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Resolving conflict in your marriage

Steven P. Wickstrom

Rust is a result of hydrated ferric oxides forming on iron containing materials by oxidation in the presence of water. In other words, iron plus water equals rust. Rust does not happen immediately, it takes some time. It starts very slowly but when it is detected it must be dealt with immediately or the metal will deteriorate and start to disintegrate. Rust automatically happens when iron-containing metals come into the presence of water. Rust is inevitable, unless you take steps to prevent it from forming and (or) remove it as soon as it forms. If metal is neglected or ignored, rust will completely eat through the metal rendering it useless. Rust will cause something that was once strong and durable to become weak and brittle. What is my point? Unresolved conflict is the rust of marriage.

Rust is a product of nature. Conflict is a product of human nature. In any marriage conflict is inevitable. It is not a matter of if conflict will arise, but when it will happen. When two people who are not identical get married, their differences will naturally oxidize like iron and water. The differences between the two of you are what make you unique. During the dating process, these differences are part of what attracted you to each other. He may have been a listener and she was a talker, or he was outgoing and she was reserved. In the dating process, opposites attract and that is a good thing. In the marriage process, those same opposites can, and usually will, cause conflict.

It is not a matter of whether or not a metal ship will rust; rather it is a matter of when it will start to rust. Your marriage is just like a metal ship that must deal with rust. It is not a matter of whether or not you are going to have conflict, but rather it is what you as partners are going to do with it when it surfaces. Unresolved conflict will almost always result in a quarrel or a dispute of some sort. As a couple, you must be determined and committed to resolving conflict. Resolving conflict requires effort and sometimes even great determination to see it through to the end. The rewards however, of resolved conflict are worth every bit of effort that you put into that resolution.

Why is it essential for a married couple to learn how to resolve conflict in their relationship? This may seem like a simple question but very few couples ask themselves this question or even answer it. Yet the answer is essential because unresolved conflict leads to unforgiveness, emotional wounds, hurt feelings, bitterness, and possibly even divorce. If you ignore the rust on metal, you drastically reduce its lifetime of service to you. The same thing happens to your marriage.

The first thing you must know is what causes conflict. You need to know why conflicts arise in order to defuse them. By learning how to resolve conflict with your spouse, you will be teaching your children at the same time. The benefits of rust removal will be happier marriage partners and as an added bonus, this example will be passed down to your children.

The first step toward resolving conflict is in understanding the differences between you and your spouse.

Shipbuilders know that the marriage of metal and water is required to commission a ship. Steps are taken as the ship is built to reduce the oxidation process and slow the formation of rust. Marriage is a joining and blending together of two distinctly different individuals. You probably have diverse backgrounds, differing values, different personalities, and that ever popular male/female distinctiveness. You might be morning person and your spouse a night person. You might prefer warm weather and your spouse might prefer cold weather. You might like football and your spouse may hate it. You might like to go for walks and your spouse would rather sit in front of the TV. Can you see why conflicts under these conditions are inevitable? You are a unique individual and so is your spouse. We need to understand our differences in order to resolve our conflicts.

A ship does not understand the nature of water. Water does not understand the nature of a metallic ship. The ship is nothing without water to keep it afloat. But by understanding the differences between the two, we can reduce and prevent rust from forming. Your marriage is the same way. Your marriage cannot exist without each other. A marriage takes two people and it takes both of you to keep your marriage afloat. By understanding your differences, you can reduce and even prevent the rust of unresolved conflict from forming.

Here are a few things that women typically do not understand about men. Men have a tendency to be solitary creatures; they really don't mind being alone. A man's sexual arousal can come from as little as visual stimulation and generally has nothing to do with his emotions. Men need to have their masculinity validated (they need to be told that they are strong, and good looking, and good lovers). Men are taught from a young age not to show (and sometimes not to have) emotions.

Here are a few things that men typically do not understand about women. Women have a tendency to be social creatures; they love being part of a group and having a sense of belonging. A woman's sexual arousal comes from feeling loved and from having her emotional needs met. Women need to have their femininity validated (they need to be told that they are pretty, and desirable, and appreciated, and loved). Women are taught that showing and having emotions is normal and is okay.

Here is an imaginary couple that is still in the dating process. She is outgoing; he is reserved. She is the talker; he is the listener. She likes country music; he likes classical. Her sense of humor is witty; his humor is dry. They can talk in restaurants and on the phone for hours. They are drawn to each other like magnets, because just like magnets, opposites attract. But what happens after they get married? You guessed it, opposites repel. She does all the talking; he rarely speaks. She hates classical music; he hates country. She lives in her own world; he lives in his. Communication comes grinding to a stop. They become two strangers living in the same house. Sound familiar? The rust has corroded this marriage and it is disintegrating.

Have you ever wondered why opposites attract? Why are we irresistibly drawn to someone with traits that are opposite from the ones we possess? My hunch is that it is because those are areas in our own lives that we need. The talker needs to do more listening and the listener needs to do more talking. We put ourselves in a position to change the way we are by learning from the expert we married, and then we refuse to change. The differences between you and your spouse should act like glue holding you together. Unfortunately, we let our differences and uniqueness act like sandpaper that rubs us raw. The rust sets in and we don't use that sandpaper on the rust; we use it on each other. It thus becomes a wedge that drives us apart.

Unresolved conflict corrodes and eats away at the marriage and family just like rust eats through metal.

“ … do not let the sun go down on your anger” Ephesians 4:26

How often have you gone to sleep angry with (or at) your spouse? How many times have you had an argument and failed to resolve it before going to bed? Has it been too many times to count? How many days go by before you finally forgive each other? How many issues have you simply ignored hoping they will go away? Does the anger, the unforgiveness, the unresoveled issue, just go away with time? No it doesn't and no they don't. They sit just below the surface rusting away at the metal of your relationship.

Oxidation (rust) happens when water and metal have had time to sit together and begin the chemical process that we know as rust. In the same way, unresolved conflict oxidizes into your heart and soul and you slowly become bitter and may not even know why. This is why it is so important to resolve a conflict on the same day that it happens. If you go to bed angry with your spouse, that anger has an opportunity to get deep inside and start the rusting process. Do not go to bed angry with your spouse. Talk about the problem or issue and get it resolved before going to sleep. Remove the rust as soon as you see it so that its corrosiveness cannot have the chance to eat away at your marriage.

Love, commitment, and forgiveness are rust inhibitors that provide the environment for you to be completely open with your spouse.

Webster's definition of the word transparent is: to be seen through, without deceit: candid. The word “transparent” can be used to describe two people who are committed to each other, who trust each other and thus are able to know each other completely and thoroughly. In order to be transparent, you must have the willingness and commitment to share your feelings and emotions with your spouse. This can be difficult, especially if you are not used to, or have gotten away from, sharing your innermost self with your spouse.

To be transparent means that you choose to let your spouse see through you. You would be amazed at what your spouse already knows about you, so don't try to hide things; they always come out eventually anyway. To be transparent is also to be without deceit; It is important to remember that deceit of self, and omission of facts is still deceit, This means that you do not try to deceive your spouse about anything. Deceit and lies go hand-in-hand and have no business being involved in your marriage. To be transparent also means to be candid. This means being straightforward, sincere, honest, and truthful with your spouse.

Transparency requires love, commitment, and forgiveness. If any of these three ingredients are missing, you cannot be transparent with your spouse. If any of these three ingredients are missing, you cannot have the type of marriage that God intends for you to have. I would dare say that if any of these three ingredients are missing, your marriage is in serious trouble because either you, your spouse, or even both of you, are hiding from the truth and each other.

One of the problems that I personally have with conflict is that I have a tendency to hide from it. There is a way however, for me to get around this problem. Being transparent with my wife will help us resolve conflicts because there is much less of a need for me to hide from it. If you are both transparent, you will have a much greater possibility of seeing the conflict from a different perspective. You will see it from a perspective of love and commitment to your spouse and you will have a willingness to forgive and forget. As a result, you will be able to get on with your marriage and move it to the deeper levels that God intends for you and your mate.

Committing to becoming a better listener will help you prevent the rust of unresolved conflicts and resolve others before the oxidation gets out of control.

If you do not see rust forming, or if you choose to ignore it, it does not mean that the rust ceases to exist. A foremost cause of rust in a marriage is poor listening skills. If we don't hear and listen to our spouse, we cannot achieve understanding. And without understanding, it is almost impossible to resolve conflict. So becoming a good listener is a key step toward resolving conflict and opening the lines of communication.

I have a tendency to drive my wife to frustration with my poor listening skills. To listen to my wife, I really have to focus myself and even force myself hear what she is saying. The problem is that she speaks female and I hear in male. I have been absolutely amazed at how many times what I heard was completely opposite of what she said. Why is that? It is because (even though we both speak American English) we are both speaking in two different languages with just enough words in common for us to get by. This can (and usually does) create a communications nightmare.

Apply this concept to an argument and what do you think happens? You guessed it, the marital version of the atomic bomb. An argument or conflict that could have been easily resolved suddenly blows up and explodes out of control. Instead of resolving the conflict, now you are stomping off to different rooms to sulk and pout and feel sorry for yourself. This is why listening skills are so important for both spouses to possess.

One of the problems that I personally have is that I seldom think to ask: This is what I heard you say, is that what you meant? My wife seldom thinks to ask: What did you just hear me say? How short do you think our arguments would be if we both made sure the other understood exactly what we were saying? What would happen to your arguments if you both understood exactly what the other was saying? To put this into practice requires much effort from both you and your spouse. Let's face it; to do this is not natural for us and does not come easily. In the heat of an argument the last thing you think about is whether or not your spouse is understanding exactly what you are saying and vice versa. To put this into practice requires a great deal of work from both of you, but it is well worth the effort. I suggest that you and your spouse make a pact now to put this into practice. This way you can remind each of your pact and start the listening process.

When rust appears you must confront it immediately or the metal will deteriorate and start to disintegrate. Rust cannot be ignored onboard a ship or it will eat holes in the hull. A ship won't float for very long if its hull is eaten by rust. Your marriage is the same as that ship; you must deal with rust of unresolved conflict if you want your marriage to float. In the half of this article we discussed understanding the differences between you and your spouse, not letting the sun go down on your anger, and about love, commitment, and forgiveness. In the second half of this article we will take the next step and deal with ways that you can remove the rust of unresolved conflict.

Confrontation: it's a word that chills my bones. I personally don't like confrontation; it goes against my nature. However, conflict is like a two-sided coin. It is possible on the one side; that conflict can draw a married couple together by bringing greater understanding, or the other side of the coin is that it can drive a wedge made out of resentment and even fear between them. I think that most of us tend to avoid conflict because we have not been taught effective ways to face and deal with it. Some people do not want to admit that they have been hurt and as a result they withdraw and hide their feelings from their spouse. Then there are other people who are stuck in a vicious circle of wanting to get even by inflicting the same type of hurt that was inflicted on them.

The FamilyLife® Homebuilders Series says that there are four basic ways that we use to resolve conflict. Three of them are a result of human nature and the fourth requires Godly nature. The four ways are:

1. Fight to win.
2. Withdraw from the conflict.
3. Yield to the other person.
4. Lovingly confront the other person.

When you look at this list should be able to quickly pick out the style that you use to resolve conflict. Mine happens to be number two. I have a tendency to back away from arguments and fights. Which one of these categories do you fit into?

In the fight to win solution to conflict you only care about winning; at any cost. This type of person will not listen to his or her spouse's opinion because it does not matter to them. The only opinion that counts is their opinion. They will not let you confuse their mind with facts because it is already made up. The person who fights to win essentially avoids the conflict by “winning.” The conflict is not resolved because one side “won” and the other side “lost.” In all actuallity, both individuals lose. It is like removing rust by using hydrochloric acid. It gets rid of the rust but also eats the metal. The person who fights to win may think that the confrontation has been resolved, but in reality he/she is only eating holes in the fabric of the marriage.

In the withdraw from conflict solution to conflict you are simply running away. This type of person wants to avoid a fight at any cost. This person also will not listen to his or her spouse's opinion because that would mean he/she would have to deal with the conflict. Running away from conflict is easier than dealing with it, but the conflict remains unresolved. Once again, both individuals lose. It is like looking at rust, deciding that there is nothing that can be done, and walking away. This person hopes that the rust will go away of its own accord. The truth is that the rust remains and the corrosion continues to do its destructive work.

In the yield to the other person solution to conflict you are simply giving up. You let your spouse have his/her way in order to end the conflict. The conflict however, remains unresolved. Yielding to the other person causes you to feel both resentment and guilt. You feel resentful because your spouse got their way (again). You feel guilty because you gave in so quickly (again). Because the conflict is still unresolved, both individuals lose. This person hopes that his/her spouse will deal with the rust. He/she does not want to do the work necessary to remove the rust and gives in quickly to the other person. The person to whom the conflict was yielded does not deal with rust either. The rust remains and the corrosion continues to do its destructive work.

Obviously, number four, lovingly confront the other person, is the way we should resolve conflicts. But knowing what we should do and knowing how to do it are two different things. How do we lovingly confront our spouse when we are in conflict with them? There are three basics steps to take in resolving conflict by lovingly confronting your spouse. Let's take a look at each one of these steps.

Step #1. Look inside yourself.

Step one: look inside yourself before you look critically at your spouse. Have you ever been mad at your spouse about something that you yourself have done? Have you ever forgotten to take out the trash, and then yelled at your spouse for forgetting to take out the trash? I know that is a very simplistic scenario but it gets my point across. As Matthew 7:4 (NASB) says, Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? We have a tendency to see faults in others and not even realize that we have the same faults. The fault that drives you nuts about someone else is probably very prevalent in you; you just can't see it because there is a “log” in your eye.

Step #2. Choose the right circumstance.

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Proverbs 25:11

Step two: choose the right circumstance to resolve conflict. What is a circumstance? A circumstance is a combination of place, time, events, and specifications. Proverbs 25:11 is telling us that a word spoken at the right time, the right place, with a specific goal in mind is as valuable (if not more so) as expensive jewelry. Carefully choose the right time and place to lovingly confront each other on an issue. You need to sit down together and pick the time that is most convenient for both of you. An issue does not have to be settled today if you both agree to a time tomorrow that works well for you. Next you have to choose a place to lovingly confront each other. Pick a restaurant that you both enjoy, or a park that you both like, or any place that you both agree on will serve our purpose. The important thing is you both agree on a time and place to lovingly confront each other. By setting up the right circumstances, you are setting yourself up for success.

Step #3. Speak the truth, but speak it in love.

But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ. Ephesians 4:15

Step Three: What do think happens to a relationship when one person speaks truthfully, but without love. The results are hurt feelings, a sense of unworthiness, and a crushed spirit. If you truly love your spouse, is this really the message you want to send? Husbands, if your wife is trying on a dress and asks if the dress makes her look fat, do not tell her that the dress would look fine if she would just loose 30 pounds. Just let her know that the horizontal stripes in the dress don't do anything for her.

Speaking the truth in love can be especially difficult when you are having an argument with your spouse. Do not use sentences that start with “you always” or “you never.” Those sentences have the exact opposite intent that you want because you are saying “100% of the time you always…” or “100% of the time you never…” You cannot speak the truth in love when you use either of those two phrases. The reason? You cannot use either of those phrases and actually speak the truth. If your spouse forgets to take out the trash (again) and you blow your stack (again), do not say to your spouse, “You always forget to take out the trash!” First off, your spouse will know that your statement was a lie. Secondly, your spouse will ignore anything else you say next because the first statement you made was a lie. Speaking the truth in love means that you must say something like, “I would really appreciate it if you would remember to take out the trash, dear.”

It is very difficult to speak the truth in love when you have lost your temper or when you are angry. This is another reason why it is important to pick the right time and place to lovingly confront each other. You will have an easier time speaking the truth in love if you have given each other time to calm down. You will also have had time to think about what you want to say before you say it. Your conflicts get resolved and your relationship gets restored. It is a win-win situation.

Step #4. You must forgive your spouse just as much as God has forgiven you.

For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, But if you do not forgive men for their transgressions, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. Matthew 6:14,15

Step Four: These two verses tell us that if we forgive others then God will forgive us. If we choose not to forgive others, then God will not forgive us. It's your choice; you can forgive or not, it's up to you. Your willingness to forgive others is used by God to determine whether or not he will forgive you. These verses apply to all personal relationships, but for our purposes we will narrow this down to the relationship between husbands and wives. Unforgiveness accelerates the growth of rust in your marriage.

We don't usually think of unforgiveness as a choice, but it is. You choose whether or not you are going to forgive. Perhaps you have heard someone say, “I am never going to forgive my spouse for what he/she did to me!” Perhaps you have said that very phrase. When your spouse does something that makes you really angry and you think to yourself, “I am never going to forgive him/her,” you are on very dangerous ground. That attitude of unforgiveness gets reflected right back at us from God. For Christians, forgiveness is a lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that should be practiced daily in your marriage. When you think about everything that God has forgiven you of; the things that your spouse does that make you angry are small by comparison.

When you choose to forgive, you show forth Gods love through your forgiveness. When you choose not to forgive, you show that you lack Gods love through your unforgiveness. Your spouse can do things to you that cause you not to want to forgive him/her for some time. Sometimes the hurt and bitterness can be too deep to even want or care about forgiving your spouse. If you are in that situation or find yourself in it someday here is my advice: Admit to God that you are too hurt and angry to forgive your spouse, and let Him know that you need His help to heal the wound(s) so that you can someday forgive your spouse. It may take time to get to the point where you can forgive, but with God's help you will get to that point. It is all in your attitude. Forgiveness is the sandpaper that removes rust from our marriage.

Step #5. Forgive and forget.

Step Five: Forgive and forget does not mean that you put a welcome mat on your back and let your spouse walk all over you. Some spouses assume that when they are forgiven, it means they have permission to do whatever they did again. If they are doing this, it means they never repented in the first place. If they are not repenting, then you are not really forgiving, you are only giving permission, and they are taking advantage of you.

Forgive and forget means that after you have forgiven your spouse, you don't keep bringing the situation up again and again. Don't keep digging up what you have already buried. If you keep dredging up something that already has been forgiven, then that is a sign that you have not really forgiven at all. If your spouse has truly repented. and you have truly forgiven, then there is no reason to bring it up again. It is sanding off the rust of conflict and painting the surface so that it looks brand new.

Think about what your marriage would be and look like if you got rid of the rust of conflict every time it surfaced. The good news is that rust control can be a reality and not just a dream if you will just follow these rust prevention techniques. With God's help, you can resolve conflict and have richer relationship with your spouse. Do not let unresolved conflict drive a wedge into your marriage. Use these tools and enjoy the relationship God intended marriage to be in your life. May God richly bless you, your spouse, and your marriage.

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