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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Arguing Well in Your Marriage

Arguing Well in Your Marriage

Dr. Scott Stanley offers couples practical advice on establishing patterns of healthy conflict in their marriage.


John Fuller: This is “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and if you’d like to learn how to disagree with your spouse without being disagreeable, then invest the next few minutes to listen in, as we offer some trusted advice to help you improve your marital communication skills.

Jim Daly: John, I think every married couple, just about, okay–we gotta leave a little door, a little out there for those that may not–but I think just about every married couple is going to disagree from time to time. I mean, I think it’s even healthy for human beings to disagree. Sometimes folks will write us to say they’ve never had a disagreement in their marriage and we’ll talk to our guest (Laughing) about that in a minute.

But we need to talk about how to do it well, how to identify the fact that we’re gonna have differences of opinion and how, in this covenant marriage relationship, how do we go about resolving that conflict in a way that honors God and builds up the relationship; it doesn’t tear it down.

John: Well, Dr. Scott Stanley is here with us to help us understand this. He’s got practical advice based on research and his extensive counseling experience with couples. He’s a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Dr. Stanley has updated and revised one of his classic books. It’s called A Lasting Promise and it offers a wealth of information. We’re gonna get into a couple of chapters of it today, specifically those dealing with communication in marriage.


Jim: Well, let me welcome you, Dr. Stanley to “Focus on the Family.

Dr. Scott Stanley: Thank you very much. It’s really great to be back.

Jim: Okay, now it’s nice that you have a lot of letters behind your name, because that says you’ve studied it for a long time, but let me ask you this. How long have you and your wife been arguing well?

Scott: Boy, we’ve been married, we’ll be married 33 years in December. I don’t know, arguing well? At least half of those years. (Laughter)

Jim: Well, and that’s a good insight that you learned to do it and that’s a good place to start. Where do you realize, how did you realize that you needed help? I mean, you’re a Ph.D. (Laughter)

Scott: What happens is a lot of people enter marriage these days where they really expect a ridiculous level of agreement and perfection. And when, so Nancy and I, we’ll have our “dust-ups.” We’ve had some beauts over the years. I think the biggest ones are pretty far back there, but we sure had ’em.

And I think something that’s very damaging for people marrying these days is this idea that has this concept that we will be perfect for each other. We would never disagree. We would never have conflict and that expectation alone does a lot of damage.

Jim: What do you think again, with your research side of what you do, what’s driving that in culture today? Is it something that’s always been there going back 100 years, 200 years? Or is that a fairly new phenomenon, that we have these expectations of perfection?

Scott: It’s a new phenomenon. You know, people historically saw marriage as a lifelong agreement, a way to form a family and have a stable family for the children and to go through, you know, generations that way.

And over the last intensely, I’d say 60 years or so, we’ve moved to what some of the social scientists call a “companionate” model of marriage. You know, instead of a sense that we’re gonna get through no matter what and we’re gonna work together in life no matter what, that marriage is really about fulfillment, as opposed to stability and commitment for life and in the family.

And so, that shift is part of a general sense, I think of, I should be always happy in everything I do and if I’m not happy, I may be in the wrong place and I should look for something else.

Jim: Well, and of course, that all translates to the breakdown of marriage, which—

Scott: Absolutely.

Jim: –we’re seeing in every sector—Christian, non-Christian.

Scott: Yeah.

Jim: It seems to be infecting all of our thinking in this regard. Before we get into some of the practical advice that we talked about, I’m very intrigued by the social science and having you here today is really an honor for me. There’s a lot of research coming out right now—Robert Putnam being one and many others—who are expressing a bit of alarm at the quick disintegration of marriage. Paraphrase that for us. What’s really happening at Harvard and Yale and some of these research projects that are concerned now about marriage and the breakdown of marriage?

Scott: Here’s what’s happened that I think is fascinating. Fifteen years ago you would still have a substantial debate among social scientists about whether anything really bad was happening. Yeah, sure there’s change. You know, this idea of marriage has changed. The likelihood of marriage has changed. Divorce, of course, has been with us strongly for the last 40 years.

There’s been, I think, a sea change where people are widely recognizing now something actually did break. You know, somethin’ fell apart and what I see among some really important mainline social scientists is concerns that we’re at a level of chaos and fragmentation now at the low end in terms of income, that there’s also a great divide growing about the people that can have stable committed families and that’s working with marriage at the center and people that may never marry or that can’t make marriage work.

And the No. 1 thing that I think brings people together is, people are realizing, not everybody, but people are realizing that the children here, it’s not just that mom and dad don’t stay together or that they may never marry, but those relationships are also much more likely to break up. And then the children experience mom or dad, usually mom, going through several other partners.

And the children through all that are having one attachment after another broken. You know, another adult comes into their life, breaks. Another adult into their life breaks. And I think there’s been a real change where people are seeing somethin’s different and it’s not good.

Jim: Well, and I appreciate that overview, because I think here at Focus on the Family, it’s one of the things that we are trying to build into people’s lives, to make sure that A, they have a relationship with Christ and then, these key relationships with your spouse, with your children, that they are important to you. And something I’ve said, Scott that’s so critical is, we have to be a witness in this world right now. And we need to demonstrate a godly way of doing these things and that brings us to the topic that we’re talkin’ about.

Scott: Yeah.

Jim: How do you argue well, so that it doesn’t destroy your marriage and you can learn to love each other even when you have disagreement? There’s some studies [sic], recent studies that show that blowing that steam valve, if you want to call it that, you know, flashing, isn’t really healthy. Some people believe, well, get it out on the table and that’s a good thing, but that may not be a good thing.

Scott: It’s not only something that Scripture doesn’t support that as a great idea and the research doesn’t support that’s a great idea. So, people that really believe strongly that it’s important to get all their negative feelings out and just vent, they tend to themselves, have greater cardiovascular risks and other kinds of things, that it stirs up stress and tension. It’s clearly destructive in relationships. So, there’s a lot to be said for constructively making your point and getting important issues on the table. That’s important. That’s valuable, but just spewing and getting it out is destructive.

Jim: Scott, the technique that you’re talking about feels like it takes a lot of thought, a lot of work. It feels like almost going to a gym and workin’ out your muscles.

Scott: Yeah.

Jim: You know, you gotta exercise in order to do what you want to do—lose weight, build mass, whatever you’re tryin’ to do. It has that feeling to it and so often, we’re in the moment. We’re responding to our spouse out of our emotions and it sounds right to do it the way you’re doing it, but how do you actually grab those words before they release from your tongue (Chuckling), so they’re not creating the pain that you don’t really intend? I don’t think anybody sets out to wound or to harm. How do you create the mechanisms to say, okay, well, slow down. Slow down. Step back. Breathe deeply. That sounds like exercise.

Scott: Yeah, and I think it is exercise. There are some of these things that are fundamentally, if you’re gonna change within yourself, you need to be thinkin’ about it, prayin’ about it, because those things make you more aware of it. The earliest in these moments you can detect what’s just startin’ to go wrong for the two of you and the sooner one tries to really derail that and turn the direction is really important. And that I do think there’s no other explanation for the fact that, that takes some discipline. That really you have to be pushin’ yourself or how are you gonna get there?

John: Well, we’re talking about managing conflict well in your marriage on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller. Our guest is Dr. Scott Stanley and when you make a donation to support our ministry, we’ll send a copy of his book as our way of saying thank you. The book is A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. And of course, we also have a CD or a download of this program. You’ll find all of this at

Jim: Scott, let me ask you some of the dangersigns. Maybe we think, and I think for men particularly, we think things are rollin’ along; we’re doin’ pretty well. You know, everybody seems happy, but you talk about in your book some danger signs to look out for in marriage. Can you elaborate on that? What would be some of those danger signs?

Scott: So, one of them is the one we just talked about, the negative interpretation and that tendency to sort of have a quick negative view of your partner’s motivations. Another one and it’s a very common one, is just what we call “escalation.” Or what I talk about in the book now is climbing the crazy ladder. And most couples know about what this is like. Something little is said, some little thing. It catches somethin’ else, back and forth it goes.

And I liken it to a couple, they’re each racing up a ladder. And the issue, the thing about ladders and it’s really interesting related to escalation, is you can go up a ladder fast. Nobody goes down a ladder fas[t]; well, trained firemen, sure. They can come (Laughter) down a ladder fast.

Jim: You don’t come down fast on purpose.

Scott: We don’t come down fast on purpose. We can go up fast; we come down slow and once we’re up there, that ladder’s really unstable. You know, way up at the top is a lot less stable than near the bottom. And some people need to recognize that not only do they need to do this for their marriage, if they have children around, they really need to do this for children.

Children are very much affected by parents being on top of the crazy ladder. They’re not pleased with the high-wire act and there’s a lot of evidence in research that children are harmed by being exposed to chronic poorly handled conflict. So, people need to look for what hooks them best in terms of the motivation, but that’s a pretty powerful motivation to learn as a couple not to go up the ladder.

Jim: You said something; I gotta grab it–poorly managed chronic conflict, I mean, that’s critical I think for all of us as parents. Talk about the impact of children when they’re watching mom and dad fight in an uncontrolled way.

Scott: Well, children function best when there’s stability. They function best if there’s stability in the home, stability about the marriage in the most basic sense, but they also function best with emotional stability in the home and a sense of emotional safety.

Here’s the two most important people in my life [sic] and they seem right now to not like each other and they seem to being pretty nasty to each other. That has an unbelievable amount of a stress reaction in a child.

And what the research tends to show is, that the way that affects children is in one of two ways. They can either sort of turn more inward and become sort of more retiring and sort of dealing with it internally or they can start acting out more with some difference between boys and girls being more likely to be in one or the other. But they don’t have a way to process it and one of the things that happens is, a lot of couples sort of think, well, this is great. They’re seeing how real life is. They’re seeing how people really are.

No, it’s not so great. It’s not great to model stuff that isn’t healthy, isn’t a strong way to go, even if it’s common. There’s a lot of things that are common are not good. So, people need to motivate themselves to get that under control for both the sake of their marriage and their children.

Jim: Hm.

John: As you were talking about ladders, I was thinking, you really can’t go up a ladder side by side, so we each seem to have our own ladders going up in separate directions even.

Scott: Yes.

John: But I was struck by something else you said, Dr. Stanley and that was, you know, try to cut off the argument, the conflict at an early stage to kinda regroup. Dena and I process things very differently. I’m much slower to process in a verbal argument and so, she sees me kind of avoiding if I say, “I need a time-out here.” And I know that in the back of her mind she’s thinking, “Don’t let the sun go down on the anger. We gotta finish this tonight, right now.” So, how do we resolve that sense of we fight differently? We have conflict management skills that are different.

Scott: Well, I think one of the things you picked up on this point about some couples naturally just get off the ladder a lot faster and it’s worth thinking about how they do that. What the people that naturally do well do is, one will soften and then the other will respond to that person’s softening. So, one raises the concern, “I’m really anxious about Billy and how we’re gonna figure out what school he’s really gonna go to next year. We’re gonna have to decide this. Time’s moving on.”

And the other might react all defensively or say something, “You’re so controlling about it. I don’t really want to talk to you.” Where is that gonna go? And that’s going conflict.

If on the other hand either one of them decides to soften, so let’s say, the one does react negatively, but the other softens and says, “You know, I am really anxious about that. I am really concerned about that and I don’t want us to fight about it. We just need to talk about it. Let’s find out a good time and place to talk about it calmly.” That kind of softening, you know, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” And a gentle response really can have, not always, but a lot of times it can have a very powerful effect. But that does mean one sort of starting towards the gentleness before the other. That’s the way it works in two people.

John: So, I would do well then in that scenario to say, “You know, Dena, you realize that I’m a little slower on this stuff and I just need to have some emotional space. I really do want to solve this. I just can’t do it quite yet.”

Scott: That would be very powerful, especially if added with, “Can we pick a time like this weekend to talk, where I’m actually ready to talk with you about this?” ‘Cause otherwise, it is pretty easy. You know, one of the other danger signs that we talk about is withdraw and avoidance and this is really not a fun dance for couples and it’s a destructive one, where one tends to be more in the role of raising issues, pushing things; we gotta deal with this and the other shuts down, pulls away, pulls back. That’s a lousy dynamic, but it’s extremely common.

The one in the withdrawing role needs to recognize, if they’re gonna do that kind of strategy, which is, “I see you’re sayin’, you know, you’re sayin’ something really important. Can we find a time over here? Can we find a special place where we’re both ready to talk about that?” That’s highly skillful and it tells the partner concerned about the avoidance and withdrawal, “I’m not going to avoid you on this, but can we find together a better time?”

Jim: Scott, let me ask you this question, because the obvious flare points are there. I mean, every couple knows when they’ve had the whopper.

Scott: Yeah.

Jim: The question I’ve got for you is the little bickering that can go on.

Scott: Hm.

Jim: It seems like, you know, it’s a gentle fire. It seems manageable, but you’re saying look out, ’cause that can really take the strength out of the marriage. Elaborate on that, how we need to be mindful of the ongoing brushfire.

Scott: One of the things that’s interesting about the research in this area, a lot of which is based historically on videotaping couples and watching them carefully about what they do. When we think about escalation and this idea of the crazy ladder, you know, we think of really volatile, very expressive, loud sort of arguments. That’s really hardly ever what the researchers see in the lab.

They’re seeing much minor, more micro sort of levels of escalation, just what you said, sort of the little bickering, [a] little tension, little not recognition of my partner’s point and it’s sort of building with some tension. We call that escalation too, and that’s the level researchers actually measured it at, that is associated with struggling in marriage, an increased difficulty of a marriage really doing well in life.

Jim: What’s happening in that moment? Is it a breakdown of trust? Or what’s going on in the dynamic of the relationship that, that kind of smoldering bickering? What is it taking away from the healthy relationship?

Scott: I think one of the most profound things that’s happening when people are doing these negative patterns is, they’re eroding the sense that it’s safe to be with you and I mean emotional safety. And we can talk about physical safety. It can be linked to these things, but really just think about emotional safety.

People want most in their mate the person that they can most be themselves around and be completely accepted. Now it’s kinda hard to completely accept everything about another person, ’cause we’redifferent people.But people are lookin’ for Genesis 2, the end of the chapter, being naked and unafraid or naked and unashamed. That culmination of that description that’s in several places in Scripture about Adam and Eve is really what people want deeply in their heart.

So, when we have the chronic bickering, unresolved things, that’s creating a lot of motivation and energy to keep the fig leaves up and maybe even build fig leaf parkas. It’s just (Laughter) not gonna be warm with you. It’s not safe with you. So, it amounts to motivating or we’re chronically motivated then to be protective rather than connective.

Jim: Let me ask you this, Scott. When you look at gender, too and I know in academic circles this can be really volatile, but talk about how gender plays into this. Men tend to isolate. They tend to be loners. We’re all men here at this table. I think a woman’s voice would be saying, “I’m trying to help my husband see these things.” The husband’s saying, “She’s nagging me.”

Scott: Uh-hm.

Jim: This can be a common dynamic. Talk about that gender dynamic as best as you can.

Scott: I believe several things about the gender dynamic. Just like you said, maybe it’s two to one, three to one, whatever, when you find a couple where they have this pattern of one pursuing and one withdrawing, it’ll be more often that the male is in the pursuing role than the female. But if it’s two or three to one, that also means there’s a ton of marriages where it’s the other way around.

And one research team, Andy Christiansen’s team at UCLA has found that it kinda depends on who’s raising the topic. You know, so the (Laughter) person, if you don’t want change on a particular issue, you’re not gonna be raisin’ it.

Jim: Right.

Scott: So–

Jim: It’s a quiet thing.

Scott: –that’s right. Hey, this is good. I want to leave it alone. So, sometimes, in fact, they think sometimes it looks like the females are more often in that pursuing role with the male withdrawing, well, because females more often are sort of monitoring the whole family environment and want something to change. They’re trying to get their husband’s attention.

And then what I do is, I acknowledge that there’s something going on with gender there and then I say, look; whatever side of this dance you’re on, here’s the most important thing I think you need to realize and I’m gonna go back to where we started about negative interpretations.

A lot of times the withdrawer is thinking the pursuer wants to control them, hassle them, change. They’re making a negative interpretation. And the pursuer’s thinkin’, I want to do what’s best for the family here. I want to address something and I want to make a decision.

And a lot of times, the pursuer thinks the withdrawer doesn’t care, isn’t interested. They’re going into their cave ’cause they’re really just sort of barely in this marriage. And I think a lot of times the person goin’ into withdrawal mode is really just trying not to fight, but they don’t see a way to have this conversation that isn’t gonna be a fight, so they’re pulling away.

It would hardly hurt any couple to make the more generous interpretation on either end of that dance with why the other’s doing what the other’s doing, that they want something good to change or they want to talk about something important and they don’t want to fight. Those are great motivations. Think that way and then find a way to get her to talk.

Jim: It does occur to me, why are we so irrational as human beings? Those things we want, we tend to act in ways that prevent us from arriving there.

Scott: Yes.

Jim: If we, especially in the Christian community, if we want a better relationship, we want a better marriage, we can still act in ways that tear down our spouse. It’s like we’re not applying the book of Proverbs. Why is there this dissonance between what we know to do and the fact that we don’t do it? And apply that to our spiritual walk.

Scott: I think there’s a part of the difference there is, we react so quickly in terms of the emotional system. So, the part of our mind, you know, that’s gonna think about what’s best here, what’s a good plan, what part responds a moment later or slower than the part that’s all geared up emotionally and ready to rock and roll.

And so, there’s a natural defensiveness, even “brain-wise,” it’s like there’s a big difference here between what the amygdala’s doin’ and then what the frontal lobe’s doin’. The amygdala’s more that immediate reaction to protect. It’s the fight or flight sort of response. And the frontal lobe’s more “planful.”

But I also think and this, you mentioned the spiritual thing. We would be naïve as believers or a[s] unbelievers, but I think we’re speaking especially to believers right now, to think that our own sin and selfishness wasn’t on the table in these dynamics.

You know, James, you know, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” Well, it’s our selfish desires. We want, but we don’t get. You know, we’re striving to get our way. We are also inherently somewhat selfish and somewhat self-protective. And you can’t really be dealing with all these levels in the most effective way if you’re just thinking skills. The most effective thing would be, to be dealing with your heart and how can I love my mate better? How can I serve my mate in love?

Jim: Scott, as a researcher, let me ask this question, because again, I think many of us on the cultural level, are concerned about the institution of marriage. But when we look at it again, from a Christian perspective, what do we need to do to really walk it better? I mean, if you could say three things to me as a brother in Christ, Jim, here’s the thing I would tell you. Here’s the advice I would give you for your own marriage, what would you say to me?

Scott: Let me try answering that on three levels. One is, sort of the most self-interested level and you could even call it the selfish level. How your marriage goes is easily arguably the most fundamental thing that’s gonna govern how so many other things go in your life, whether things turn out well or not.

So, on that level, it’s really worth investing and thinking about what you can do from your end, what you can do to do your part to make it safe to connect, to change patterns, to show more commitment, so that’s one answer.

On another level, and this is more to the church, I think churches could do a lot more to see that there’s a fundamental role of marriage in all of theology and all of Christianity and if we took that more seriously, there’d be a lot more attention and thought to how marriages are going in the congregation. And I know these are lightning-rod issues for pastors now and in a zillion ways, but how could they do more effective ways to reach out to young couples that aren’t even involved in church, to reach out to the married couples or non-married couples that are in the church and help them, start to help them build their relationship, strengthen their relationship? So, I think this is a very important role for marriage ministry.

And then the last one and this one is for the really seriously deeply believing, passionate Christian, this is a very sobering powerful motivation. Christ in His high-priestly prayer in John 17 and before, you know, the night before He died, one of the things He prays for, is He prays for us; He’s prayin’ for the church; He’s praying for the apostles; He’s praying for who comes after Him and He says, “I pray that they may all be one, as We are one.”

And He says something interesting and I’m blanking on the exact phrase at the moment, but everybody can find this passage. He says, “So that the world will know that You sent Me.” So, if you want to hook the importance of your marriage to the biggest thing that we’re called to in life, which is why we’re here in terms of sharing the Gospel and being light to other people.

Christ is saying, My reputation in the world is hinged on you folks being able to show oneness. That starts in the marriage. That’s in our congregations. That’s in how we treat people in communities, who we can find overlapping interests with. That’s really powerful stuff.

And all of what we’re really talking about here, when we talk about these negative patterns, it’s stuff that shows either the fraying of the oneness or stuff that’s destroying or damaging the oneness. The oneness is the part that matters. It’s what people really want and that’s that naked and unafraid, that naked and unashamed part. We want that, but we have to work for that. And Christ is saying, by the way, your ability to demonstrate that to others is part of why you’re here.

Jim: Oh, I like that. I like that, because it gives us purpose in why we need to work out and exercise when it comes to our marriages, to think before we speak, to be Christ-like in our very closest relationship. That’s with our spouse and with our children. Dr. Scott Stanley, author of the book, A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage, thanks for bein’ with us today.

Scott: Thank you very much.


John: You can fine tune the communication aspects of your marriage through Scott’s revised edition of A Lasting Promise, which is updates, has some new chapters about friendship in marriage and how technology impacts your relationship and you can get a copy when you call 800-232-6459.

And when you make a donation to support our ongoing outreach here at Focus on the Family, you’ll have the assurance that you’re on the front line with us, helping marriages that are in need of a tune up and helping those that are desperate, in need of some help. We have a counseling team here. We’ve the National Institute of Marriage, a variety of resources, all designed to strengthen marriages, but we need your prayerful financial partnership to continue the good work. So, please make a generous donation today and when you do, we’ll send a copy of A Lasting Promise to you as our way of saying thanks for joining the support team. Donate at or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.

Our program today was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We’ll wrap up the week by helping you learn to encourage your child to share their faith at school, as we once again, help your family thrive.

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