What does it mean to “resolve conflict”?

My husband and I have been speaking at marriage conferences together for about a decade, and wherever we go, we always have to give a big talk on resolving conflict.

No matter what group we’re speaking to, we’re always supposed to cover these issues (they’re universal, it seems):

  1. How to own your emotions and communicate effectively–ie. bringing up one issue at a time, using “I” statements (I feel upset when…) rather than “you” statements (you make me so mad when…), using correct body language, etc.
  2. How to listen effectively to your spouse’s concerns and show them that you hear them and understand them.
  3. How to control your anger.
  4. How to work through a decision when you truly don’t agree.
  5. How to forgive, and how to ask for forgiveness.

And Keith and I have a ton of stories that we can put into those points, and it’s all very well and good.

Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: Because a Great Relationship Doesnt Happen by AccidentBut the problem was that these points never seemed to fit together or flow really well. And when I wrote 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I finally figured out what the problem was and why I had such a hard time squishing all my different thoughts about “resolving conflict” into one talk.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

We call too many things “conflict” that need to be “resolved”.

We’re blowing some things out of proportion by calling them “conflict”, and we’re minimizing other things at the same time.

Let me explain.

When we talk about resolving conflict, we sometimes miss the bigger picture. Not everything we call conflict is really a serious conflict! #marriage

When we think of conflict, we think of an issue about which you disagree–he sees the world one way, and you see the world another.

In those situations, it makes sense to try to figure out how to come to a decision. It makes sense to learn to listen to the other person’s point of view, and to learn to express your own.

But the simple fact is that true disagreements, in most marriages, are actually rather rare. I counted it up, and in our marriage we have had 5 major disagreements: we disagreed on what house to buy when we first moved to our little small town; we disagreed on whether or not to continue homeschooling; we disagreed on whether or not to change churches; we disagreed on whether or not to put our son on the heart transplant list; we disagreed on whether to make Katie continue piano lessons or not.

In four of the five cases we eventually just came to an agreement together. In the first one, about the house, I finally recognized I was absolutely out of my gourd and he was totally right, and I’m so grateful now that he didn’t do things my way.

But just because there are only five times we’ve had a genuine disagreement that doesn’t mean that there are only five times that we’ve been upset at each other. On the contrary, I can probably count five times one of us has been at least mildly ticked off in the last week.

And here’s where the big revelation comes in: most of the time that we are ticked off at each other it is not about a big “conflict”.

It is just simply that we are misunderstanding each other and something is triggering some grumpiness.

This doesn’t require listening to the other’s point of view, usually. It doesn’t require coming to agreement. It usually just requires some time and some major chill pills.

Here’s another problem with the typical “resolving conflict” model: do you see which of those five initial points we haven’t talked about yet? Forgiveness and reconciliation. They’re always a huge part of a “resolving conflict” talk, yet it wasn’t necessary for Keith and I to forgive each other when we were trying to decide if Katie should take piano lessons or if we should switch churches. It was just a difference of opinion. There was nothing to forgive. And when I’m frustrated that Keith is 47 years old and he can’t make spaghetti without asking me for directions, he doesn’t need forgiveness and I don’t need forgiveness. I just need to take a deep breath and remind myself how awesome my husband is.

There are times we need to forgive. Those generally aren’t about disagreements, though. Those are about breaches of trust.

And so I have a new theory about conflicts which helps us figure out what the appropriate action is. Essentially, when we’re upset with each other the cause is usually one of three things:

1. Silly conflicts–we misunderstand each other, assume the worst, or just get grumpy
2. Serious conflicts–we disagree about an important matter
3. Sinful conflicts–someone has broken trust

By framing “resolving conflict” as something you do to find a resolution, we treat silly conflicts like they’re more important than they really are. Usually these can be solved with an attitude shift by the one who is offended, or by changing the way we act or react to each other. It doesn’t need to be a big deal.

But by framing “resolving conflict” as something that needs both of you to negotiate, we also downplay sinful conflicts, and treat them as if both spouses need to listen to each other and defer to each other. In most cases, one spouse has broken trust, and that spouse has to rebuild it. Yes, there may be underlying issues in the marriage that must be dealt with, but that can only be done after the sinning spouse has truly repented and started taking more action.

Incidentally, this is also why I’m really bothered by the people who define submission in marriage to mean that “he makes the decisions”. In a healthy marriage you will very rarely come to a standstill where you fundamentally disagree on something. If your only definition is that he decides things when you disagree, then you may never submit at all! Submission is about intentionally serving, and that makes it so much bigger, and ultimately more important.

So next time you feel ticked off, ask yourself: if this something we disagree on, something that somebody has sinned about, or am I just upset in general? That will tell you which route you should take to start feeling close again!

Once you’ve identified that, here are some resources to help:

Resolving Silly Conflicts: When You Just Feel Ticked Off

Believing the Best
Learning to Ask Your Husband for Help
The 5 Trigger Points for Conflict
Why Your Husband Won’t Meet Your Needs
Thought #2 in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: I Don’t Have to Feel Ticked Off

Resolving Serious Conflicts: When You Just Don’t Agree

The Top 5 Approach to Resolving Conflict
Understanding the Issue in Conflict
Thought #7 in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: Find the Win/Win!

Resolving Sinful Conflicts: When Someone Has Sinned

4 Things You Must Do if Your Husband Uses Porn
When You’re the One Who Needs Forgiveness
Top 10 Truths About Emotionally Destructive Marriages
Can You Get Past It? The Power of Forgiveness
Thought #6 in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage: I’m Called to Be a PeaceMaker, not a PeaceKeeper

Here’s why it’s important to know which one you’re going through: Sometimes I’ll give advice on this blog about believing the best about your husband to help you not get ticked off about little things–which is all very well and good. But if what you’re dealing with is a sinful conflict–like your husband refusing to get a job–then that’s exactly the wrong advice. Or I’ll talk about how to forgive, and if you’re ticked because your husband didn’t put his underwear in the hamper this morning, it will magnify that infraction to seem like more than it is. One size fits all advice doesn’t really exist.

That’s why it’s important to know: is it a silly thing, a serious thing, or a sinful thing? Most things, really, are just silly. But if you’re in a chronically sinful situation, then treating it like it’s  silly conflict won’t help anything.

I hope this way of thinking about conflict helps. It certainly has helped me clarify things, and now I’m much quicker to take a deep breath and say, “this is really just silly!”

Let me know in the comments: Have you ever blown something out of proportion? Or how many times have you guys honestly had a serious disagreement? Let’s talk!