In my pastoral experience, I have found that many engaged couples expect marriage to fix the problems that exist in their dating relationship.
Conflict will evaporate in the atmosphere of marital bliss, right? Wrong.
Marriage is not going to fix your problems. It will only make them worse.
Sorry to burst your bubble.
Now look, there will be problems in any and every relationship. No way around it.
But we can possess tools that can help us deal with it. Just getting married is not one of those tools.
If you are going to get married, expect the relationship to need ongoing maintenance.
Like an automobile, marriage needs maintenance in order for it to run effectively for years down the road. But if we don’t have the tools to deal with problems as they arise, then the marriage (like a car) will continue to experience more and more problems until it just breaks down and stalls out.
We need tools that will help us face the inevitable marital conflict.
Conflict over money. Conflict over the in-laws. Conflict over raising kids. Conflict over which way the toilet paper should face on the roll!
Anything can be fodder for an argument.
Let me briefly explain why this is and then give you practical solutions for resolving conflict in a way that can enable your marriage to be even stronger after the conflict than before the conflict.
The Bible addresses the human condition with stark honesty. It does not sugar coat the reality of the universal problem that a “sin nature” is hardwired into every man and woman on the planet.
This “sin nature” is the operating system from birth. Meaning, unless someone receives the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit to give new direction to one’s life (a new operating system that has the ability to override the old one), the “sin nature” will be the primary influence driving a person’s desires, emotions, thoughts, and actions.
Even if we can’t physically dissect this part of the human person, we can see the symptoms of its presence.
Probably the main way this “sin nature” is revealed is in the way it always wants to be right. It must be right and will defend itself to the death when accused of being wrong. This is why so much marital conflict is over who is right and who is wrong. If both of us demand to be right and refuse to give up any ground, a verbal war may ensue.
What are the only ways to end a war? There are not many options.
On one hand, one side wins by conquering the other. However, the cost in lives and infrastructure is often considerable. Yes, there is a winner, but there is also a great deal of destruction left in the wake of victory.
The same thing can happen in marital conflict. When both sides are determined to win, the combatants, like in war, will hurl artillery at the enemy. One side attacks on the offensive while the other fires back in self-defense. On and on goes the war, until the verbal damage is practically irreparable.
Sometimes, the furniture is irreparable, too.
So, on one hand, the two spouses can try to conquer.
On the other hand, another way the war can come to an end is through a cease-fire, when one of the two combatants is willing to lay down his or her weapons and stop defending and attacking.
But this plan of action sounds awfully risky. Even naive. If I put my weapons down, won’t I get crushed?
But just like it takes two to tango, it takes two to fight. If one side decides not to fight, the war slowly but surely will come to an end.
The critical question to ask is how someone is able to stop lobbing grenades? How can I be willing to not have to be right?
Here is the key.
We need to find out “right-ness” outside of ourselves.
Interestingly, this is the core message of the Bible, which acknowledges that we are sinners who demand to be right… but are not right. At least when we stand before the revealed standard of God, we are not in the right. We are in the wrong.
The message of the Bible is that the only one who has ever lived a “right” life was Jesus. Yet he is willing to take on all of my wrong. This is what the cross is about, where he serves the ultimate sentence for my offenses so that I can receive the record of his perfect right-ness as my own record.
Think of this as a grade exchange. I make an F. Jesus makes an A. On the cross, he invites me to trade my F for his A.
Repentance is my admitting my wrongness and sin. Faith is my receiving his rightness as my own. In the eyes of heaven, I am now completely “in the right.” But this rightness is not because of my actual rightness, but because of Jesus’s actual rightness that he has given to me as a new grade.
Each April, the winner of the Master’s Golf Championship in Augusta, Georgia is given a special green jacket worn only by the elite few who win the tournament. This “grade exchange” is like the winner of the Master’s Golf Championship giving me his green jacket to wear… as if I’d won it!
Did I win it? No. Did I earn it? No. Do I deserve it? Again, no.
Wearing the gift-rightness of Jesus, rather than boasting in my actual rightness, I get to boast in the green jacket, the perfect record of Jesus. If THAT is my record, then I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend.
I can be wrong.
I no longer have to fight.
Let me give you an example from my own marriage.
Our sink disposal was unable to process either broccoli stalks or eggshells. I come home after work and notice water standing in the sink.
It’s clogged again. Again!
This means that I had to pull everything out from under the sink (again), unscrew the pipes (again) so that the clog can be removed into the plastic bucket I used for this process (again).
As the clog began to drain out of the pipes I was surprised to see broccoli stalks. I had told my wife not to put broccoli stalks in the disposal!
I was shocked to see the eggshells.
I had made scrambled eggs for breakfast. I had put the shells in the disposal.
As I looked into the plastic blue bucket, I was struck by the fact that my wife and I both had contributed to the clog. That’s the way it usually is.
When there is a conflict, or a clog, in the marriage, it helps if I can look into the bucket and identify what I have contributed. Not what my spouse contributed but what I contributed.
It all stinks.
But when I can identity my junk, my wife has the opportunity to forgive me.
When my wife identifies her junk, I am able to forgive her, too.
This is the secret to resolving conflict. Repentance and forgiveness. Over and over again. It is like changing engine oil. It keeps the marriage running.
One of the most challenging pieces of advice I have received is the admonition to “suspect yourself.” This means that when there is a conflict, because of your sin nature, assume that you have contributed in some way to the clog — and maybe own the greatest contribution.
In conflict, be prepared to look in the bucket for what is causing the clog. Avoid pointing out your spouse’s contribution. Rather, focus on your own. Confess it. Own it.
I also want to encourage you to talk to your spouse about the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. It is important to know what you are doing when you change the oil together. You will need the same terminology and understand the process.
When there is danger of a riptide at the beach, the lifeguard will post a red flag to represent the danger. When I feel myself pushing back against an attack (usually some kind of criticism) and wanting to defend myself, watch out. As the antagonist of repentance and forgiveness, defensiveness is the enemy of resolving conflict and unclogging the drain.
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