Conflict is inevitable. It is part of being in a relationship. Conflict that causes damage to your relationship is not inevitable. Conflict that actually builds unity and intimacy is possible for any couple. There are some things to know about conflict and some tools that will help maximize the latter type of conflict or “healthy conflict.”
God made us in His image as relational creatures. He designed relationships to help us grow, knowing that growth brings joy and contentment. God said in Genesis 2:18 that a relationship with Him alone was not enough. Having healthy conflict is one of the hallmarks of stable, lasting relationships that maximize a person’s growth.
Each time a couple goes through conflict in a healthy way, the sense of commitment is deepened with the knowledge that the relationship is stronger than any differences that exist. It’s kind of like working out. Working a muscle can be hard and a little painful, but if it is done without damage to the muscle, the muscle will grow stronger.
First of all, some basics. Communication is 90 to 95% tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Research about “mirror neurons” indicates just how much communication we pick up from our partner that is nonverbal. It has been shown that a spouse can merely come into a room without saying a word, with his back turned to his mate, and his partner can accurately pick up on his mood.
This is how connected each of us is to our mate. How much more deeply we will affect each other during conflict. Learning to modulate our tone, facial expression, and body language is essential. This is an important developmental skill. Doing so communicates to your partner: I am upset, we may disagree, but I still love you and care about you. In essence, it assures your partner that the relationship is more important than the conflict.
Next, filter the issues that actually need to be seriously discussed. Do not frivolously throw out negative or contentious remarks. Don’t react; respond. Use this three-pronged test for anything that may have the slightest possibility to cause conflict: 1) Does this need to be said? 2) Am I the person that needs to say it? 3) Is now the best time to say it?
We should know our partners. This takes time and is a process. The Bible says to “dwell with our mate with understanding.” (1 Peter 3:7) This does not mean to absolutely know why our partner thinks, acts, or responds a certain way. We just need to know how, not why. Knowing the tender areas for our partner and touching upon them very carefully is a necessity. Remember that you have these hard to understand items, too!
Knowing the timing of when to discuss things is important also, much like learning the timing for physical intimacy with your mate. Is something going on in their life that we don’t need to add stress onto? Have they had a hard day? Have they been ill recently? Will they be receptive? Will there be sufficient time if one or both of you need to process the topic?
Third, one of the most important things each person can do is to concentrate on helping his partner feel heard, understood, and cared about. You will be surprised how quickly two people begin to see eye to eye on a topic when they are both feeling heard, understood, and cared about. This is a good skill to use if the conflict seems to be headed nowhere.
Step back and focus upon hearing, understanding, and showing care to your partner. A good technique here is simply reflecting back what your partner has just said to make sure you understand it and to show them you are listening. If we let our mate finish their statement, often our response to them changes from what we would have stated in an interruption; usually in a positive way.
The fourth tool I will discuss is taking a timeout. This sounds pretty basic, but it saves a lot of negative, unhealthy conflict. Not everyone has the same threshold of endurance for conflict. Sometimes past traumas in a person’s life makes them more susceptible to the effects of conflict.
Signs that you or your mate need to take a timeout are a rapid pulse, flushed face, raised voices, inability to stay on point, or when one or both of you are merely taking jabs in defense mode. At this point, positive communication has ceased, and it’s probably good to take a timeout. Many times a new perspective of the issue is possible, and often it takes on much less importance.
It is important that the person who calls a timeout indicates when the topic can be picked back up again. This is important to show care for one another. Then it is up to that person to get back to his mate to see if it is okay to begin the discussion again, or one or the other of you can agree to a further timeout. Of course it doesn’t hurt to pray for changed hearts (plural) during timeouts!
Remember that your mate is not the enemy. Tearing them down in unhealthy conflict is literally like shooting yourself in the foot. You do have a common enemy though, an enemy that wants to steal, kill, and destroy your relationship, your marriage, and your family. But He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (the enemy).
Being able to show grace and forgiveness is vital. Help your mate to save face. Remember that you are one flesh. Appreciating the grace that God has shown us is the main indicator of someone’s ability to pass along grace. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus actually indicated that we should pray that God would forgive us in the same way that we forgive others.
And remember: “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Proverbs 15:1.