Monday, October 17, 2011

On Marital Conflict

TITLE: On Marital Conflict
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Oct 2011


And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” (Col 3:17-19)

(Credit: Authorsden.com)
Sometime ago, I spoke to a group of husbands, asking them to tell me about why they love their wives. The men were largely muted. Some were uncomfortable. Others seemed more protective about their own privacy. I ventured to provide a personal opinion, that I would tell my wife:

I love you because you’re you.

That sparked a flurry of responses. Of course, I am not at liberty to give out any further details. Safe to say, marital conflicts have changed the way many of us men perceive our marriage partners. Yet, a marriage is never just about the men or the women. A marriage is about both the man and the woman becoming one person, unique in themselves, united as one. That said, why are there so many troubled marriages?

This week, I will reflect on one of the biggest obstacles to marriage: Marital conflict and the management of it thereof.



A) Paul’s Teachings: Is he qualified?

Since Paul is single, sometimes I wonder if Paul is rightly suited to tell husbands and wives. If Paul is to walk into our church and say the same things, I suppose there will be several people standing up to accuse Paul of speaking without personal experience. Paul does not have a marriage certificate. He has no wife. Thus, how can Paul the single ever be able to understand the nuances and challenges of marriage? Is it not true that it takes one to know one?

Though it is a valid concern, one cannot be too dogmatic about this. Experience matters but total experience does not matter totally. Wisdom about marriages is not restricted only to married people. Even for those of us married for many years, we still struggle with conflicts. I know of couples in their golden years who continue to have quarrels and misunderstandings among them. My take is this. In the eyes of people, age, experience, and track record may be primary yardsticks for wisdom in marriage. In the eyes of God, godly love, spiritual wisdom and humble discernment can come through anybody. This is exactly why we take the teachings in Colossians seriously. It is the Word of God, through Paul.

If we are to disqualify Paul simply because he is single, I suppose we have to disqualify Jesus too! In other words, we need to be humble to acknowledge that God can use anybody, single or married, young or old, experienced or inexperienced, to teach the rest of us about the marital relationship.

B) Three Wrong Approaches

One of the best certification programs I have attended is the PREPARE/ENRICH couple checkup program. Ministry workers upon completing the course will be given the license to guide couples to take a snapshot of their marriage relationships, and then analyzed using one the largest knowledge databases of marital health factors in America. Backed by scientific studies and research professionals, the program has helped more than 2.5 million couples to prepare for marriage as well as to enrich their marriages. For this week, I like to share what I have learned from the program, and highlight 3 common conflict approaches that are clearly wrong. Let me call it the MAD approach.

The first is M = Misunderstanding that all conflicts are bad. Far too many people are seeing good marriages through the rosy lens of feel-nice, feel-good, and feel-comfort. For such people, conflict is a bad thing, and is to be eradicated at all cost. Whenever there is a conflict, there is a concern about the marriage becoming at risk. Conflicts are seen as an absolute no-no, to the point that good marriages cannot have conflict. Thus, people misunderstand marriage as one that simply cannot have any conflict. By saying that a marriage is good only if there is no conflict, it is like saying a good weather is one that has no rain. Tell that to the farmer.  David Olson wisely says:

Happy marriages are not marriages without obstacles; they are marriages where couples use obstacles as opportunities to grow in their partnership.” (David Olson, et al, The Couple Checkup, Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2008, p17)

Not all sunny days are good. Not all rainy days are bad either. We all have to learn to live with the weather, and to learn to adjust according to it. Likewise, not all conflict-less marriages are good. Not all conflicts in marriages are bad. Learn to live and to learn from every conflict. Resolve to see conflicts as opportunities to grow in understanding not just the spouse but also oneself.

The second wrong approach A = AVOIDANCE. It is a direct result of the misunderstanding of conflict. If ALL conflicts are bad, is it not natural for one to try to avoid it as much as possible? According to David Olson, 78% of the surveyed marriage population go all out to avoid conflict. Olson goes to tell the story of a boy who spots a small dragon in the house, and tells his mother about it. The mother simply dismisses it outright by saying that there is no such thing as a dragon. As both mother and son ignore the dragon, the dragon grows, and grows and grows. It grows so large that its arms, legs, claws fill the house so much until the limbs protrude out of every window in the house. When the mother finally admits that there IS a dragon, mysteriously, the dragon goes back to its original size. This is a very useful story to illustrate the fact that conflicts are unavoidable in any relationship. Unless we learn to honestly acknowledge the presence of a conflict, the conflict will grow.

The third wrongful approach is D = DESTRUCTIVE behaviour. Instead of avoiding conflicts, some couples swing to the other extreme to attack any conflict with destructive behavior. They raise their voices. They up the stakes. By dumping all their anger and emotions on trying to kill the conflict, they unwittingly let themselves loose at their spouses instead of the conflict. Some husbands inflict physical abuse. Many wives shoot off verbal abuse. Anger feeds off more anger toward a destructive pattern of ‘thou-be-conquered-or-die.’ When one starts to attack the person rather than the conflict, one easily feels hurt rather than heard. Olson notes:

“Attacking the other person generates hostility rather than resolution. Blaming is a form of attacking your partner. Blamers spend a lot of time and energy trying to change other people. They essentially try to hold others responsible for their own feelings and see others, rather than themselves, as the source of the problem.” (60)

The American writer, Laurence Peter says of anger wittingly,

Speak when you are angry--and you will make the best speech you'll ever regret.

Good point.

C) Conflict as Opportunity

I remember as a young boy, my parents will begin with a tiff, enter into a quarrel, and conclude with a major fight. The D-word becomes freely used. Past history gets racked up. Accusations without basis become vicious ammunition. Those moments taint one of the lowest points of my life. I feel helpless, hapless, and hopeless. It takes the discovery of my father’s brain tumour to cool my mother down. It takes years of seeing how faithful my mum is to my dad, to calm his tempers. It takes an unfortunate medical condition, to bring out the best of my mum and dad. My parents treat conflict as something to be battled out fist-fully, and forcefully. Sad but true.

Many marriages are struggling because of the above MAD paradigms. When one sees conflicts as totally bad, one essentially removes a crucial curriculum in the journey of marriage education. Such a misunderstanding of marital conflicts gives rise to the twin errors of absolute avoidance of conflict, or absolute destruction of conflict. We need to see conflicts as a part of marriage, as something to be addressed together, and to be used constructively, we will continue to struggle with marital conflicts. The most important thing in conflicts is to learn to see it as an opportunity to learn about our spouses, as well as our inner selves.

D) Improving Conflict Resolution

Conflict as opportunity requires us to go back to our basic beliefs. We need to revert to our ABCs. Perhaps, we need to be reminded again about our wedding vows or something simpler. Let me suggest going back to the ABCs of conflict resolution.

A = Acknowledge the conflict
Do not try to pooh-pooh away the presence of any conflict. No conflict is too small. I remember a joke about the members of the body trying to claim superiority over the rest. The brain will claim to be the boss simply because the brain controls the rest of the body. The legs emphasize movement, that without legs, the body cannot travel. The stomach rebukes the rest by saying that without food, none of them will survive. One by one, each part of the body claims to be the boss. Until it comes to the ass, to which every other member of the body laughs and quickly dismisses the ass from even being part of the consideration. Irritated, the ass clams up. It allows nothing through, making the body very uncomfortable over time. Finally, the brain cannot think. The legs become wobbly. The eyes and ears turn faint. The stomach churns badly. Finally, everyone concedes defeat and the ass becomes the boss. The moral of that story is that one needs not have brains in order to be the boss.

The point is that no matter how small, every member of the body is important. Likewise, the conflict is not important in itself, but because conflict is part and parcel of every relationship, it needs to be acknowledged, even embraced in order for couples to learn more of each other.

B = Build Understanding

In any conflict resolution, aim at building up resilience in the relationship. Tell each other that the conflict is no excuse for tearing each other down. It is very tempting to try to hurt the other party. It is tempting to force our own views on the other person. Resist. Refuse to let the devil get a foothold in the marriage. Aim to build up understanding. Try to say:

  • “Let me try to understand where you are coming from. Please correct me if necessary”
  • “This marriage is not just mine or yours but OUR concern.”
  • “Can we agree to understand each other first before anything else?”

C= Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

My late uncle, a medical doctor tells me that the main problem in all marriages is communications. I like to add in the ‘lack of communications’ as a primary cause of poor conflict resolutions. Communications is not just hearing but listening. The former hears words. The latter listens for tones, mannerisms, facial expressions, timing, and many others besides plain words. The best communicators will be firmly in touch with 2 persons: Spouse and self. By knowing oneself, one can choose to respond intentionally rather than react carelessly. By exercising true knowledge of self, one will know when not to cross personal boundaries. Communicate with your spouse the agreed rules of engagement. Assure each other that arguments will be fair for both. Allow time for both to engage or to disengage. Constructive communications during conflicts will go a long way to strengthen the marriage. Non-communications leads to a freeway of misunderstanding and misrepresenting each other. Here are 3 further tips on communications:

  • Paraphrase what you hear frequently;
  • Use “I feel that...” more that “you” or “you are always....”
  • Say to others what you want others to say to you.

A good marriage is not one that is devoid of conflicts. It is one that is cool and calm about resolving conflicts. It is one that consistently and patiently deals with each conflict intentionally. It is one where LOVE is the foremost concern throughout the conflict resolution process. It is not anchored on the presence of good feelings or the absence of conflicts. It is anchored on the foundation of a covenant. Let me close with the wonderful words of the American writer, Thornton Wilder.

I didn't marry you because you were perfect. I didn't even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn't a house that protected them; and it wasn't our love that protected them - it was that promise.” (Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth)

Ditto. When all else seems to fail, fall back on God to help us keep the promise to love, and be loved. Love never fails. Always.


sabbathwalk




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