I landed in the bed exhausted and tearful. Phone in hand, I began spilling my thoughts and feelings into a text. I was too angry to talk in person. I was too tired to go downstairs and meet my husband on the couch.
He gave me radishes for Christmas. He placed them in a beautifully wrapped package under the tree. It was intended to be a light-hearted joke. And, while I did offer up a polite giggle, the gift began turning up something sour in my soul.
I had asked for an elliptical machine several months before, noting that Summer’s ever-changing nap schedule and demeanor was making gym-time impossible. We had discussed this large and expensive investment in detail. We discussed how to get it in the home, how to carry it up the stairs, and how to rearrange furniture in order for it to fit. We had wrestled with the fact that Ryan’s keyboard would have to be moved to another room in order to make the elliptical work in our space. He grieved moving his keyboard. I begged for the change, noting how it would improve my mental and physical health.
After walking circles around the subject and reaching, what I thought, was an agreement, I was anticipating perhaps a wrapped photo of the gift.
Instead, I opened radishes. My husband was playing a silly joke.
I felt ashamed for expecting such an elaborate and expensive gift. I felt frustrated by our misunderstanding. I assumed the worst of Ryan: that he didn’t feel my self-care was worth the expense, that he selfishly did not want to move his keyboard so that the elliptical could fit, that he felt his passions and outlets were more important than mine.
Spilling all of these cruel and irrational thoughts into a text message, Ryan’s reply was simple and brief. He requested we talk later in person, and insisted that his intentions were love-based.
Ultimately, we figured it out. We talked through our differences. Ryan’s reluctance in moving the keyboard was not because he prioritized his pastime (music) over mine (exercise). To him, the keyboard being in our room was one way he bonded with Summer. On difficult days he would sit her in his lap and they would play together. It represented a special bond with his daughter. To me, an elliptical machine represented freedom, health and independence. It is one place I can climb onto that my 14 month old cannot. It signified peace to me.
Crawling out from the cavern of this conflict, we found our best friend, Nay, sitting downstairs on our couch. Nathaniel Green (‘Uncle Nay Nay’) is one of the most cherished friends one could ever find. He lived with us on and off for a season, and he has lived with several other married couples as well. I hope to write more about him someday soon.
“Nay,” I said, collapsing onto the chair beside him. “You have lived with so many married couples. What is the dumbest fight you’ve overheard?”
Nay squinted his eyes and looked off into space, the way only Nay can, and answered, “That’s a complex question. Because it’s often not really about the trash. You learn after listening to all of these little fights that really, him not taking out the trash reinforced a lie in her heart that she tells herself – like maybe that she wasn’t worth serving. When he forgets the trash it magnifies a lie he may tell himself – like ‘I’ll always miss the mark. I’ll never add up.’ When all of this brokenness collides – you get conflict. It takes time and energy to dig into the story and find out what meaning is associated with each fight for each partner.”
What a beautiful and accurate description of conflict. When differences collide, we have a tiff. When our brokenness is magnified in the midst of these differences, we have conflict.
Conflict shows us there is something worth fighting for. It serves as a reminder of God’s creative nature – He never creates 2 people exactly the same. We need to remind ourselves to find beauty in our differences, and expect tough seasons of conflict to grow us and make us stronger.
I have taken my interviews with several couples, notes from my training in marriage & family therapy, and my experiences in the trenches of marital conflict to create:
10 Tips for Winning the Fights
Go Low and Go Slow
There is no need to rush though a crucial conversation or fight. Before stepping into the dialogue, we need to step back and look at our own actions and examine our own hearts. We need to consider how our behavior and words have impacted our partner before entering into a battle. We need to request time to think, and give our partners space to do the same. It is okay to break away from a conversation and plan a specific time to reconvene over a cup of coffee the following day.
Humility is key to any successful conflict. The purpose of conflict is to draw us closer together and create safer space for intimacy. We must learn to quickly admit the places in which we were wrong. It is always beneficial to begin a sentence with “I could be wrong, I was just thinking…” when presenting observations or concerns.
Mutual trust is essential to create a safe space for conflict. Trust is the bedrock for the yada connection mentioned in my previous entries. Wherever a lack of trust exists, a door to the enemy of Love is opened. We must be able to trust one another and not attempt to control, overtake, or abandon each other in the midst of disagreements. In a marriage, this means we do not keep secrets from one another, and we do not withhold spaces within our minds and hearts from one another. There must continually be an open door to share our doubts, inquiries, observations, and frustrations with our partner. If we find ourselves questioning our partner’s motives, doubting his or her honesty, or worried about his or her thoughts toward us, this may be a sign that mutual trust is lacking and that outside support such as couples counseling is needed.
Assume the Best of your Spouse
We may use words we do not mean in the heat of an argument. Some of us are more articulate and quick on our feet than others (in our family, that person is Ryan. He is so darn articulate and good on his feet). We need to have patience and understand that our partner may need time to think it over, or perhaps may have misspoke out of feeling flustered. It is always wise to assume the best of one’s spouse.
Remember you’re teammates
We must remember in the loudest of fights that we are on the same team. After this fight we need to be able to throw the assist, catch the alleyoop, pass the baton, catch the touch down, hand him/her the right tool, etc. (like those sports references, dad? 😉). It is a good idea to engage in a shared activity or hobby with our partners shortly after a disagreement as it reminds us that we are teammates.
Correct in Private, Praise in Public
There will come moments when we need to correct one another. We need to do this in private. Public correction can provide a foothold for shame that can be devastating within a relationship. Public praise, on the other hand, can provide a launching pad for intimacy. If you are dissatisfied with your spouse in one way or another, practice praising him or her in public and see what differences occur behind closed doors.
Use inclusive pronouns
One sure way to throw gas on the fire of conflict is to blame a partner. An easy way to practice humility and inclusiveness in a conversation is by using broad language (pronouns such as we and our). “I think we could do a better job loading the dishwasher,” instead of “I think you could do a better job loading the dishwasher.”
Replace “but” with “and”
The most exhausting conflicts are the unending conversations that seem to circle around and around without any destination. Continually replying to a statement with “but,” carries an air of tension and can unnecessarily prolong these conversations. Try replacing the word “but” with the word “and” to move a conflict toward a team-oriented, solution-focused discussion rather than a draining battle.
It is important to lay ground rules for fighting. For instance, one individual I interviewed said, “The word divorce isn’t even in our vocabulary. We do not allow that word to exit our lips in our home in regards to our potential choices.” Settling on guidelines such as no name-calling, no use of bad language, and outlawing certain words such as “divorce,” or “separation” is helpful. If these rules are continually violated during conflict, it is important to consult couples counseling as soon as possible.
Showing emotion during an argument is good. It shows that we are invested in the relationship. It is important to acknowledge and express feelings as they come and go with sincerity and sensitivity. It is equally important to allow our partners to feel their feelings without shame.
Agree to disagree
We are inevitably different from our partner in some ways. It is personally growing and honoring to recognize places of disagreement and differences and embrace them rather than resist them. Allow one another to hold different perspectives and convictions. This will ultimately challenge us to mature and blossom as people, and become more steadfast in our own beliefs. Honor is the ability to hold differences of opinion without feeling threatened. It is the ability to sit comfortably with our differences instead of lashing out in an effort to manipulate another person to feel the same as us.
Ryan and I do not always fight well. In fact, though we hold the best intentions, we stray from these tips 88% of the time! We do our best to maintain mutual trust and consistent vulnerability with one another, and we hurt each other’s feelings a lot in the process. But, it’s all worth it. From the big fights to the little tiffs, our relationship has grown stronger and our intimacy has been deepened with each one.
“Winning the fights,” means that our quarrels grow and strengthen our bond rather than pull us apart. At the end of a conflict, or a season of conflict, the goal should be that we find ourselves more in love with our partner than the day we got married, engaged, or began dating. Because that is why conflict exists.
And to those who care to know…
Yes, I got my elliptical. No, it is not in our bedroom. In fact, it wouldn’t even fit in the bedroom. It’s in the garage where dust collects and the smell of dog waste and dirty diapers lingers. And every day that I climb up on that machine and take in the scenery of my garage, I consider how thankful I am that I have a man who cherishes bonding with his daughter enough to go to bat with me over a dang elliptical so he and Summer can enjoy the piano in a convenient space.
And, yes. I now laugh when I remember opening a beautifully wrapped box of radishes.