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Learning Healthy Conflict Management

When handled well, conflicts open a deeper connection. “When trouble comes your way, consider it an opportunity.”

Conflicts happen in every marriage, but smart couples turn those struggles to grow and find greater joy. In a thriving marriage, couples recognise this reality and strive to learn how to handle conflict. Healthy couples deal with issues right away, speak respectfully even when they disagree, and show compassion in conflict. They are willing to talk about difficult topics, try to understand each other's point of view, and forgive each other after a disagreement.

These principles have huge practical implications for the day-to-day functioning of your marriage in at least four distinct areas: expectations, respect, teamwork and mutual understanding.

How do you foster and promote this kind of dialogue and interaction in a marriage? Here are some ideas to keep in mind.

1. Expect rough spots
Strong, healthy marriages are based on realistic expectations. In contrast to many modern-day couples, truly thriving couples accept conflict as one of the basic ground rules of marriage. Why? Because no matter how similar you and your mate may be in terms of basic interests, values and personalities, you're still two unique individuals. You come from different backgrounds, operate on the basis of different assumptions, and see the world through two distinct sets of eyes. If that aren’t enough, you also stand on opposite sides of the most fundamental of all human divides: one of you is male and the other is female! If you're honest, you know that all these are going to lead to disagreements from time to time.

The trick here is to recognise that differences aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Contrary to a lot of popular wisdom, differences do not mean that you and your spouse are mismatched or that your marriage is destined to fail. The bumping and grating of your differences can refine your relationship and cause you to grow. This means it's possible to view conflict as a positive sign of life and hope. After all, “the course of true love never did run smooth” (Shakespeare) but then, “love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking at the same direction” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). As you meander the choppy course of your marriage, remember you are sailing in the same direction. Being with each other in this journey will reveal your differences but you’re in it together and will need to rely on each other to navigate the swells and the troughs.

2. Fight fair
"Fighting fair" is all about maintaining respect. It's a matter of cultivating honesty while learning what it means to stay in love in the midst of conflict. It's a question of valuing each other enough to settle differences through negotiation rather than guerilla warfare.

On a deeper level, fighting fair is about keeping the main thing and learning to communicate effectively. Let love be the basis of all your communication. If your spouse knows that you speak out of love, there will be less hostility and more readiness to hear you out.

Respectful husbands and wives don't call each other names, make false accusations, or dredge up irrelevant incidents from the past. Instead, they practise what the staff at Focus on the Family's National Institute Of Marriage call "Heart Talk." There are basically three steps to "Heart Talk”: 1) Getting in touch with your own feelings; 2) Expressing those feelings in precise language; and 3) Listening carefully to what the other person has to say.

"Heart Talk" and fighting fair are crucial to the health of your marriage. If you don't know how to reconcile conflicts through negotiation, combat will take over and ultimately ruin your relationship. If spouses argue without ever resolving their issues or consistently avoid conflict altogether, their marriage is at risk of divorce. And if you keep on biting and devouring each other, you will end up destroying each other.

3. Work as a team
The secret to success lies in the way you handle conflicts. Thriving couples know that the way they respond to their differences is far more important than how they resolve them. They understand that in marriage, it's the process that counts – the journey is more important than the destination.

This implies teamwork. Healthy conflict can actually become a pathway to deeper intimacy in your marriage. That's because conflict is a perfect learning situation. When you approach problems and areas of contention as a team, with each partner striving to understand how the other processes conflict, it's like a bulb lighting up at the heart of your relationship. Even when you disagree, you and your spouse can make generous allowances for each other and be quick to express grace and forgiveness.

As a team, when one of you hurts, both of you hurt. That's why it's so important to keep short accounts and make every effort to deal with disagreements immediately. Aim to settle your issues before the sun goes down so that you’ll have a good night’s sleep.

4. No losers
Healthy husbands and wives understand that no matter what happens, they're always on the same team. They turn conflict to their advantage by working together toward a win-win situation. They do this by letting go of the idea of getting their own way. They re-define "winning" as "finding and implementing a solution that both can feel good about." They refuse to settle for anything less.

How does it work? Our friends at NIM tell us that the goal can be achieved in five simple steps. First, establish a no-loser policy. Say to your spouse, "I will not accept any solution unless you love it." Second, "Heart talk" the issue through until each partner thoroughly understands the other's feelings. Third, brainstorm all possible win-win solutions. Fourth, pick one solution and try it. Finally, check back in a week or two and re-evaluate. Don't be afraid to re-work the plan if necessary.

From the Focus on the Family website at focusonthefamily.com. © 2016 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How can we work together in the weeks and months ahead to turn conflicts, arguments, or difficult decisions into a source of new strength and understanding in our marriage?
  2. What are some of the major personality differences between us? How do our maleness and femaleness set us apart in terms of our perspective on life? How can a deeper appreciation for these differences help smooth the waters the next time we're facing a serious disagreement?
  3. How can friction in our relationship give us new insights about each other? How can those insights improve our ability to communicate effectively?