To Argue or Not to Argue: Conflict Resolution from Safe to Dangerous

conflict-resolutionThe first question in every conflict is whether it is worth addressing. Many unnecessary fights are engaged and many beneficial conversations are avoided in every marriage. The first part of wisdom is not knowing what to say, but discerning whether to speak. This is a discernment issue. If you have a “general policy” for what you do, then you are likely imposing your preferences on your marriage rather than applying biblical wisdom.

“Honest communication doesn’t mean saying the first thing that comes to mind. The goal is always to speak the truth in love with the purpose of building up the other (p. 121).” Winston Smith in Marriage Matters

Consider the following modes of interaction advocated by Scripture. All are “legitimate” responses to some conflicts or disappointments, because they are biblical. The responses are listed in a progressive order – the early ones for milder concerns and latter for severe concerns. After describing each response, we will provide some guidance on when each response is appropriate. While the order is progressive, not all conflicts will pass through each step.

1. Give Grace / Overlook

(Matthew 7:1-2 and Proverbs 19:11) If we addressed everything we didn’t like we would become negative, perfectionists who held our preferences and standards to be the will of God for our spouse. Giving grace is a primary way that we show that we value our marriage more than our preferences. This is what allows a home to be a warm place where both people feel safe to be themselves and make mistakes. This “atmosphere of grace” should be a trademark of a gospel-centered marriage that lays a foundation of trust for the remaining responses to our differences.

“Trust doesn’t demand perfection. Trust demands humility (p. 141).” Paul Tripp in What Did You Expect?

What kind of issues fall under the category of “give grace and overlook”?

  • Issues that are not immoral (these are usually matters of personal preference).
  • Issues that are not a habitual disregard for your stated preferences (the issue is dishonor rather than the action).
  • Things that should come up in day-to-day communication (if you’re implementing chapter three).
  • Subjects that will result in bitterness or grumbling on your part if you remain silent.
  • Subjects of lesser importance than areas of requested growth and change in the life of your spouse.

2. Confess as You Address

(Matthew 7:3-5) Many things will and should pass through the first filter (even things that are not wrong). But the first filter, when properly applied, changes our attitude at this second level of concerns. We become more humble and patient when we ask good questions. The key principle in this arena of conflict is to model the response to your sin that you desire from your spouse; model the response to your spouse’s preferences that you want for your own. When we neglect this principle, we begin to focus most on what we can control least; which is a recipe to exacerbate anger, anxiety, or despair.

“In marriage you are not trusting that your spouse will be perfect, but you are trusting him to be willing to deal with his failures with honesty, humility, and the commitment to change (p. 156-157).” Paul Tripp in What Did You Expect?

What kind of issues fall under the category of “confess as you address”?

  • Issues that are moral, but which were not vindictive in motive.
  • Issues where stated preferences are being habitually disregarded.
  • Subjects which are not likely to come up in day-to-day communication.
  • Subjects which will negatively impact your spouse’s other relationships (i.e., children, friends, work, etc…).

3. Seek Counsel

(Proverbs 11:14 and Galatians 6:2) Sometimes you will “confess as you address” and still not arrive at a workable solution. This is normal. Just as no person is good at everything, no couple will resolve every challenge on their own. When couples skip this stage in the progression and go directly to confrontation (which when prematurely applied is more likely accusation) conflict becomes intense. The humility initially expressed in “confess as you address” should continue as the couple reaches out to trusted advisors (i.e., small group leaders, mentors, pastors, or counselor) to seek guidance on issues for which they cannot reach agreement or find a solution.

What kind of issues fall under the category of “seek counsel”?

  • Subjects that the couple cannot agree on whether they are moral or preference issues.
  • Subjects where the couple cannot find a mutually satisfying agreement.
  • Subjects where the couple disagrees on key aspects of the conflict.
  • Subjects where an objective perspective or specialized training would prove beneficial.

4. Confront and Call to Change

(Colossians 3:16) If “confess as you address” is ineffective and “seek counsel” is not embraced, then it is appropriate to “confront and call to change” for significant offenses. The issues that fit in this category and beyond should all be moral offenses; not merely violations of preference. In order for these confrontations to be effective, your tone must remain respectful and controlled (II Tim. 2:24-25). If not, then what you are saying will get lost in how you are saying it. Your spouse should not be surprised by what you are saying, or else you have neglected the prior stages of conflict. This confrontation should follow the basic pattern, “I believe [blank] is sinful, damaging to our marriage, and your relationship with God. I am asking out of respect for our marriage that you give this concern the attention it deserves.”

What kind of issues fall under the category of “confront and call to change”?

  • Moral issues which your spouse neglects after multiple “confess as you address” interactions.
  • Subjects which are significant enough to damage the marriage, other relationships, or your spouse’s reputation.
  • Subject where, if you were able to “seek counsel,” that there was consensus on the need for change.

5. Be Longsuffering

(Romans 12:14-21) You should not race through these stages of conflict. There is definitely no “prize” at the end. When we can do so without placing ourselves, children, or spouse in jeopardy we should try to allow “our kindness to bring our spouse to repentance (Rom 2:4)” after a confrontation and call for change. That is the preferred approach to influencing a hard-hearted spouse in Scripture (I Pet. 3:1-6, in this context of patience this passage can be applied from husbands to wives without the connotation of submission). Being longsuffering is not condoning the offensive behavior, but choosing to allow God to be the agent of conviction after confrontation was not received.

What kind of issues fall under the category of “be longsuffering”?

  • Neglected personal preferences which do warrant private confrontation but not collective confrontation.
  • Moral offenses which do not put the family in physical or financial jeopardy.
  • Areas of weakness (i.e., skill, self-awareness, memory, etc…) in your spouse which are hurtful to you.

6. Confront and Involve Others

(Matthew 18:16) If things reach this stage in the confrontation process, then the “others” involved would be spiritual authorities over your marriage (i.e., small group leader, elders, or pastors). If you are not a part of a church, then this phase would likely be called an “intervention.” There are significant social ramifications for this style of confrontation, so the risk of not confronting needs to outweigh the risk of confronting. When getting ready to make this level of confrontation, the confronting spouse should be receiving personal counsel and guidance.

What kind of issues fall under the category of “confront and involve others”?

  • Offenses which are lifestyle in nature (i.e., addiction, adultery, abuse, chronic neglect, deceit, etc…).
  • Offenses which if unaddressed are likely to destroy the marriage.
  • Offenses detailed in the “red flags in conflict” section of the evaluation at the front of this chapter.
  • Offenses for which you would bear legal liability if you did not report and involve others.

7. Distance Yourself for Safety

(Matthew 7:6, 18:17 and Romans 13:1-7) Each of these passages come to the advisement of creating distance after a process of seeking to be reconciled by various means. Distance is never recommended as a threat to coerce change; that either produces short-term change or an escalation of conflict and only makes the unhealthy situation more destructive. However, guilt over believing this phase is “biblically off limits” often leads to the gamesmanship of avoiding a separation for safety, church discipline, and legal reporting. Again, if you are at this stage, you should be involving a pastor or counselor with experience in the challenge facing your marriage.

What kind of issues fall under the category of “distance yourself for safety”?

  • Any form or threat of physical violence or forced sexual activity towards yourself or the children.
  • Threats to harm him/herself if you do not acquiesce to your spouse’s demands.
  • Unwillingness to end an adulterous relationship.
  • Chronic neglect or abuse (more resources available at www.bradhambrick.com/selfcenteredspouse).

This material was taken from the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.