As a human, you enter into a marriage in hopes of getting your own needs met. As your Creator who is interested in helping you thrive, God guides you into relationships with other humans in order to mature you. These are two very different agendas. The first agenda is focused on avoiding conflicts and problems as much as possible. The second agenda sees conflicts and problems as fabulous tools for motivating maturity. In other words, God has no intention of giving you a problem free marriage. Since God’s agenda is going to trump yours in the end, the sooner you realize that God is all about maturing you as His little creature, the sooner you’ll be able to try to align with God’s agenda for your life.
So how do you align with God’s agenda for you? This comes down to a matter of choosing to pursue the same longterm goals that God has chosen for you. It really irks us humans to no end that God is the One choosing our goals for us. If we’re honest, the whole “maturity” package doesn’t sound very appealing at first. But the good news is that aligning with God has a way of changing your perspective until you actually start liking the goals He has chosen for you. In other words, you go from loathing the idea of maturing to getting downright excited about it. Once you see maturity as a good thing, you start seeing conflicts as the valuable growth opportunities that they are. You also realize that whether your marriage succeeds or fails isn’t the most important issue. What matters most is you embracing the priorities that God has chosen for you, especially that of pursuing personal maturity.
Responding to Conflicts
When conflicts arise in your marriage (which they will), how should you respond? Should you immediately rush off to see a marriage counselor? Not necessarily. A good marriage counselor can be very helpful, but good marriage counselors teach you and your spouse how to resolve your conflicts without a third party playing referee. God can teach you those same skills directly. Again, there’s nothing wrong with getting help from a third party, but it’s important to understand that the higher goal is to learn how to resolve these things between you and your spouse in the moment.
Since God is the ultimate Counselor, He is the One you should be turning to straight away whenever conflicts arise between you and your spouse. It’s best to talk to God when you are alone so that you can focus on listening to what He has to say. The second key is to focus on understanding instead of blame.
Humans always have logical reasons for what they do. When we’re mad, we often don’t care what our spouse’s reasons are, we just default to flinging hurtful, vague insults like jerk, selfish and nag. The challenge of marriage is that you can’t just unfriend the person who is aggravating you with a simple click. With your spouse in your face day in and day out, it is in everyone’s best interests to try to resolve problems at their cores. Here is where you need help trying to figure out why everyone has their claws out all of a sudden.
Your spouse is as self-absorbed as you are. Understanding this principle is extremely helpful in resolving conflict, because it means that most of what your spouse does is based on them reacting to stuff that is happening inside of them. When Brian yells at his wife for not washing his favorite shirt, he sounds like a big jerk. After all, she did all of the other wash, and she honestly forgot that he asked her to wash that one item. So why can’t he just be gracious, accept her apology, and move on? Because while Brian is focusing his anger at his wife, that anger is being fueled by things that have nothing to do with his wife. Brian is a police detective who has hit a wall with the murder investigation he’s working on. The grisly details of the case deeply disturb him, but he’s afraid of being looked down on by his boss if he admits how upset he is. Now that every lead has turned into a dead end, he feels extremely frustrated. The murderer is out there, roaming free, probably preparing to strike again and there’s not a darn thing Brian can do about it. The lack of control is really stressing him out. When his specific request for one shirt to be washed gets ignored, Brian sees it as a symbol that he has no control at home, either. He feels powerless and afraid in all of the major areas of his life, yet he also feels like he’s also being held personally responsible for the atrocious acts of a maniac on the loose. All of that is what Brian is really upset about–not the fact that his shirt is dirty. His wife is really being blasted with a backlog of stress that has nothing to do with her.
Now in these situations, the automatic instinct is to take your spouse’s words at face value and dish back the same level of aggression. Julie could raise her voice as well and remind Brian of all of the laundry he doesn’t do. This kind of response will just drag the conflict out. The better response would be to understand this vital marriage principle: in most marital conflicts, the presenting problem is not the actual problem.
Brian is flipping out about a shirt, but a shirt is not what he’s really upset about. If Julie understands the principle I just described, she can say to herself, “Hold on a second. He is really overreacting. This probably isn’t about the shirt at all. Something else is probably bothering him.” She can then try to help Brian get in touch with what is really bothering him by using a calm and caring tone to ask, “Honey, I’m sorry about the shirt, but it seems to me you are very upset. Is there something else going on that you want to talk about?”
Responding to your spouse’s aggression with calm and caring is not easy to do, but it’s far more profitable in the long run. By helping your spouse focus on root causes, you help everyone resolve the problem more quickly. Brian needs to vent his build up of stress from the gruesome case he’s working on. He can’t talk at work, so he needs to talk at home. He can’t just keep bottling up his feelings without making himself ill. By not responding with aggression, and by using a calm and compassionate tone, Julie makes herself a safe person to vent to. After a good venting session of all of his worries, Brian will probably apologize for blowing up over the shirt. He’ll also probably see how unreasonable his reaction was. But he won’t see any of that if Julie instantly engages and matches his level of aggression.
Now the dynamic I just described needs to work both ways, with both spouses helping each other see past surface triggers and talk about underlying causes. But even if your spouse doesn’t have the ability to do this yet, you will still help the marriage if you do it. Effective conflict resolution techniques are such a relief to all concerned that spouses will often try to learn how to use them once they experience how well they work.
Humans are complex beings, and too often in marriage the focus is on keeping everything running smoothly on the surface without making room for people to have a ton of personal baggage. And yet in real life, we are all lugging around fears, needs, and insecurities which are constantly shaping our behavior, expectations and responses. As your intimate partner, your spouse should be treated like your best friend, with you focusing not just on what they can do for you, but also on how you can help them continue to make progress in their own personal development.
When spouses are focused on helping each other grow in life, conflicts become viewed as important indications that someone is hitting a personal crisis with his or her own baggage and could use some help working through those issues. In the case of Brian and Julie, Julie has a chance to help Brian deal with his personal fears and stresses. If Julie really loves Brian, she will want to help him deal with his problems not just so he’ll stop sniping at her, but because real love sincerely cares about the well-being of its target.
This post was written in response to a request.
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