By Daniel Fleet
In 1 Samuel we read that David and Michal fell in love at a young age and were married. Difficult circumstances befell them and David made poor choices so that in the end David and Michal reached a point where they could not stand to be near each other. One narrative puts it this way: “And it came to pass, as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came to the city of David, that Michal the daughter of Saul looking out at a window saw king David dancing and playing: and she despised him in her heart (1 Chronicles 15:29, KJV).”
There is a point that jumps out from this story: People who were once madly in love with each other are capable of reaching a point in their relationship where they literally despise each other. How does this happen? The simple fact of the matter is the more intimate the relationship the more chance there is of deep and lasting conflict.
There is a principle known as the inevitability of conflict that suggests that the closer people become in a relationship the more likely conflict is to occur. Researchers Dudley Cahn and Ruth Abigail note, “The inevitability of conflict principle runs contrary to the idea that, if we look long and hard, we can find people with whom we can share conflict-free lives. It means that we should cease our efforts to find perfect people and learn how to manage the conflicts we are sure to have with those closest to us.” These social scientists are simply stating what God’s Word teaches us over and over again.
While conflict can be messy and hard to navigate there are several steps that couples can take to manage conflict in their lives in order to produce peaceful marriages that are pleasing to God, a testimony to the world, and mutually satisfying to both partners.
1. Live in light of a greater purpose
When a husband or wife understands that they belong to Jesus Christ it changes their outlook on life. This point can be easily lost on those of us who have been saved a long time. We need to be reminded that our marriage reflects the power of Christ in our life. Those who belong to Christ do not have perfect lives, but their life does have a grander purpose and a peaceful marriage is part of God’s plan.
Peaceful marriages and happy couples are important because they are a testimony to the lost world that Jesus makes a difference in one’s life. In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande notes, “Conflict also provides opportunities to encourage others to trust in Jesus Christ. When you are involved in a conflict, your opponent and various bystanders will be observing you closely. If you behave in a worldly way, you will give nonbelievers yet another excuse for mocking Christians and rejecting Christ. On the other hand, if you display God’s love and respond with unnatural humility, wisdom, and self-control, those who are watching you may wonder where you found the power to behave like that, which may open the door to introducing them to Christ.” Knowing Christ and living for Him is the greatest step to a happier marriage and managing marital conflict.
2. Treat your spouse with civility
When civility is present in a relationship positive conflict outcomes are more likely. Again, Cahn and Abigail write, “civility requires that we come into the presence of others with a sense of awe and gratitude, rather than a sense of duty and obligation.” Christ expects us to respect each other and interact with kindness on a constant basis.
While there are moments of disappointment or frustration in any marriage, respect and civility should always be present. Civility is constituted by an attitude of respect toward others manifested in our behavior toward them; that respect is not predicated on how we feel about them. Civility requires that we are mindful of others around us and aware of the impact our behavior has on them. Paul instructs husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 is to love and respect one another and treat each other with same kindness that Christ expresses to the church.
3. Make more deposits than withdrawals in the relationship
Often people evaluate their relationships based on the value they find in them and that value is assessed by cost and reward ratios. William Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs, introduces the idea of a “love bank” to illustrate this point inside of a marriage relationship: “Figuratively speaking, I believe each of us has a Love Bank. It contains many different accounts, one for each person we know. Each person either makes deposits or withdrawals whenever we interact with him or her. Pleasurable interactions cause deposits, and painful interactions cause withdrawals.”
Harley continues to propose that the account in a persons Love Bank fluctuates depending on the type of interactions he or she has with their partner. Simply put, sometimes there is a cost associated with the interaction and sometimes there is a reward associated with the interaction. It stands to reason then that each spouse in a marriage relationship should seek to add value to the other person in order to successfully navigate the complexities of conflict.
4. Work together as a team
Couples should realize that their marriage is bigger and better when the two of them work together as one unit. The Bible says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Furthermore, there is a principle in Ecclesiastes 4 that says that two are better than one. When a man and woman unite, not just psychically, but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally they are able to better manage conflict and become stronger as a result.
Listening is not an easy skill but it is one that can and should be learned by all married couples. Listening communicates to your spouse that you value them as a person and as you listen and pay attention to them they are able to open up their heart. Deeper intimacy and trust are the fruits of listening. When we listen we show the other person how much we value, love, and appreciate them.
Listening is not just hearing, but also paying attention to the other person. Emphatic listening means you listen, not only with your ears, but also with your eyes and with your heart. You sense and feel what your spouse is trying to communicate to you more than just the words they are speaking.
This is the kind of listening that builds intimacy between couples and helps them work through conflict in constructive and helpful ways. Mediation lawyer, Brigid Duffield, writes, “Often, we increase conflict by talking and restating our opinions. Stop and listen to what the other person is saying. What you thought you heard may not be what they said.” Listening allows for proper reflection and understanding during communication processes.
6. Never forget the power of prayer
We believe in prayer but too often we utilize our relationship with God as a last resort. God has the ability to change the hearts of people and often He is the only and best solution to conflict management in marriage. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men… that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty to all that call upon him in truth.”
While conflict is inevitable in marriage these simple steps can help all of us have happier homes and better marriages.