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Engaging in healthy conflict with your spouse

Family conflict, quarrel, misunderstanding.
Family conflict, quarrel, misunderstanding. | Getty Images/Liubomyr Vorona

Not long ago, I was talking with a woman who shared that she and her husband never have a conflict. I asked her how that was possible, and she said, “I go along to get along because it’s not safe to disagree with my spouse.”

In that moment, my heart broke for her. Here was a woman who had silenced herself in the name of keeping “peace” in her household. Maybe even more problematic was the reality that she had never known a world where things could look any different. Imagine walking around on eggshells your entire married life because having a voice and expressing your opinion didn’t feel safe.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in marriage. People often do this because they are terrified of conflict. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and for a number of reasons.

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For some, they never saw healthy conflict modeled growing up; for others, it doesn’t feel safe to bring something up to their spouse because they’ve had their heart trounced on before when they were brave enough to speak up. And some Christians believe they shouldn't have conflict if they’re married to their soulmate.

In more than three decades of working with couples, one thing I have heard time and again is how much people want to feel heard and respected in their marriage. Yet those very things can’t happen unless people are willing to be vulnerable, curious, transparent, honest, and — you guessed it — engage in healthy conflict.

Intimate relationships in marriage occur when two people are willing to engage in hard conversations in a healthy way. The enemy has crept into far too many marriages and led couples to believe conflict is a bad thing. The reality is that the avoidance of healthy conflict keeps you from knowing each other well and experiencing deeper levels of intimacy.

The flip side of avoidance is courageous conversations held in a safe space where spouses engage with an attitude that says, “My spouse believes the best of me, we are a team, and we have confidence in us and our ability to work and pray through hard things.”

In his book Mad About Us, Moving from Anger to Intimacy with your Spouse, Dr. Gary Oliver contends that there is a process for couples who develop the healthy habit of working through differences. This includes listening, asking questions, listening again, and asking more questions, which leads to understanding, which provides a window into each other’s hearts and a pathway to greater intimacy.

“When you know someone loves you enough to take the time to understand you rather than take a walk out the door, you know that person’s love is not a shallow, superficial, conditional love,” says Oliver. “That type of love makes a person feel safe and secure. This type of security leads to an increase in trust, which creates the perfect environment for deep levels of intimacy to grow.”

Here are seven steps to help you manage conflict and increase intimacy in your marriage:

1. Remember that you are a team. The goal is to attack the issue, not each other.

2. Clarify the issue you are going to discuss. Identifying the issue will keep conversations productive and help avoid rabbit trails.

3. Brainstorm all the possibilities. Take your time! No idea is too crazy when you are weighing all your options. Sit down together to write your thoughts out — the goal here is to get as many thoughts on paper as possible. You might even start the process and feel like you need to sleep on it before you make a decision about moving forward.

4. Pray! This one may seem self-explanatory, but once you feel like you have exhausted all the potential solutions, take time to pray together for wisdom and discernment moving forward.

5. Make a decision. As a team (remember you are a team!) look at your list and determine your best option.

6. Implement your plan together. Decide how you’ll work together and who will do what to put your plan in play.

7. Remember, you are on the same team. Once you implement your plan, move forward as a team. If you see that your plan isn’t working like you thought it would, the avoid pointing fingers. Head back to step 1 and try again.

Contrary to what culture tells us, conflict doesn’t have to be contentious or competitive. Instead, if done well — with a humble heart, listening ears, and a desire to make the other person feel seen and valued — it will create a sense of trust and safety that is foundational to a healthy marriage.

And honestly? “Going along” is boring and stale, and at least one party is bound to become resentful. It’s not God’s intent, either. He designed marriage for both people to bring all of who they are into a relationship. He desires for us to learn how to see each other through the eyes of Christ and remember that each is made in His image. 

When we learn to do that, we will move closer to the rich marriage we all long for — and there is nothing dull about that.

Julie Baumgardner has served as the Senior Director of WinShape Marriage since January 2021. She has nearly 40 years of experience of helping marriages and families thrive. Prior to joining WinShape, she spent 20 years as the President/CEO of First Thing First.

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