Getting to the heart of the continual fights and frustrations in marriage.
On a relaxing afternoon one cool fall day, my wife and I were flipping through channels and came upon a nature show — you know the kind, where animals are in precarious situations and you hope the videographers will intervene and of course they never do.
The scene was a dry and dusty African savannah. The camera panned toward a mucky river bed as the narrator explained that the only water hole for miles was drying up, leaving behind deep, thick mud. Thirsty wildebeests desperate for a drink would get stuck in the dark sludge while hungry lions prowled its perimeter. The camera then zoomed in on a poor helpless animal struggling and sinking deeper into the black ooze with every frenetic movement.
After quickly turning the channel — we could guess what was going to happen next – my wife and I looked at each other. I think it was my wife who first said, “That’s us.” A metaphor for our struggle. We had found ourselves getting stuck in a conflict that would grip us from time to time and seem to pull us into the muck. The more we struggled to fix or stop the conflict, the more it seemed to bury us deeper into hurt and strife. We were struggling to get to the heart of things and to see one another well.
Conflict in marriage cannot be done in isolation; good conflict requires that the spouses have a solid level of friendship to stand on. Couples can even use the conflict to work on seeing one another better, recognizing that they are friends, not enemies. We can work to connect to our spouses and learn to trust that they are doing their best and coming from a good place.
In the conflict with my wife, I felt attacked, like she was saying there was something wrong with me, and she felt rejected, like I felt she wasn’t worth fighting for. We were reacting to perceived threats to our worth and connection. These are core places of our hearts where we bear the image of God, so it’s easy for us to get hurt and reactive when we feel the onslaught.
But, once we slowed down and worked to try to see each other and the situation better, we discovered that we were both fighting for the same thing – relief and rescue. My wife would try to fix the situation in an effort to help us get unstuck (which I took it as a personal attack), and I was trying to minimize the conflict to keep us from getting hurt (which she took it as rejection).
The more we reflected on how we both wanted to connect and were both trying in our own way to fix the problem, the more we realized that neither of us were the enemy. We were both simply trying to deal with the hurt and isolation we felt in the best way we knew how while also trying to survive the accusation that we perceived came from our spouse. We weren’t deliberately causing the pain; we were just trying to survive it.
The Evil One is masterful at these assaults, trying to get us to think they are coming from our spouses. Once we were able to see the battle for what it was, we could start standing shoulder-to-shoulder with one another and galvanize against the source of accusation rather than one another.
We started seeing the commitment and love from each other and could then build back trust that we were loved and fought for. We didn’t get everything resolved that day, but in the days that followed we started connecting inside the stuck place. We could start to see how our own wounds and self-preservation ended up wounding one another. Inviting Jesus into those places helped to not only build a bridge in our marriage, but also healed some hurts that we each carried into the marriage.
Ecclesiastes teaches us that two are better than one. “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (4:10a). When conflict arises, we can recognize that it is equally painful for our spouse as it is for ourselves. We can slow down and work hard to see our partner and the stuck situation better. That is difficult to do when we have an Accuser (Revelation 12:10) who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). In these moments of conflict, you can bet that he is looking for a way to attack us. He hates our bond.
Commit with your spouse to seeing them well, even in the midst of the conflict. The accusations might be coming through your spouse, but they do not come from your spouse.
Invite the Lord to minister to your heart. If you cannot get unstuck from an ongoing struggle, remember that you’re both doing the best that you can and seek to love (“see”) one another right in the spot where you’re stuck. If you need, reach for other resources around you like a wise and trusted counselor who can help lift you out of the mire.
Here are some tips for when you find yourself in conflict:
- Slow down. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Get calm so you can think more clearly.
- Remember who you are talking to – this is your greatest ally and partner. They are committed to you and to reconnecting. They may also be reacting to the fear and hurt of being stuck and not knowing how to get out.
- Pray for eyes to see the situation and your spouse’s heart. Invite Jesus into the situation.
- Calmly ask your spouse to help you see better where they are coming from. Questions like, “I don’t think I’m seeing this well. Can you help me see better where you’re coming from?” can be helpful.
- Take your time. You may not immediately get the conflict resolved or fix the issue. The goal is to get to your partner’s heart and connect more than to resolve the immediate issue. Once you connect, the issue is much easier to tackle – “two is better than one.”
Handling conflict well builds reserves of trust and commitment. A weld in the marital bond can be stronger than the bond before the conflict began. Building on the friendship and the regulation of conflict allows a couple to dream together, the next building block to deepening intimacy.
Dr. Brian Fidler
Dr. Brian Fidler is an assistant professor of counseling at Colorado Christian University and a psychotherapist in private practice, helping couples for more than a decade. He has worked with hundreds of couples through the years who wish to work through their marriage struggles and deepen their intimate connection. Dr. Fidler and his wife have been married for 20 years and enjoy spending time with their family, reading, and exploring the outdoors.