bothered them or hurt them, you truly do have to put yourself aside in order to hear them. Often, when someone speaks to us, so many things come into our head:

Wanting to Defend. "Excuse me!! You're the one who....." "Yeah, but you....."

Wanting to explain. "That's not what happened." "I didn't mean...."

Wanting to fix it. "O.K., So how do you want me to say it..." "Well, then, let's do this...."

Wanting to apologize. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean....."

These responses are normal but they get in the way of really being able to hear someone. So what do you do with all those words swirling through your head? Do not ignore them. Do not push them under the carpet. In fact, give them some room; honor them in a sense. Instead of blurting them out or shoving them down, I recommend putting them on a virtual shelf. A shelf you can see almost right in front of you. You put them there for safe keeping and after you get done focusing on your spouse, and truly trying to understand them (truly being the key word), and after you get to the point of feeling empathy for what they experienced, then and only then do you look back up on that shelf and see what is still there. I'll write about what to do with that shelf later. However, putting things up there and choosing to consider, thinking about, putting your focus on what your spouse has experienced, allows you to have room in your heart and brain for genuine understanding.

Dealing with Defensive Listening

Is 58:9-11 says:

"“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."

This will be expanded further in a future post. At this time, it is important to understand that a huge barrier in resolving conflict is the use of the pointing finger. It is still amazing to me that there is actually a scripture that addresses this. The pointing finger is the "yeah but you...." in a conflict. God says, get rid of it. Why? Look what you get when you do get rid of it. Your light will shine, God will guide you. He'll satisfy your needs. It is one of those "give up everything for God and he will give you back a hundredfold". Deny yourself and he will lift you up. Get rid of the pointing finger, of defending yourself and blaming others, and God takes care of you. He will satisfy you. And then, when you decide to stop finger pointing, look what happens. You will be able to spend yourself on behalf of the hungry. All that energy you put toward defending yourself, all that energy you put toward trying to make the other person see their fault and what they need to change; put that toward spending yourself on behalf of your hungry spouse. You are hungry for understanding. You want them to understand where you are coming from. They are also hungry for understanding. Focus on satisfying their need for understanding, fill that need, and God will fill you up. Once again, this does not mean that you never share your own view or perspective. In fact, the opposite is true. "Speak the truth in love." (Eph 4:15). "Rebuke your neighbor frankly." (Lev 19:17). However, it is vital that if we are to have the marriage God intends, we have to work really hard at putting ourselves in our spouses shoes. In order to even get close to that, we have to work really hard at getting rid of finger pointing.

And what is the outcome, when you get rid of the pointing finger? "You will be like a well-watered garden with a spring whose waters never fail." This is what God wants to create in our marriages. The lush, beautiful garden rather than the empty wasteland. This is what is possible when we get rid of blaming, accusing, assuming, and attacking in our relationships.

Having Empathy

Look at God. "In all their distress he too was distressed." (Is 63:9) And then look at His direction to us. "Mourn with those who mourn." God is a God of compassion (2 Cor 1:3-4). He calls us to have compassion and empathy for those he has put in our lives. It's really hard to do that, however, when the person who wants our empathy is complaining or mad at us! And yet, this is God's heart and this is God's call.

In the literature and research on empathy, one of the terms used for this ability to look at things through someone else's eyes is called perspective taking. This ability to genuinely see things from another perspective undergirds the ability to have empathy and resolve conflict. This will be the focus for the next couple of entries.