Humility Makes a Difference in Marital Conflict

frustrated married couple
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"Your mother warned me about this before we got married!" my wife, Erin, commented in her frustration.

These are not the words you want to hear from your wife during an argument — especially after nearly 24 years of marriage!

As a young boy I was notorious for engaging my parents in long, arduous "debates." I really wasn't trying to be disrespectful. But when something didn't make sense to me, when I didn't agree with my parents or I felt they were wrong, I would calmly engage my poor parents in lengthy "discussions." Eventually, my parents would simply give in out of sheer exhaustion. I learned from an early age that I could win these marathon exchanges by simply wearing them down. Apparently I was a little hellion in this way!

I now realize the long-term problem with that form of communication is that I carried it into adulthood, walking this style of relating straight into my marriage. I'm sure Erin and my parents bonded over this issue during the early years of my married life — rumor has it that misery loves company!

I'd like to think that as I've aged and matured, these types of interactions have lessened in my marriage. However, just the other day I found myself smack-dab in the middle of one.

Erin and I were discussing our 14-year-old son, Garrison, and his football-watching habits. I felt Erin was being unfair to characterize him as obsessed or addicted to watching college football. When in reality, Erin was just explaining that she felt this area of his life was out of balance.

Needless to say, Erin and I ended up in one of those two-hour deliberations. It's not that we yelled or said hurtful things; we just got so exhausted from the mental sparring that we gave up and walked away from the conversation, emotionally disconnected from each other.

The next day, after a relatively sleepless night, we apologized and worked out a plan for our son and his football-viewing routine. Although we resolved this disagreement, something still bothered me about our interaction the previous night. At some point during the ongoing discussion the night before, I'd suggested that these marathon debates were "just what we do." I encouraged Erin to accept this pattern, especially since we always worked things out and eventually reconnected. In essence, I was saying that the ends justified the means.

Several days later I was in a meeting with a good friend and colleague, Ron Deal. We were talking about marital conflict when Ron made a simple comment that became an epiphany for me. I realized something about the arguments I have with Erin that completely changed my understanding of what was happening in our relationship. And I more clearly understood the insights shared in 2 Corinthians 3:14: "But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away" (emphasis added).

The anatomy of a fight

During times of conflict in marriage, our hearts close into a tight ball —similar to a roly-poly (a pillbug). And a closed heart instantly begins to manufacture selfishness, arrogance, judgment, exaggerated or faulty assumptions, stubbornness, self-importance, rigidity — qualities that damage a relationship. However, the most destructive of these qualities is pride. Conflict in marriage is rooted in a prideful, closed heart. "Pride leads to conflict" (Proverbs 13:10, NLT).

God hates a proud heart and an arrogant spirit. During conflict, a prideful heart is self-consumed and cannot see beyond its own thoughts, opinions, perspective, pain, feelings and needs. Again, picture that bug all rolled up and unable to see beyond its own protective shell.

In those moments of conflict, pride worries most about self — there is little room for a spouse (or even God). "In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God" (Psalm 10:4, NIV).

The best way to remember our selfish nature amid the heat of conflict is to take note of the middle letter in the spelling of the word pride. It's the letter i. As Ron and I talked, I realized that this selfish perspective was exactly what I was bringing to these marathon arguments with my wife. I had become so prideful that I was unwilling to yield in the debate.

Over the years I've blamed my parents, my personality and the way Erin sometimes starts the conversation harshly, but I've never been willing to acknowledge my pride and arrogance. I needed to call the issue what it really was: pride!

As I talked with Ron that day, the "veil lifted" (2 Corinthians 3:14) and I realized why pride was so relationally destructive during conflict.

James 4:6 says, "God opposes the proud" — and so will a spouse! The word oppose means to disapprove of or compete against. Merriam-Webster even recommends combat as a synonym for oppose. Aren't these perfect descriptions of what happens when we argue and fight with our spouse? I need to clarify that healthy conflict can be good for a marriage, but combat will be destructive for a marriage. Healthy conflict can teach us something new about ourselves, our spouse or our marriage. This is why James 1:2 (NLT) says, "When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy." But combat includes responses such as sarcasm, yelling, escalation, criticism, withdrawal, assuming the worst, stubbornness, debating —attitudes that lead to frustration and relational disconnection. Pride propagates opposition and ultimately combat.

Two ways pride can manifest during conflict are described in the first part of Philippians 2:3 (NIV) where the apostle Paul writes, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit." Selfish ambition is evident when we place self-interest ahead of what is good for our spouse. According to Greek word studies, the Greek word for selfish ambition is eritheia, meaning to act for one's own gain, regardless of the discord (strife) it causes. Selfish ambition produces rivalry that leads to feuding and division, and James 3:16 clarifies: "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice." Vain conceit is demonstrated when we project the attitude that we are always right. The Greek word for vain conceit is kenodoxia, meaning that you are excessively proud of your own opinion. This haughty attitude makes communication very difficult because there's no room for a husband or wife's perspective since we cannot be wrong.

Both selfish ambition and vain conceit are self-focused and completely exclusive of our spouse. This is exactly what happens when I engage Erin in a marathon debate session. When my pride takes over, I'm focused on my interests and believe that I'm right. That's a nasty combination. No wonder these conversations feel so adversarial.

There is an obvious relational impact to marital combat, but pride also ushers in personal consequences as well. Results such as: disgrace, humiliation, shame, discredit, punishment, dishonor, tarnished image, discouragement, falling from grace and discord. The Scriptures make this clear:

  • "When pride comes, then comes disgrace." (Proverbs 11:2)
  • "Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished." (Proverbs 16:5)
  • "One's pride will bring him low." (Proverbs 29:23)
  • "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18)

Pride will literally keep your spouse in the role of adversary — in opposition to you.

The antidote to prideful conflict

An antidote is often referred to as something that corrects or improves the bad effects of something harmful, so humility is the best antidote for unhealthy conflict because it's the opposite of pride.

The Greek word for humility is tapeinoó, which basically means to humble or make low. This definition reflects the same idea found in Philippians 2:3 (NIV) when Paul writes, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves."

During marital conflict, husbands and wives who swallow their pride ultimately choose to value their spouse's thoughts, feelings and needs above their own. This isn't easy and it doesn't come naturally, but it will be a turning point in times of disagreement. This is what humility looks like during conflict:

  • I focus on you.
  • I give you my full attention.
  • I am patient.
  • I seek to understand you before being understood by you.
  • I listen with my eyes, ears and open heart.
  • I assume the best about you.
  • I ask God to change me instead of trying to change you.
  • I respect your feelings regardless of whether they make sense to me.
  • I treat you with gentleness and compassion.
  • I forgive you.

Romans 12:10 admonishes us to "outdo one another in showing honor," and these attitudes have the potential to counteract the negative impact of pride because we are honoring and valuing our spouse. As we humble ourselves by outdoing our spouse in showing honor, he or she is more likely to respond in a positive way.

Just like pride creates opposition, humility renders grace. First Peter 5:5 makes this clear: "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' " Grace is doing good for our spouse even when he or she doesn't deserve it. As we humble ourselves, oftentimes our spouse will extend grace by honoring our thoughts, feelings and needs. A humble heart helps us all live out Philippians 2:4, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Humility and grace are the keys to turning conflict from combat into something that will benefit our marriages. My personal prayer is that I will see the arguments and "combat" that I participate in with my wife for what they truly are: pride. And that God will give me the courage and strength to humble myself.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family and the author of Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.

Copyright © 2015 Focus on the Family. From the Focus on the Family website at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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