What’s the difference between a “fight” and a “disagreement?” Is an argument always a bad thing? How can my spouse and I turn conflict into a positive force in our marriage?
A disagreement is thoughtful, measured, and respectful, even when it involves the expression of negative emotions. Conflicts of this nature are inevitable in any relationship. “Fighting,” on the other hand, is abusive. It’s an attempt to resolve problems and negative feelings by resorting to insulting words or violent actions. It’s an unthinking retreat into behaviors that are not only unhealthy but dangerous and destructive to a marriage.
If you consistently attack your spouse with statements like, “I’m sorry I married you,” “You are so stupid,” or “I hate you,” you’ve moved from arguing to abusing. If you throw things at your spouse – pillows, silverware, pictures, vases – it only leads to more conflict and hurt. And you never hit, push, shove, kick, or spit at your spouse. This is physical abuse. Not only is it immoral and illegal, but it causes tremendous damage to your relationship. If this is the way you deal with conflict, you and your spouse need to seek counseling to learn appropriate methods of resolving a disagreement.
This means taking a proactive approach. Simply submerging your differences is not an “appropriate method” of dealing with the problem. Many couples try to sidestep or hide their conflict because disagreements can be painful. But conflict resolution, though it may sound complicated, is well within the reach of clear-thinking husbands and wives. It’s a skill that requires the commitment of both spouses and can be refined with dedication and practice.
If you want to resolve conflicts without fighting, make a determined effort to confront issues as they arise. The longer a disagreement stews, the bigger it becomes. So take action swiftly; as the Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26).
Once negotiations have been opened, be sure to communicate your concerns clearly and specifically. Don’t generalize and don’t use absolutes. When you’re vague, your spouse has to guess what’s on your mind.
Using words like “never” or “always” to describe your spouse’s undesired behavior are rarely accurate and tend to elicit a defensive response. Try saying something like, “It frustrates me when you don’t take the trash out on Mondays,” rather than, “You never do what you say you’re going to do.” In other words, be careful to attack the problem instead of the person.
In this connection, remember that it’s important to use “I” statements when sharing your feelings about the conflict – for example, “I feel hurt when you don’t follow through.” Avoid “you” statements like, “You’re so irresponsible.” Stick with the subject at hand and resist the temptation to support your argument by generalizing or following rabbit trails. Work hard to understand your partner’s point of view, and be sure to keep your discussion private – a public confrontation could humiliate your spouse and immediately place him or her on the defensive.
After the two of you have expressed your viewpoints and come to an understanding, share your needs and decide where to go from there. Be willing to confess and ask forgiveness from your spouse if it’s obvious that you’ve been in the wrong. And always bear in mind that maintaining the relationship is far more important than winning the argument. Finding a solution that benefits both spouses lets everybody win. Fighting isn’t healthy, but conflict isn’t always bad. In fact, when conflict is handled correctly, it can be a tool for strengthening relationships.
What if you just can’t seem to find that solution? That’s when it’s time to get some outside help. If you’re unable to get past a specific conflict, seek the help of a professional Christian counselor.
Excerpted from The Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright©2006, Focus on the Family.