Dealing With Your Differences: Make it Safe to Connect

Close-up of faces of husband and wife standing back to back. He’s looking over his shoulder frowning, she looks neutral.

Differences can be part of what draws two people together, but the ways couples handle conflict are strongly related to how they will do in the future.

The Genesis phrase “naked and not ashamed” conveys the deepest desire of the heart: to be loved and accepted for who one is, warts and all. “Safe” refers to how you talk to one another and the emotional tone you cultivate when together.

One of the clearest findings in research on marriage is that the ways couples handle conflict are strongly related to how they will do in the future. Because conflicts are a common and expected part of relationships, many couples think that it’s their differences that cause the greatest problems in their marriage. Strong differences in backgrounds and viewpoints do make conflicts more likely. But more than 30 years of research tell us that success in marriage is about how partners handle the differences they have, and not just the nature of the differences they have. Differences can be part of what draws two people together and also part of what makes it difficult for them to get along once they are together. Some differences can be especially tricky to handle well. Whatever your differences, the part you have the most control over is how you keep your marriage emotionally safe.

In addition to the three keys, here are two ground rules that can help you enact the three keys when it comes to protecting your marriage from conflict.

Ground rule 1: When conflict is escalating, we will call a “time out” and either try to continue to talk more constructively or agree to talk later, after things have calmed down.

This one simple rule can protect relationships. Why? Because, as Solomon wrote, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11). Scripture clearly teaches that escalating and venting at one another are foolish and harmful. Furthermore, research on marital health, mental health and physiological health simply does not support the idea that “letting it all hang out” is healthy. In fact, careless venting is deadly for your relationship.

Ground rule 2: We will make time for the blessings of marriage: fun, friendship, physical connection and spiritual connection. We will agree to protect these times from conflict and the need to deal with issues.

You can’t be focusing on issues all the time and have a really happy and connected marriage. You need nurturing and safe times for relaxing — having fun, talking as friends, making love — times in which conflict and problems are always off-limits.

There are two points embedded in this ground rule. First, set aside time for these positive activities together. You have to do this very intentionally. For most couples, letting this slide means you will have fewer positive experiences in your marriage. Second, when you are alone together for the purpose of enjoying your relationship, agree never to use that time to bring up issues. And if an issue does come up, agree to table it for a later time. Schedule a special meeting to focus on an important issue later, but don’t let problems intrude on the times you’ve set aside to enjoy one another.

Excerpted from A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage by Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain and Milt Bryan, Copyright © 2014 by Christian PREP, Inc. Used with permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

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