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This is the third piece in our four- part series on preparing for marriage. Be sure you have read and completed the action steps for part one and part two before moving on to step three.
You’d never know that by watching a Disney movie where Anna and Kristoff ride off into the future together. Or by watching a romantic comedy where the man and woman pursue each other, overcome all kinds of funny obstacles, and land in each other’s arms at the end. No one ever mentions that the future might have a few bumps and potholes along the way. It’s all happily ever after stuff.
The goal is not to be conflict-free. The goal is to find a way to have safe, healthy, constructive conflict.
Not only is conflict in marriage inevitable, it’s perfectly normal. It’s a part of life. That’s one of the reasons wedding vows include phrases like “for better, for worse,” “for richer, for poorer,” and “in sickness and in health.”
The goal is not to be conflict-free. The goal is to find a way to have safe, healthy, constructive conflict. Strong marriages create environments where both spouses feel heard, valued, and loved when conflict occurs. Healthy marriages find ways to resolve conflict and to move forward together. Great marriages provide a safe place for conflict where the result is a better outcome for both spouses.
There are two aspects to providing a safe place for conflict where the result is better for both spouses: The Purpose, and The Plan.
The two of you are a team. One of the most beautiful aspects of marriage is knowing that you have a teammate who is fully committed to you all the time and who always has your best interest at heart.
In marriage, the two really do become one. It is no longer about the individual ego; it’s about the collective greater good. Everything has to be subordinate to the goal and purpose of the team. Individual achievement means nothing. Most teams fail not because they lack talent, but because they lack the character necessary to subjugate personal ambition to a common purpose.
The two of you are a team.
What is your purpose as a married couple? You get to establish that for yourselves. Is it to be better together? Or perhaps to help each other become the-best-version-of-yourselves? Maybe it’s to help each other get to heaven? You don’t have to be ultra creative and compose your purpose in Haiku poetry or find it in some long lost scroll found in the desert. You can choose from one of the three options just mentioned above or adapt one of them in a way that suits the two of you.
The point is to know your purpose. Agree on your common, unchanging purpose as a couple. That way, when you disagree or argue, you can remind yourselves of that purpose. For example, if your purpose is to help each other get to heaven, then the discussion becomes about how your opinions or ideas actually fulfill that shared purpose of helping each other get to heaven.
Everything has to become subordinate to the goal and purpose of the team. If the team loses, we both lose. When conflict arises, couples in great marriages have a plan for navigating through the conflict for the good of the team. That plan will always include:
1. Remember purpose
You have agreed on your common, unchanging purpose as a couple. Now, when you disagree, remind yourselves of that purpose. Frame the conversation around how this disagreement can help you fulfill your purpose as a couple. For example, if your purpose is to help each other become the-best-version-of-yourselves, then the focus of the discussion becomes about how your opinions or ideas actually can make that happen.
Now you are arguing FOR something. You are no longer arguing AGAINST something. Most importantly, you are no longer arguing against SOMEONE. It is no longer personal. It is purposeful.
2. Breathe deeply
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” He’s right. Taking a break when conflict arises can be your good friend. Do something that relaxes you. Slow down. Take a walk for a few minutes. Listen to some soothing music. Inhale deep breaths. All of these can calm the process and help you focus on teamwork rather than being an individual.
Conflict can become a source of healthy growth and bonding together as a couple.
Slowing the process down can help you focus on your partner and what they are feeling, thinking, and saying. It can also help you delay the need to express your own thoughts and feelings. Breathing deeply creates space in the conversation and prevents you from taking things personally or losing your cool.
3. Listen attentively
We all desire to be heard. It is one of the ways we feel most loved. And this is especially true with our husband or wife. This person who matters most to us can give us the greatest gift of love by simply listening to our deepest feelings and hurts, maintaining eye contact so we know they are seeking to know us deeply, and occasionally offering a word of kindness, even when they may disagree with part of what we say.
By simply listening attentively to your spouse, you are de-escalating the situation and offering love right in the middle of an argument. You are communicating acceptance even in disagreement.
4. Accept responsibility
Healthy people accept at least partial responsibility for the issue. They do not retreat into defensiveness and refuse to accept any part whatsoever. Healthy people own their actions and words. They do not resort to excuse-making.
The act of accepting responsibility underscores the fact that you two are a team. And it points toward a way forward. Both of you create the solution rather than one spouse accepting responsibility while the other spouse fixes the problem as if disagreement in the marriage were based on “I win, you lose.” When both spouses accept responsibility, the relationship moves toward a “we win” model of teamwork.
5. Speak respectfully
Teamwork requires respect. And respect leaves no room for name-calling, stonewalling, criticism of motives, sarcastic ridiculing, or manipulation.
Instead, respect will move openly toward someone with positive energy. Respect will remember that sometimes it is more important to be loving than right. And respect will give what we expect to receive in return.
Learning to handle conflict well is an integral part of being married and facing the future together.
In the end, the goal of managing conflict is not to be right. The goal is to grow stronger by listening, loving, and finding a healthy way forward. Compromise is good. In fact, it’s better than good; it’s wonderful.
Sit down with your future spouse and craft your purpose for your marriage. Again, you don’t need to get too creative. Either adopt one of the options mentioned earlier in this article or use them to craft one of your own. The point is to have a common, unchanging, agreed upon purpose. Write it down. Place it somewhere to remind you of who you are together. Maybe have it designed and printed beautifully, and hang it next to your bed. Make your common, unchanging purpose a centerpiece to your marriage.
Next, set out your plan for conflict. Discuss how you handle conflict: do you avoid it at all costs, or do you dive right in? Do you want to deal with things right away, or do you need time to process your thoughts and emotions? Do you struggle to listen, or speak in anger? Perhaps your plan will include a specific time and place for handling conflict. It could say, “we will wait for thirty minutes to calm down and gather ourselves and then sit at the kitchen table to discuss what’s wrong.” It could also include how you know when to activate your plan.
Conflict can become a source of healthy growth and bonding together as a couple. Learning to handle conflict well is an integral part of being married and facing the future together. The goal isn’t to be conflict-free. It’s to find a way to have safe, healthy, constructive conflict.