At first I was shocked, then jealous, then hopeful, then hopeless, then skeptical, then concerned.
Peter and I were talking to a man who has been married for 60-something years and he had just told us that he and his wife have never had an argument. "We're both from sets of twins, so we just know how to get along!" he explained.
On the ride home, I was deep in thought about it. We had only been married a couple months and we had already had several handfuls of arguments. No door-slammers or name-calling, but painful, unpleasant, cut-through-the-heart disagreements. How in the world did this man and his wife go 60-something years without fighting?
Maybe Peter and I could start a clean slate. Maybe that day would be our last day of arguments for the rest of our lives.
Nope, that would never happen. We just disagree too much. That man must have either been lying to us or been delusional...or maybe he and his wife never lived in the same house together. How can you not have arguments? Is that even a good thing?
Finally I asked Peter his thoughts about it.
"I don't think the absence of conflict is necessarily an indicator of a healthy marriage," he wisely commented. "In fact, I would argue that the absence of conflict is more an indicator of lack of holy striving."
He further explained that in marriage, we are two deeply flawed, sinful people living extremely closely together. It is inevitable that our hearts will latch onto different idols, and it would be spiritually tragic if, in the name of lack of conflict, we simply let the idols develop in our spouse's heart without confronting them with the Word. Conflict is like a painful surgery that must be done in order to remove a cancer; it would be easier to pretend there's no issue there, but it would be selfish to not present the truth of God's Word to your spouse when they are being disobedient to it.
Let me make an important side note here: Holy confrontation is not the same as nagging. There's nothing helpful about nagging. I also highly recommend the book Practicing Affirmation by Sam Crabtree. In that book he suggests at the very least a 5-to-1 affirmation-to-criticism ratio (at least five to ten encouragements for every critique, even if you're trying to be helpful or lovingly tease.) He also recommends occasionally fasting from criticizing for entire days. I cannot even tell you how much healing this has done for our marriage when we stuck with it!
Here is the main point I'm trying to convey: we are constantly mistaken about who is fighting whom.
When my husband and I are having a disagreement, it feels like it's him against me. If I present more scathing evidence that he's wrong, the score is more in my favor. If he points out something I cannot contest, I lost that one. Our tendency is to treat one another as if we are fighting each other. Isn't that what marital conflict is? Two sides battling against each other?
One day it hit me that this way of thinking is all wrong, at least when one or both of the spouses are followers of Jesus.
Ephesians 6:12 says it plainly: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
Marital conflict, when done biblically, is not one person fighting another.
It's two people fighting together against the enemy.
It's one soldier helping his wounded comrade.
And chances are very likely that in no time at all, the stronger soldier will become the weaker and in desperate need help himself. Sometimes both will be weak and broken and they will limp along together. (This is why it is so important to have brothers and sisters who are on the front lines with you. Our local church's help for our marriage has been invaluable.)
1 Peter 5:8 reminds us, "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." When we remember that we are fighting him and not each other, conflict becomes one of the most valuable tools in a marriage.
When Peter comes home from a long day at work and his attitude might be a little less than chipper, my first response is usually: "What did I do to you to deserve being treated like this? Could you just stop being harsh? Do you even care that I had a hard day too?" Or, I silently seethe and develop a poignant speech about all the wrong things he's doing and how he should feel really bad about it.
But do you know what's so awful about responding to him in that way? It's dissatisfying.
What happens when I finally give my long-awaited speech and he agrees with me about his shortcomings and is really broken about it? I don't feel victory; I couldn't gloat if I tried. My heart breaks over him and I can't help but wanting to help him. Why in the world did I waste all that time fuming when I could have helped him?
The other day I was in a very bad mood and the house was very messy, and it would have made sense if Peter responded to me with impatience. Yet he listened to me and tried to help me get to the root of why I was feeling this way, then he clearly reminded me of the gospel and assured me of God's love for me...and his love for me. (Then he stayed up till 1 am cleaning and organizing the house so I could have a fresh start the next day!)
In What Did You Expect?, an excellent book on marriage, Paul Tripp powerfully expresses that "we turn moments of ministry into moments of anger" because "we tend to personalize what is not personal." My spouse's goal in life is not to make me miserable; that's the devil's.
So why am I fighting my husband when I should be helping him by fighting sin?
I think the fight with sin will become more wearisome and tiring the longer we fight it. I already feel like I'm huffing and puffing and about to fall over. Yet the more we know our victorious Jesus, the more we truly consider ourselves "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6). We can joyfully "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely" and "run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12.) We can take heart because He has overcome the world (John 16) and there will be a day when death will be nothing more than a memory (1 Corinthians 15.)
I think James 4:1-10 is a perfect scripture with which to close. (And here's a great sermon about it by CJ Mahaney!)
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Here are the other posts in this series on marital conflict:
My Sin is Larger Than My Husband
Why Marriage Is Good...Even When It's Rough
I found myself crying as I was waiting to pay a ticket at the clerk of circuit court because of a conversation I overheard between the man and woman behind me.
"If we're still going to be together," the woman whined, her tone desperate. "Why won't you tell me where you live now?"
"I don't want to put up with your [beep]," the guy replied, his tone annoyed.
The woman was clearly hurt. She paused. "It must be nice."
"What?" The guy clearly didn't want to have this conversation, especially not in public where people like me can effortlessly hear everything they're saying.
She swallowed. "It must be nice to be able to pick up and leave."
"Isn't this what you want?"
"I want you to stay with me!"
"When you're stressed like this..." The man's voice grew increasingly more impatient. "Ugh, I don't want to have to deal with you when you're like this!"
The woman was shattered. "You're breaking my heart."
"I'm not trying to." He sounded surprised but also didn't sound like he cared much.
They argued more and eventually the woman found herself pleading for her boyfriend to stay with her. "I'll move my stuff and stay in the other room so you can have your own space! The house is big enough! You don't have to leave!" Then she broke down and was crying.
"I love you," the man said, as if that could make everything better.
"I love you too," she weakly said through sobs, more of a reflex than anything else.
After a little while they made arrangements about how much of his stuff he'd be leaving at her house. Then it was my turn to pay my ticket and I never saw their faces, but this conversation will stay with me forever (especially since I wrote it down while it was happening.)
In many ways I could relate to both of them. Peter and I have had frustrating conversations too, and both of us have at times had the feeling of "I don't want to have to deal with you anymore!" Both of us have also felt the rejection and unwantedness from the person we know we displeased. Countless tears have flowed and neither of us could number how many times we've crushed the other person's heart.
But there's one major thing thing that sets our marriage apart from the co-habitating relationship I observed.
Is it because I'm confident that we love each other more than they ever did?
Is it because I'm sure that we communicate better than them and we would never say something like that to each other?
Nope. We've only been married for 2 years; I have no clue how we'll sin against each other in the future!
But this is why I have confidence in our marriage: unconditional love that is founded on an unbreakable covenant.
It's not passion that sustains the promise; it's the promise that sustains the passion.
There have been times when we have not felt love for each other. There have been some times when we sort of dreaded the idea of a future together. But since there's no way "out", we've had no choice but to work through our issues. The result is nothing less than a deeper, richer, and more mature love than we had known before.
The action of love must be present when the feeling of love is weak...or absent.
Tim Keller's book The Meaning of Marriage (which I highly, highly recommend) presented this idea so clearly:
"In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love, despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic, and eager to please, but in your actions you must be tender, understanding, forgiving, and helpful. And if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love."
Many would say that it's torturous to force yourself to love someone that you don't have feelings for. In the pursuit of happiness, why let a miserable relationship get in the way? Especially young people like me may be tempted to think, "I've got my whole life ahead of me! Why should I let myself get slowed down by someone who doesn't share my dreams?"
I can think of no example of meaningful love that lacked permanence.
In fact, I see the opposite: the most meaningful love relationship fathomably attainable to me, that of my Creator and I, is forever. It can be no other way. And this love was made possible only through the sacrifice of Christ.
Marriage is a covenant itself, not only fashioned after or symbolizing but held together by that greater covenant.
As you read through the Bible and keep your eyes out for covenants that are made, you'll notice that there are conditional covenants and unconditional covenants.
The benefits of conditional covenants can be removed if one party does not hold up his end of the deal (example: Deuteronomy 28.)
However, nothing can mess with an unconditional covenant. When God said He would never flood the earth again, He didn't say "That is, as long as you don't (fill in the blank)."
The promise was completely because of His mercy.
When God chose me as Christ's bride and "delivered [me] from the dominion of darkness and transferred [me] into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son, in whom there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13) I entered an unconditional covenant.
God shows me mercy and adopts me into His family and makes me Christ's bride and fills me with the Holy Spirit and gives me a new heart and makes me alive in Him.
I receive/accept/become alive.
But what happens when neither person is showing mercy? Is marriage worth anything at all then?
(Please note: I am not saying that if you are being abused by your spouse, you should just live with it. If that is your situation, you need to seek help immediately. This article is addressing the whole "not getting along" and "falling out of love" issue.)
Hebrews 13:4a says "Let marriage be held in honor among all." This verse is convicting to me because sometimes, when Peter and I are mad at each other, I do not have a very high view of marriage. But when I hear heartbreaking things like that conversation at the clerk of circuit court, I can see how good God's design is in creating marriage. Living together without committing for life is a cheap, selfish, dollar-store-brand attempt at copying the good thing that marriage is. It can never come close.
By the way, can I also just testify to how sweet marriage can be? It is so good. I truly madly deeply love my husband and I know he truly madly deeply loves me. I love being married, and I love being married to Peter!
So I urge you, unmarried friends, to desire and seek after one relationship that is promised to stay till death do you part. Though in the short term it may seem best to try out all kinds of different people before committing (legally, bindingly) to one, you are only setting yourself up for heartbreak and instability. If you feel you must "test" a relationship before committing, that shows that you have concerns about whether the relationship will really work out after all. Why toy with uncertainty like that?
And I urge you, married friends, to carry on with the action of love. I think the phrase "Remember why you got married" is one awfully soggy chicken nugget of wisdom. It's completely unhelpful advice for people who got married on a drunken whim, but it's also unhelpful for people who got married with false assumptions, impossible expectations, and wishful thinking (which is every single person who has ever been married.)
Instead remember the covenant you made; remember the ultimate Covenant Keeper, the Creator of love, who has designed marriage to be joyful and steadfast.
To read the first post in the series on marital conflict, click here!
(the first post in a series on marital conflict)
"But you started it!"
I'm still surprised by how frequently I employ preschool-level argument tactics during disagreements with my husband. It's not that marriage has made me a bad person---it's having quite the reverse effect---but it certainly makes my badness more clearly seen. And just when I thought I had developed a 20/20 self-perception of my flaws, baby Stephen entered my life and I discovered whole new depths of my own selfishness.
But here's where it gets worse: I keep thinking that this problem is close to being solved.
If only my husband didn't make me mad so often.
If only Stephen wasn't such a needy kid.
If only I had access to the right organizing tools.
If only I was eating the right superfoods.
I'm sure that if I followed steps A, B, and C I wouldn't have conflict anymore...
I was convicted about this recently when talking to a friend about a struggle I was having. I found myself asking her for "tips on how to get better." Practical tips can be very helpful, but when I heard myself refusing to call my "issues" out for what they really are, I realized how lightly I view my sin and how half-heartedly I fight it.
Later that night my friend read to me Psalm 51. David wrote it when he lusted after a woman, got her pregnant, then killed her husband. Verse 4 struck me hard: "Against You, You only, have I sinned."
I feel like if I were in David's shoes I would have been primarily beating myself up about what I did to the woman, not what I did to God. I would have written an "I'm-really-sorry" song to the person who I can see and whose scorn I can feel, not to the unseen God who doesn't really seem involved in any way.
David's attitude is reminiscent of Joseph's in Genesis 39. Joseph worked for an important man named Potiphar, and Potiphar's wife tirelessly tried to seduce him. And Joseph responded, "How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" If I was Potiphar's wife, I would have retorted something like "What does God have to do with this? Aren't you more concerned about what would happen if your boss found out?"
Oftentimes when I sin against Peter, I feel like that's the extent of it: I sinned against Peter. And in those moments it's not really a big deal to me because I'm mad at Peter and it feels like he deserves it anyway.
But if all I'm doing is upsetting my husband, I only need a husband-sized savior who can solve my husband-sized problems.
However, my sin is an offense to GOD; so I need a God-sized Savior who is bridging this impossibly large chasm my sin has made between me and my Maker.
(If you think I'm just being dramatic, be sobered by Psalm 7:11-13: "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If man does not repent, God will whet His sword; He has bent and readied His bow; He has prepared for Him his deadly weapons, making His arrows fiery shafts.")
And that God-sized Savior came! Jesus bore the guilt of my sins against not only Peter but against God Himself! And the peace between God and man indeed was made because Christ rose again, proving that God had accepted His payment.
So, by realizing this, that I have greatly sinned and therefore have a great need, and that I have a great Christ who met and daily meets my need, I can have a thankfulness much greater than Peter-sized gratitude. And since my sins are much greater than merely Peter-sized, I can respond with something much greater than Peter-sized repentance and experience greater than Peter-sized joy.
I hope I haven't lost you. If I have, here's an example.
Today my mom watched Stephen so I could catch up on homemaking stuff, and I wasted a lot of that time.
I looked up pictures of Hilary Duff's baby.
I did some useless, judgmental Facebook stalking.
I looked up pictures of Bryce Dallas Howard's baby.
I clicked around on different blog websites but didn't really read anything.
Before I knew it, a serious chunk of time had passed. I felt sick from my idleness (and from the inhuman amount of pretzel sticks I consumed during this time.) This situation may sound like a small thing, but I really indulged in sin and it's serious.
When Peter gets home he will probably wonder why his work clothes aren't clean or why Stephen's room is a wreck or why dinner is lame. He might be upset.
I can think of at least a few responses I can make:
a) I could call my time-wasting "escapism" and tearfully tell him that I am just trying to numb the pain from some area in my life where I've found myself to be the victim.
Likely result: I'll either receive pity I don't deserve and Peter will feel horrible for apparently making me depressed, or that excuse won't be good enough and we'll end up arguing.
b) I could tell Peter "I'm sorry I wronged you. You really deserve clean clothes. I'll try to make sure I'm more efficient about that."
Likely result: He'll forgive me then the next day I'll keep in mind his disappointment and maybe work harder. Then he'll be more happy with me.
c) Before Peter even gets home I can acknowledge that I am not just wasting my time or Peter's time but I am poorly handling God's time. Like Denethor poorly stewarded Gondor, I poorly handled the time God has given me. I was created to worship God; I didn't do that; this grieves God. But I don't leave wallowing in what I did and apologizing repeatedly so God can love me again. I rejoice in what Christ did for me, and rest in God's resulting irrevocable favor. (And when Peter gets home, I could do option b as well.)
Likely result: Joy in Christ's work on the cross and peace about Christ's work in me that mobilizes me to do what I was made to do.
This is how the gospel transforms every part of our lives. This is why, when marital---or any kind of relational---conflict comes, we must see our issues not as inconveniences but as sin: lethal, enslaving, offensive to God, and, for the Christian, blood-covered. Praise God.
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 5, 3, 1, and not-yet-born. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
Quick links to some of my posts:
Articles I've Written on Other Sites:
Youth Ministry's Family Blindspot - Christianity Today