“What’s that smell?” As soon as our dinner guest uttered those words, my husband, D.A., and I looked at each other dumbfounded, then moved toward the area where our guest was standing. The foul stench hit us simultaneously.
We followed the scent to the cupboard where we discreetly keep our trash can and with fear and trembling opened the door. Our nostrils were held hostage by the rank aroma of meat that had spoiled after one of our kids had tossed it in there. But none of the kids were willing to confess his or her guilt. Instead, they turned to blame shifting.
This story reminds me of the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” The word translated as corrupting was often used of spoiled food in Paul’s day. Words that stink shouldn’t be the norm for believers.
Yet, how many times during an argument with our spouse have we spewed harmful words that fouled the atmosphere of our homes? How often have we shifted the blame to defend ourselves and worked to protect our pride instead of humbling our hearts and admitting we were wrong?
At one time D.A. and I had a pattern of using harsh, angry words toward each other during times of conflict. We realized we needed a heart change. Resolving conflict in a positive manner isn’t as easy as simply deciding to speak gently and humbly. So we created a practical process of healthy conflict resolution:
It’s OK to walk away
When a discussion becomes heated, walking away is perfectly acceptable. D.A. and I intentionally compare our behavior to gorillas because we realize that in the thick jungle of conflict, often we rely more on our instincts than rational thinking — or the Holy Spirit. Calling a timeout sounds elementary, but it’s practical and allows us to calm down so we refrain from saying things that keep the sparks flying.
It took us a long time to realize that walking away was OK. Early in our marriage when one of us walked away, the other raised his or her voice even louder. Walking away without an explanation will lead to greater offense, but walking away with fair warning and for a set amount of time is helpful. When we acknowledge that a temporary departure doesn’t mean leaving the relationship, we can cool off, gather our thoughts and yield ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Although we’ve not done it perfectly every time, we employ this method consistently, which has led to fewer fights and more fruitful conversations.
Define the problem
When you reconvene, take time to identify the root cause of your disagreement. Sometimes you’ll immediately agree on what triggered the dispute. Other times you won’t agree at all. But both of you must be willing to hear the other person’s assessment so you can tackle the issues together.
When you have a history of failing to resolve conflict in your relationship, this step becomes complicated and lengthy. You first need to plow through the lingering wounds from the past. Although the process can be discouraging and exhausting, you must resolve these issues so they no longer distract you from healthy conflict resolution.
In our fifth year of marriage, we were at a crossroads. We both were resorting to harmful relationship tactics: passive-aggressive behaviors, name-calling, lies, insensitive comments, the use of profanity and threats of divorce. Either we would continue sweeping those issues under the rug, tripping over them every other month, or we would remove the rug, work together to clean up the mess and move forward together. By God’s grace, we chose the latter. Now in year 15, we can say that for the past decade we’ve been able to consistently and quickly define our root problems and reflect on where our hearts are in the process.
Examine your heart
Ask the Lord to highlight your blind spots. You might find it helpful to read and pray through Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” In addition, ask Him to prepare your heart to hear your spouse share the weaknesses he or she sees in your life. This step can be one of the hardest and most uncomfortable.
There was a time when I said something to intentionally hurt D.A. In the heat of the moment, my pride blinded me to the hurt I had caused, and I tried to justify my actions. Expressing how we feel is one thing. Deliberately trying to hurt the other person while expressing how we feel is another. Let’s not get it twisted.
Sin can cause you to do exactly what I did. Don’t let sin rule in your heart. Confess. Repent. Ask God to help you in those moments, and reflect on His Word to examine the ways He calls us to live. Hebrews 4:12-13 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Actively listen to your spouse
When both of you are demanding to be heard, neither of you is listening. Consider reading the following Scripture verses and asking God to help both of you become better listeners:
- Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
- Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
- James 1:19-20: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
One of the greatest obstacles we’ve overcome is focusing too much on nonverbal expressions or the tone of the other’s voice. During these tense moments, it helps to express that we need space to talk — space to be heard. Both of us are verbal processors and know that more feelings than facts will be voiced, so the key is to listen without scrutinizing.
When I share my heart, D.A. thanks me for entrusting to him what I’ve been wrestling with; then we carefully talk through the issue. And I do the same for him. In these moments, our goal is to filter our emotions and feelings through Scripture so we can discern truth. Doing this has provided us with ample opportunities to uncover our assumptions and errors and to focus on a path forward.
List your contributions and solutions
In most conflicts, both spouses have contributed something to the stated problem, so each must equally contribute to finding a solution rather than harping on the other person’s faults. Sometimes D.A. and I have found it helpful to jot down each of our contributions and solutions on a piece of paper; other times, we’ve been able to verbally navigate toward a solution.
One time we were in a heated argument over how we would make ends meet the following month. Our health insurance payments had jumped from $900 per month to $2,200 per week after we found out we were pregnant with our third child. We began to blame each other’s spending habits for the lack of cushion in our savings account — a cushion that could have bought us some breathing room for a couple of months.
After we settled down and prayed, we both admitted we had responded out of fear. We apologized to each other, asked forgiveness, extended grace and began to explore possible solutions: contacting our insurance company to look for more affordable options; speaking to my employer (a nonprofit) to see if the company could offer support; and, of course, praying and trusting God to provide. As things turned out, our insurance never lapsed, our son was born healthy and our dependence on God led us to a deeper level of oneness.
Conflict is not a bad thing. It forges communication. Some couples’ communication just needs a little touch-up here and there; others require an entire renovation. But that’s OK when you’ve arrived together at the understanding that things need to change. Stop doing what is hurtful and find mutual ways to be helpful. Most important, depend on the One whose strength exceeds your own, and watch Him work powerfully in each of your lives.