So, the shelter-at-home order was fun for three or four days. Movies every night!
But the fun is over.
The pandemic with its shelter-at-home order is now dragging on, and you’re getting really tired of it.
Now, in the middle of the strains of economic insecurity, isolation from friends, rampaging children, blaring screens, mounting bills, and even tornadoes (at least in the South), you and your spouse have to learn how to get along 24/7. Who is this person at the other end of the couch?
Humans don’t always see things eye-to-eye. Conflict is going to happen. In fact, conflict can even be productive. It often helps us become better persons.
Being upset isn’t necessarily sinful. The Apostle Paul acknowledges that we are going to get angry at times (Ephesians 4:26). The problem with being upset occurs when we mishandle our conflict—when we lose control, yell, call names, seek to hurt others, and forget our convictions. Paul says, “Be angry, but don’t sin.”
Here are a few simple guidelines for dealing with marital conflict in such a way that we “sin not”—both during pandemics and during normal times.
When conflict arises …
1. De-escalate the situation
When we find ourselves or our mates angry or on the verge of a fight, one of the first things we should do is to de-escalate the situation. Do your part to create a calm and productive environment where the problem can be resolved and where feelings can be addressed.
The failure to de-escalate an emerging conflict is perhaps the single biggest mistake you can make in marital conflict, for as an argument escalates, we tend to lose control of ourselves, and we do reckless, stupid and even damaging things.
If the argument rises to the level of a real verbal fight, the best way to de-escalate may be to stop everything and go for a walk. I know that for some spouses this will feel like you abandoned them when they needed to make their statement, but if you reassure your spouse that you fully intend to return to the discussion, they may understand. Tell your spouse that a walk or drive will help you calm down so you can listen better. Help them understand that you are taking a break so you can better help them.
When you are ready to engage, here are some de-escalation strategies to be used any time during a conflict, but especially when temperatures start to rise.
- Listen first. When tensions rise, we typically want to explain, defend ourselves, or even attack back. A better first step is to listen to our spouse, and seek to understand their feelings. Listen hard; as the brother of Jesus says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
- Repeat back. Tell your spouse in a sympathetic way what you heard them say. By repeating back what your spouse has said, you let them know that you have heard them, that you want to understand them, and that you “love them deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). This is often half the game.
- Offer empathy. Even if you don’t agree with their position, your spouse’s feelings matter. Behind every argument there is always some feeling that you can empathize with if you’ll take the time to think about it—feelings of frustration, of being let down or betrayed, of insecurity, of a lack of control. Offer empathy for the feeling, even if you don’t think it is warranted. An unwillingness to affirm someone else’s feelings will leave you more separated from them. Empathy binds us together—it is a fundamental way for us to, as Jesus says, “become one” (Matthew 19:5).
2. Identify the motives behind your conflict.
Often when we argue, we have not thought through what is really motivating us. Typically, our arguments are driven more by feelings than by facts. Understanding these deeper feelings will help us address what really hurts.
For example, an argument about fixing a leaky faucet may not really be about the sink at all. It may really be about a feeling one spouse has that the other spouse is not sharing the workload—which feels like disrespect. An argument about money often has to do with feelings of being controlled (for one spouse) or losing control (for the other).
We may not realize that these feelings are the real motivation of a conflict. So, while we argue about a faucet, the truth is that fixing the leak may not solve the problem at all. It may only kick the problem down the road a few yards, where it will arise again—probably with even more fury—because the real problem is the feeling of being disrespected by the one who swore to love us.
So, when conflict arises, do this: seek to understand what is motivating you to fight, and seek to understand what is motivating your spouse.
What deep emotion is on display? What hurt from the past is speaking through this argument? What insecurity is motivating the argument? Knowing our motives will help us address the real problem. Knowing motives will help us find a healing, loving solution, rather than merely dueling over faucets and dollars.
When I understand that, in any given argument, my spouse may really be arguing from a deep place of pain, anxiety, loss, betrayal, failure, and the like, I am in a position to offer real grace. And this leads us to our third action step.
3. Offer extraordinary grace.
So, we now know that the issue at hand may be important, but it is probably only a touchpoint for some deeply felt pain or insecurity.
To get through the conflict, offer grace to both the issue at hand, which I’ll call the first order problem, and the emotion animating the conflict, which I’ll call the second order problem.
The first order problem is the concern at hand—the faucet, the checkbook, the screaming children, whatever.
There are many ways to address first order problems: forbearing one another, forgiving, compromising, apologizing, offering alternative solutions, and the like. It’s important that we seek some sort of solution where each person gets a win. It is equally important that we remember that cutting down your spouse, making your spouse feel worthless, venting your anger, bringing up your mother, etc., will not create a win. Deal with the question of how to fix the faucet. In any argument, try to figure out what would resolve the problem. How do we stop the faucet from leaking? Show grace by looking for a happy, winning solution.
The second order of problems has to do with the deep emotions behind many of our arguments.
As I said above, many arguments are animated by deep feelings of insecurity, of abandonment, of betrayal, of fear, anxiety, loneliness, and the like. When you face conflict, ask what deep feelings might be motivating your spouse. What insecurity is showing itself here? What fear? What previous hurts may be behind this conflict?
When we see the deeper emotions in a conflict, we are now in a place to offer extraordinary grace. We can show love to the insecurity we know our spouse has. We can express remorse over past wrongs that (whether rightly or wrongly) have developed into a mental pattern for our spouse. We can ask how we can help with past feelings of betrayal or present feelings of loneliness. We can offer forgiveness, empathy, and companionship.
Here, where the deep feelings lie, we can become like Christ—offering grace, mercy, hope, comfort, and peace. Here we can truly learn to love and honor our spouses, even when it’s hard.
You may not be great at fixing a faucet, balancing an account, or doing many of the things spouses do. But you can be great at loving a hurt, showing compassion to an insecurity, and honoring a feeling. You can show extraordinary grace in the second order of problems. And sometimes, showing grace to our spouse’s deepest hurts is all they needed in the first place.
It takes two persons to get along. Both you and your spouse have to be willing to practice the fruit of the Spirit. But, and this is very important, it only takes one person to love—you can love your spouse regardless of what they do. If you are asking how to have a better marriage, good for you. That’s a great question.
But here is one even better: “How can I be a Christ-like husband or wife regardless of what my spouse is doing?”
Learning how to handle conflict as Jesus would is the best answer.