When I counsel couples preparing for marriage and detect a pattern of conflict, I get concerned. This concern is not because I do not expect there to be arguments in marriage. Not at all.
My concern is that the couple may be going into marriage with a mindset that marriage will fix their problems. Conflict will evaporate in the atmosphere of marital bliss, right? Wrong.
If we think that marriage will fix our pre-marriage problems, then we are setting ourselves up for marriage to exacerbate the problems.
When two sinners say, “I do,” there is going to be conflict.
Like an automobile, marriage is going to need 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 will not run at all.
We are going to need tools that will help us face the inevitable marital conflict.
Like I said, when two sinners say, “I do,” there is going to be 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 of the “natural man.” 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 dominate and drive a person’s 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 much marital conflict is over who is right and who is wrong. If both 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 country 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 unrepairable. Sometimes, the furniture is unrepairable, too.
So, on one hand, the two spouses can fight to the death.
On the other hand, the 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.
I think we can admit that this plan of action sounds awfully risky. 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.
I need to find my “right-ness” outside of myself.
Interestingly, this is the core message of the Bible, which acknowledges that, at the core, we are sinners who demand to be right, but are not right. At least when we stand before the revealed law 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 life perfectly in the right, Jesus, is willing to take on all of the wrong caused by my “sin nature.” In fact, he serves the ultimate sentence of death for my offenses against the law so that I can receive the record of his perfect rightness 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, or righteousness. Before heaven, I am now completely “in the right.” But this rightness is not because of my actual rightness, but because of Jesus’ actual rightness that he has given to me as a new grade.
The winner of the Master’s Golf Championship in Augusta, Georgia is given a special green jacket that only the elite who win the tournament are allowed to wear. This “grade exchange” is like the winner of the Master’s Golf Championship giving me his green jacket to keep and wear… as if I’d won it!
Did I win it. No. Did I earn it. No. Do I deserve it. No.
Now, rather than boasting in my actual rightness, I get to boast in the green jacket, the perfect record, the “rightness” of Jesus. If THAT is my new record, then I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend.
I can be wrong.
I can be wrong and not fight back against attacks because my ultimate rightness has been secured by Jesus for me.
This is based on the fact that I was in conflict with God because of my sin. I rejected his wisdom, will and ways.
The way of reconciliation is through my repentance being met with God’s forgiveness.
This is also how reconciliation works in any relationship – even in marriage.
Consider a scene from the Old West. An Indian chief meets an officer from the Calvary on the top of a hill. In an effort to cease the conflict, the chief takes a hatchet and symbolically buried is deep in the earth. What is he saying?
I will never bring this up against you again. I have buried it as though it is dead.
This is how God forgives us.
This is how we are to forgive each other.
Is this easy. No way.
But it is the only way to resolve conflict in such a way that will bring reconciliation and renewal to the marriage and will make it stronger after the conflict than before the conflict.
Let me give you an example from my own marriage.
Our sink disposal was unable to process either broccoli stalks or egg shells. 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 egg shells.
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 had both contributed to the clog. That’s the way is usually is.
When there is a conflict, or a clog, in the marriage, it will help if we can look into the bucket and identity what we have contributed.
It all stinks.
But when I can identity my junk, my wife has the opportunity to forgive me. To bury it like a hatchet.
When my wife identifies her junk, I am able to forgive her, too.
When I know that I am forgiven, I can forgive.
When I know that my righteousness is a gift that I have received and not earned, I can admit when I’m wrong and repent.
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.
Will you join me in being prepared to suspect yourself?
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 – burying the hatchet. 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 rip tide 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. Defensiveness is the enemy of conflict resolution. It is the antagonist of repentance and forgiveness.
I suggest reading this chapter out loud together. Maybe you could take turns reading paragraphs so that one is not lecturing the other, but both investing in the process of resolving conflict in a way that will make the marriage stronger.
Think deeply here. What is it that keep the engaged couple together? Often it is when the relationship goes sexual that the couple has increasing problems. This is interesting, as many couples think that sex sustains a marriage, when just the opposite is true. History and experience proves that sex has never sustained or saved a marriage.