Remember June and Ward Cleaver – that oh-so-happy couple that chuckled through life's lessons with nary a care? The couple that never seemed to have any conflict? Never seemed to fight? Gee, Beav, weren't they happy?
June and Ward were my parents. They never seemed to disagree, to argue or to have any conflict whatsoever. I remember hearing my parents have a serious disagreement only one or two times during my formative years. If you grew up in a family where fighting was the norm and days of peace were something only the neighbors experienced, you may be jealous.
There are two sides to this coin, however. I came out of adolescence and into adulthood fearing conflict. I detested conflict. I didn't have a clue how to handle it. Conflict brought up emotions I didn't know how to handle. I had no backbone in my personal relationships – all because I didn't want any conflict. I ran scared.
Fast forward to marriage. God placed a wonderful woman in my life who was much less noticeably afflicted with conflict-aphobia. True to past form, I spent the first years of our marriage trying to avoid conflict and fighting. I hated the emotions dredged up by conflict, and I didn't know what to do when my wife brought up issues that were difficult for me to deal with. I wasted huge amounts of time avoiding conflict, hiding from it and trying to sweep it under the rug without dealing with it. I was doing all this while thinking it was best for me, best for my wife and best for our marriage.
However, instead of having less and less conflict (my inherent goal in avoiding it), my wife and I started having more frequent, more intense and more completely unsolvable conflicts. The very conflict I was running away from kept coming right back at me. I was running down a mountain away from an avalanche that wasn't slowing down.
I didn't allow my wife to have any negative emotions – or at least not to let me know about them. Through my words and actions, she understood I couldn't be bothered – or wouldn't be bothered – with conflict.
I was communicating to her, "If you have a problem with something in our relationship, don't tell me about it. It's your issue. You figure it out, and then tell me about it with a big fake smile on your face. Don't tell me about your pain. I don't want to know that you're feeling pushed out of my life because of my utter lack of willingness to deal with reality."
Our marriage arrived at a tipping point. Something had to give. The "my way or the highway" approach wasn't working. My wife couldn't go on with not being able to express herself to me. I couldn't go on hiding and avoiding the conflict gurgling right under the surface. I was destroying my marriage in my short-sighted efforts to make it my version of "better."
It was at this point of hurt that a series of events and connections with godly people led to me a life-changing revelation. I realized it was unfair not to fight. How selfish and arrogant of me to think that marriage had to be my way or the highway – especially when my way wasn't God's way.
For too many years I had been cheating my wife out of the chance to be heard. I was squashing vitality and life out of her and our marriage without even knowing it.
So I began to change. I began to accept that conflict done right is a wonderful thing. It's a crucible through which we take our relationship to a deeper level. We learn something about each other that lets us love deeper. When we accept our own shortcomings and the faults of our spouse and we work through them honestly, we get an incredible opportunity to extend God's grace to another person.
I soon realized I had also been cheating myself out of a huge part of marriage. I had not allowed myself to experience the emotions I was so scared of. When I paused and felt – really felt – the emotions that previously terrified me, I grew in ways I didn't imagine possible. Taking off my emotional sunglasses led me to see the world, my wife and my marriage in a full spectrum of new clarity. Life wasn't so one-sided anymore.
Maybe you find yourself in a marriage where your spouse "can't do" conflict. Or maybe it's you that can't do conflict. It's not fair to continue on this path.
Remember a few key principles to guide you through the process of fighting fair:
- Emotions are nothing to avoid or be afraid of. Emotions just are. God gave them to us. Let's celebrate them in all their messiness, complexity, joy and pain.
- Emotions are signposts that help you navigate the journey of marriage. Embrace the emotional expressions of your spouse and look for the message behind the words. What does your spouse's anger mean about their current experience and satisfaction in marriage? Learn from these emotions.
- You make a better marriage when you work through conflict and honestly confront emotions. It may not sound macho, but my ability to cry with my wife and to better understand her pain led to increased intimacy in other areas of our relationship.
I'm not trying to be Ward Cleaver in marriage anymore. My wife and I no longer avoid conflict in our marriage. We see conflict as a chance to find the deep and rich rewards that come from living examined lives. We've learned to fight for our marriage – which is only fair.
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