Focus on the Family

The Power of Healthy Conflict

by Dr. Greg Smalley

Your marriage needs conflict.

And yet, sadly, people rarely believe this. It's probably because conflict is a topic that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. It can bring fear to our hearts and remind us of past failures and acts of which we are ashamed. Our lives are pockmarked by battles and arguments with our loved ones, like the one I experienced while returning from a date night with my wife.

"You're speeding," Erin warned.

"I'm driving the speed limit," I snapped. "Quit trying to control me."

"I'm telling you that the speed limit is 35," Erin shot back, "and you're doing 45. You're going to get a ticket!"

"This is a brand-new road in the middle of nowhere," I argued. "Why would they make it 35? I'm positive that it's 45. Besides, why would anyone care if I'm going a little fast on a deserted road?"

Apparently someone cared, as evidenced by the blue and red lights flashing behind me.

And before I could give her that look that says, "Don't you dare," Erin gloated, "I warned you. But maybe you'll learn to believe me after our insurance rates go up."

This was one of those moments when I desperately wanted to run far away from my wife, but I figured that fleeing my vehicle might present a whole new set of problems for me.

"Any way you'd let me off with a warning?" I begged the officer. "The real punishment will be having to endure the 'I told you so' all the way home."

"You want a warning?" the officer said graciously. "OK, I'm warning you that if you go above the speed limit again, I'll give you another ticket."

With that, I was done. Unfortunately, Erin wasn't finished. After she directed some additional choice words and phrases at me, we spent the rest of the drive home in silence.

You may be wondering, "How could an interaction like that be something my marriage needs?" Let me explain.

Keeping the Peace at Any Price?

If we avoid conflict or pretend it doesn't exist, the greater the problem will become.

by Dr. Greg Smalley

Maybe your marriage is riddled with conflict today, or perhaps you never fight. Whatever your past or current experiences, how do you perceive conflict? Are these images positive or negative? Conflict has the potential for beauty, but at the same time, there is also a "beast" lurking in it if we mishandle our conflicts.

In an unhealthy sense, if we avoid conflict, pretend it doesn't exist, gossip to others about it, get angry, or intimidate others into doing what we want, the greater the problem will become, and the greater the relational damage will be. Couples who do not work out their differences and manage their conflict issues are at risk for divorce.

The apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote, "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Galatians 5:15).

Many couples hate to confront disagreements and hurts because they're afraid of rocking the boat, so they choose to keep the peace at any price and sweep their issues under the rug. However, this strategy usually does not resolve the problem, because suppressed conflict is always buried alive, and it often festers until it becomes a much bigger problem. In the end, buried issues end up exploding like a massive volcano, leaving our spouse and family members in its wake of destruction.

In Matthew 5:23–24 we are encouraged to deal with relationship problems so that our hearts will be right when we worship the Lord. "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."

The difficulty with mishandled conflict is that it creates an unsafe environment. Spouses feel like they are walking on a thin layer of volcanic crust, while underneath rages a river of molten lava ready to consume those trapped nearby. And when people feel unsafe, their heart closes and they disconnect. This is why, when asked about divorce, Jesus said, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard" (Matthew 19:8). A hard heart is the kiss of death to a marriage, and that is exactly what prolonged, unhealthy conflict creates: a hardened heart!

Indeed, not confronting and managing conflict often causes long-term resentment, which eventually destroys feelings of love in a marriage. The bottom line is that your marriage may not last if you do not work through issues.

Let's face it, few people are genuinely excited about conflict. And yet it's essential that we recognize conflict for what it is: an unavoidable and potentially beneficial part of being in a relationship with another human being.

Conflict is inevitable. Any person involved in a sustained relationship is bound to experience conflict with that other person eventually. It's a part of getting to know and adjusting to a person, his or her habits, values, and ways of functioning. Two people will never have the same expectations, thoughts, opinions or needs.

Absence of conflict suggests the presence of deadened emotions or a hardened heart, or that one spouse is being suppressed or giving in to his or her mate. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it's very dangerous to the marriage. Anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be more intense than it needed to be.

The Hidden Value of Conflict

Rather than making it our goal to resolve arguments, we must learn how to manage our conflicts.

by Dr. Greg Smalley

Although conflict is unavoidable, it can also bring amazing benefits to a relationship.

Watch how this happens.

Murfreesboro, Ark., is home to Crater of Diamonds State Park, a site where the public can search for diamonds. For a small fee, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep whatever they find.

The park is located above the eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe. This "crater" is actually a 37-acre open field that is plowed from time to time to bring diamonds and other gemstones to the surface. I will never forget my first impression of this place. It wasn't pretty. This volcanic field is a treeless wasteland of dirt and rocks and, apparently, diamonds. At first glance, it seems impossible that there could be anything valuable hidden beneath the ancient volcanic dirt.

This is actually a perfect picture of the hidden value of conflict. On the surface, conflict is not pretty. For some, it feels rocky and treacherous – full of tension and anger. Other couples experience conflict more as a distant wasteland – filled with avoidance and withdrawal. Either way, most couples experience conflict as frustrating and painful, something they should definitely avoid. However, as the person who found a 40.23-carat diamond at the state park discovered, conflict is loaded with potential treasures as well.

Most people, for good reason, view conflict in a negative light. They believe that the arguments and angry interactions between a husband and wife are not just stressful but unhealthy. In the end, many couples see conflict as a sign that their relationship is in trouble. This belief is understandable yet unfortunate. Conflict is not negative; instead, it's an inevitable part of marriage that will be managed in either a healthy or an unhealthy way.

I prefer the word "managing" over "resolving" conflicts. Rather than making it our goal to resolve arguments, we must learn how to manage conflict.

The good news is that if we manage conflict in a healthy way, like Crater of Diamonds State Park, it is loaded with treasures to be unearthed. Marriage expert John Gottman addressed this issue in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail:

If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of research it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple's ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim "we never fight" is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That's how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.

In the same way that the Grand Canyon expands as the Colorado River fights its way through, healthy conflict helps a marriage to grow and evolve. If handled right, arguments have the potential to create greater understanding, trust, and connection. Many people fail to see the true value of disagreement because it's housed in something unpleasant and unglamorous – like that wasteland of ancient volcanic dirt. Most couples fail to notice the diamonds lying just under the surface, waiting to be discovered. Here are a few of the diamonds buried within healthy conflict:

So what is the real value of conflict? If we compared each potential conflict benefit on that previous list to a 2-carat diamond, the most valuable aspect of relational disagreements would be like the 40-carat diamond discovered at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.

The Doorway to Intimacy

Conflict doesn't guarantee intimacy, but it is an open door to discover our spouse's most important feelings and needs.

by Dr. Greg Smalley

Conflict and arguments have the ability to strengthen or deteriorate a marriage relationship. On one hand, healthy conflict can facilitate deeper understanding, trust, connection and respect – true intimacy. On the other hand, arguments can be unhealthy, causing frustration, hurt, disconnection and hardened hearts. According to marriage and family therapist Larry Nadig, "How the conflicts are managed, not how many occur, is the critical factor in determining whether your relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold."

The reality is that a conflict like the one I had with my wife when I was speeding doesn't guarantee intimacy; it only provides a foundation where deep connection can occur.

The moment we get into an argument, there is that open door to discover our spouse's most important feelings and needs. Instead of reverting to old patterns of reaction when our buttons get pushed, our mindset should be "I'm thankful for this disagreement because it gives us an opportunity to deepen our understanding and intimacy." Doesn't this sound like 1 Thessalonians 5:18, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus"? This is how we strengthen our relationship through conflict.

Let me illustrate how this doorway of intimacy works. After Erin and I returned home from our date where I got the ticket for speeding, we walked into our house not speaking to each other and feeling disconnected, to say the least. I must admit it didn't seem like much of a doorway; it felt more like a stone wall.

Later that night, I approached Erin in our bedroom.

"I know I acted like an idiot tonight," I said softly. "Would you forgive me?"

"Absolutely," she responded. "But why did you get so defensive? I want to know what was really going on."

As we talked openly about the driving incident, I was able to better understand that Erin felt invalidated when I wasn't open to her concern about speeding: "I knew that the speed limit was 35, but I felt extremely marginalized."

She helped me understand that when I dismiss her opinions, she feels devalued and disconnected. I was able to help Erin understand that when she criticizes my driving, I feel controlled and disrespected. To make matters worse, once I got pulled over by the police, I felt as if I had failed.

"Feeling like a failure is a huge issue for me," I explained. "I quickly shut down when I feel like I failed." Deeply listening to, understanding, and validating each other's feelings is an enormous treasure for our marriage.

Going even deeper through the doorway, conflict can take us past simply talking about our feelings (which is good) all the way to discussing the core of what we really want and need from each other (which is great). Erin wants me to be open to accepting her influence when she shares a concern, instead of outright dismissing her or marginalizing her feedback. It helps her feel loved when I listen and communicate to her that I'm taking her concerns seriously and considering them. As a matter of fact, since that time, I've learned to say in all seriousness, "I'll pray about what you just shared and then get back to you."

That night I was able to help Erin understand that it would help if, before correcting my driving, she would consider whether she was being critical or sharing a concern. Sometimes her words, tone, and facial expressions communicate criticism. I also shared that I feel like she rubs it in my face when I make a mistake or when she is right (which is often). I disconnect or log off pretty fast when I feel piled on by her.

Ultimately, we walked through that doorway and discovered several relational diamonds. When conflict is managed in a healthy way, people feel safe to open their heart and reveal who they really are. This is why conflict is a doorway to intimacy and why your marriage needs conflict. I love what my dad, family counselor Gary Smalley, has said: We can use conflict to grow either closer together or further apart.

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Creating a Safe Marriage

Your spouse's heart will open only when it feels safe. But what does feeling safe really mean?

by Dr. Greg Smalley

The best approach to foster intimacy and deep connection after an argument is to focus time, attention and energy on creating relational space that feels safe. When your spouse feels safe, he is naturally inclined to relax and open his heart. In this peaceful state, openness simply happens. You don't have to force intimacy or do things to create connection when you feel safe. This is true because God designed our heart to be open. The default setting of a heart is openness. It takes much more effort and energy to stay closed and shut down than to stay open.

Think about a recent time when your spouse hurt or frustrated you. Remember how quickly your heart shut down? Once your heart closed, you instantly reacted in some way (fight or flight) and ultimately disconnected. But your heart was not designed to stay closed. Maintaining a closed heart is like trying to force a huge beach ball underwater. You have to strain and push to keep a ball full of air underwater. It's the same with your heart. You have to work really hard to keep a heart full of God's love shut down. Have you ever noticed, when your spouse takes responsibility for her actions and seeks forgiveness, how quickly your heart opens back up? Like that beach ball under the water, once you feel safe, your heart will burst back open. You can go from feeling shut down to instantly feeling connected and open.

Emotional safety sets a peaceful environment that allows people to relax. This is why, in your quest for reconnection after you have argued with your spouse, I want to encourage you to make creating safety a top priority. Hopefully, you now see that the only way to become one is to intertwine two open hearts together.

Creating Safety for Open Hearts

A heart will open only when it feels safe. But what does feeling safe really mean? I asked more than 1,000 couples for help defining emotional safety. Listen to some of their answers:

Wouldn't it be amazing for these things to be the foundation of marriage? Feeling emotionally safe is critical for a marriage to thrive.

I define emotional safety as feeling free to open up and reveal who you really are while trusting that the other person will still love, value and unconditionally accept you. In other words, you feel safe with someone when you are confident and trust that he or she will handle your heart – your deepest feelings, thoughts, desires, hopes, and dreams – with the utmost care. So, how do we build a marriage that feels like the safest place on earth?

Emotional safety is not simply a bunch of psychobabble. Safety is, first and foremost, something that our heavenly Father provides for us.

These are just a few of the many verses that show how the God of this universe goes out of His way to make us feel safe. He wants our heart open so He can love through us. And hearts open when they feel safe. The safest relationship we will ever have is with our heavenly Father. I want to model my earthly relationships after what God does with me. The key to creating a marriage that feels like the safest place on earth is found in Ephesians 5:29: "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church." Creating a safe marriage involves both an attitude and an action. Cherish is the right attitude, and nourish is the powerful action.

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Cherish: Recognize Your Spouse's Value

Honor isn't based on behavior or subject to emotion. You grant your spouse value whether they want it or deserve it.

by Dr. Greg Smalley

The primary attitude that will help your spouse feel emotionally safe is when he believes that you understand how incredibly valuable he is. That is the essence of honor. Honor is a decision to view our spouse as a priceless treasure – a person of high worth and value. This is what King Solomon encouraged as well: "A man's greatest treasure is his wife" (Proverbs 18:22).

Honor isn't based on behavior or subject to emotion. You grant your spouse value whether they want it or deserve it. Honor is a decision you make and a gift you give. This is exactly what the apostle Paul encouraged the early Christians to do when he wrote, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor" (Romans 12:10).

God has made it resplendently clear that my wife is valuable. Look at some of the verses that show how much our heavenly Father values and cherishes us:

It's amazing to think that the God of this universe considers my wife His treasured possession. That's powerful! However, when Erin and I are in the midst of an argument and my heart closes, the first thing to go is my awareness of her incredible value.

And in those moments, when I fail to see her as my heavenly Father sees His daughter, I'm not safe. When I lose sight of her value, when I'm not cherishing her, I'm more apt to react and treat her in dishonoring ways. Then Erin has every right to put up a wall and protect herself.

I watched the power of recognizing my wife's value this past Thanksgiving while at my parents' home in Branson, Mo. One of the things that I appreciate most about my parents is the honesty of their marriage. They've never claimed to have a "perfect" marriage and aren't afraid to disagree.

At one point, my parents got into a huge argument. They were so frustrated that they each ran off to a different part of the house. I let the situation calm down for a few minutes before I knocked on my father's office door.

"Come in," he reluctantly replied.

As I walked into his office, I found my dad sitting behind his computer reading a document titled "Why Norma Is So Valuable." (My mom's name is Norma, just in case you were wondering.)

"What are you reading?" I asked.

"Well," my dad began, "a number of years ago I started a list of why your mom is so valuable. So when I'm upset with her, or when we've had a fight, I've learned that instead of sitting here thinking about how hurt or frustrated I am at your mother, I need to make myself read through this list."

The document contained literally hundreds of words and phrases describing my mom's value. It was amazing.

"When I first start to read through the list, I'm still upset," explained my dad. "I usually get to the first three or four items and think, 'What was I thinking?' or 'This one is no longer valid!' or 'I'm definitely going to erase that one.' But then the farther down I read, the faster I realize that you have an amazing mom."

This is the best idea I've ever heard for recognizing someone's value. Talk about creating safety. It's also what my father does to get his heart back open. Luke 12:34 explains why it is so powerful: "For where your treasure is, so there will your heart be also." In other words, your heart will be open to what you value. One way to keep your heart open and your spouse feeling safe with you is to focus on her value.

We can create this honor list for our spouse as well. Take several minutes to list all the reasons why your spouse is so valuable. For example: a character trait, faith pattern, values, morals, parenting skills, spirituality, the roles he or she plays that you appreciate (worker, friend, parent, sibling, son), personality characteristic, how he or she treats you, etc.

And don't keep the amazing list to yourself – share it with your spouse. Let her know that you recognize her value. When this happens, not only does your spouse benefit, but you are positively impacted as well.

Pre-marital training helps couples stay together. In fact, couples who participate in premarital programs experience a 30% increase in marital success over those who do not participate.

Nourish: Treat Your Spouse in Valuable Ways

When you treat your spouse with compassion, it creates a safe environment to share your deepest thoughts and feelings.

by Dr. Greg Smalley

Understanding your spouse's incredible value is the beginning of safety, but to create a marriage that feels like the safest place on earth, you must be able to express honor through action and behavior. "Let us not love with mere words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18). Honor in action means that you learn how to handle your spouse's heart – her deepest feelings, thoughts and desires – with the utmost care. You need to visualize his heart tattooed with the words "Handle with care."

Remember, "emotional safety" is feeling free to open up and reveal who you really are and trust that the other person will still love, value and accept you. As you can see, the last part of the definition communicates a powerful message: "You are incredibly valuable, so don't be afraid of letting me see your heart. You can share your deepest feelings, thoughts, opinions, hopes, dreams, fears, hurts and memories, and I will still love and accept you."

Let me make practical the idea of safety in action. Jackson and Krista, a married couple attending a marriage-training seminar, were just about to discuss a big fight they were having around the remodeling of their home.

In this moment, Jackson didn't care what Krista knew or what was going on with her. His heart was closed; he didn't feel safe. But instead of trying to get Jackson to care about her pain and frustration, Krista made it her goal to care about Jackson's heart.

"I so greatly appreciate your sense of responsibility, and the fact that when you say you're going to do something, it will always happen," Krista started. "You are such a man of integrity. I think this is why I've been confused about the lack of follow-through around this remodel. Would you be willing to help me understand what is going on for you?"

When you choose to care for your spouse, it can instantly create a safe environment to share your deepest thoughts and feelings.

"You're right," Jackson cautiously responded. "I'm usually great at follow-through. But this project has made me realize just how inadequate I am around home repair. My dad is so great at it. As a builder, John [a family friend] is amazing. I think I realized that I couldn't do anything without their help. That made me feel like a failure. Since this is our first house, I want to feel competent. I want you to trust that if something breaks, I can fix it without having to call my dad or some repairman."

Krista instantly held Jackson's hand tight in her own and, with tears in her eyes, smiled at her husband. "That makes so much sense," she said gently. "I had no idea that you felt this way. I am so sorry that you have been feeling like a failure."

This is the power of safety in action. Caring has the power to soften a closed heart. The key to put caring into action is compassion. This is exactly what Krista did for Jackson. King Solomon said it best: "Words from a wise man's mouth are gracious" (Ecclesiastes 10:12). Another word for "gracious" as it's used here is "compassionate." The verse could also read, "Words from a wise man's mouth are compassionate."

Certainly, compassion is an important first step to move from unhealthy conflict into intimacy. Just ask Jackson. Allow your spouse's pain that was caused by your argument drive you to a place of compassion. Make your first goal to alleviate their hurt and emotional pain. When we come together to talk about conflict, we can use compassion to help your spouse feel cared for. This instantly creates safety. A heart will open when it feels safe.

Compassion communicates that your spouse's heart matters to you. How do you express that you value your spouse's heart? The best way to communicate compassion is to follow Krista's lead – through a kind look, a gentle word, a soft touch or caring actions. Care and compassion break down the opposition and create two open hearts. And when you created the right atmosphere through emotional safety, you have unlocked the door of healthy conflict.

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Next Steps and Related Information

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