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.
Next in this series: Creating A Safe Marriage.