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
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My name is Hope.
I'm 26, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 6, 4, 3, and squishy-baby. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
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