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The Power of Healthy Conflict
Your marriage needs conflict.
And yet, sadly, people rarely believe this. It’s probably because conflict is a topic that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. It can bring fear to our hearts and remind us of past failures and acts of which we are ashamed. Our lives are pockmarked by battles and arguments with our loved ones, like the one I experienced while returning from a date night with my wife.
“You’re speeding,” Erin warned.
“I’m driving the speed limit,” I snapped. “Quit trying to control me.”
“I’m telling you that the speed limit is thirty-five,” Erin shot back, “and you’re doing forty-five. You’re going to get a ticket!”
“This is a brand-new road in the middle of nowhere,” I argued. “Why would they make it thirty-five? I’m positive that it’s forty-five. Besides, why would anyone care if I’m going a little fast on a deserted road?”
Apparently someone cared, as evidenced by the blue and red lights flashing behind me.
Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.
—WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING
And before I could give her that look that says, “Don’t you dare,” Erin gloated, “I warned you. But maybe you’ll learn to believe me after our insurance rates go up.”
This was one of those moments when I desperately wanted to run far away from my wife, but I figured that fleeing my vehicle might present a whole new set of problems for me.
As the officer approached my window, he asked the one question that I was hoping he wouldn’t: “Do you know how fast you were going?”
Haven’t you ever wanted to smart off by saying something like “No . . . it’s really difficult to see over the beer can,” or “I don’t, but I bet you do!” I’m so glad I only think these things and don’t say them out loud.
Well, before I could actually say “No, kind sir, I don’t know how fast I was going” in my politest voice, Erin snapped, “He knows. I told him he was speeding, but he chose not to listen.”
To make matters worse, the officer said, “So you don’t know how fast you were going. I guess that means I can write anything I want on the ticket, huh?”
Again . . . ouch! Who were these two, a comedy team?
I probably should have stopped there, but I thought that after the drubbing I’d received from my wife and the officer, he’d have compassion for me.
“Any way you’d let me off with a warning?” I begged. “The real punishment will be having to endure the ‘I told you so’ all the way home. A ticket would be over the top—like beating a dead horse.”
When will I learn that some people don’t find me funny?
“You want a warning?” the officer said graciously. “Okay, I’m warning you that if you go above the speed limit again, I’ll give you another ticket.”
With that, I was done. Unfortunately, Erin wasn’t finished. After she directed some additional choice words and phrases at me, we spent the rest of the drive home in silence.
You may be wondering, “How could an interaction like that be something my marriage needs?” Let me explain.
CONFLICT: BEAUTY OR THE BEAST?
What images come into your mind when you think about conflict? Perhaps you fought with your parents, kids in the neighborhood, school bullies, friends in junior high, or teachers. Maybe your marriage is riddled with conflict today, or perhaps you never fight. Whatever your past or current experiences, how do you perceive conflict? Are these images positive or negative? Conflict has the potential for beauty, but at the same time, there is also a “beast” lurking in it if we mishandle our conflicts.
In an unhealthy sense, if we avoid conflict, pretend it doesn’t exist, gossip to others about it, get angry, or intimidate others into doing what we want, the greater the problem will become, and the greater the relational damage will be. Couples who do not work out their differences and manage their conflict issues are at risk for divorce.
The apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15).
Many couples hate to confront disagreements and hurts because they’re afraid of rocking the boat, so they choose to keep the peace at any price and sweep their issues under the rug. However, this strategy usually does not resolve the problem, because suppressed conflict is always buried alive, and it often festers until it becomes a much bigger problem. In the end, buried issues end up exploding like a massive volcano, leaving our spouse and family members in its wake of destruction. Dallin H. Oaks said, “Peace . . . is not just the absence of war. It’s the opposite of war.”1
In Matthew 5:23–24 we are encouraged to deal with relationship problems so that our hearts will be right when we worship the Lord. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
The difficulty with mishandled conflict is that it creates an unsafe environment. Spouses feel like they are walking on a thin layer of volcanic crust, while underneath rages a river of molten lava ready to consume those trapped nearby. And when people feel unsafe, their heart closes and they disconnect. This is why, when asked about divorce, Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). A hard heart is the kiss of death to a marriage, and that is exactly what prolonged, unhealthy conflict creates: a hardened heart! King Solomon deeply understood the reality of a hard heart: “An offended friend is harder to win back than a fortified city. Arguments separate friends like a gate locked with bars” (Proverbs 18:19). Indeed, not confronting and managing conflict often causes long-term resentment, which eventually destroys feelings of love in a marriage. The bottom line is your marriage may not last if you do not work through issues. This is why two of the world’s top marriage experts, Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, claim that managing conflict is the key to staying in love and staying married. Their thirty years of research indicate that if couples learned to work out their conflicts, the overall divorce rate could be cut by over 50 percent.2
No pressure, no diamonds.
That’s amazing! Who knew that actually facing our differences and managing our conflict in a healthy way could produce such results? It’s true that conflict can be a beast, but there also exists a beauty. I love marital-art master Thomas Crum’s image of conflict:
One of the myths is the idea that conflict is negative. . . . Nature doesn’t see conflict as a negative. Nature uses conflict as a primary motivator for change. Imagine floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Quiet water flowing into exhilarating rapids. Hidden canyons with shade trees and wildflowers. Clear springs of drinkable water. Solitude and silence that can be found in few places in today’s world. And those majestic cliffs looming above, with fantastic patterns in the rock and all the colors of the rainbow displayed. The Grand Canyon is truly one of the world’s greatest wonders and provides us with a profound sense of harmony and peace. Yet how was that amazing vista formed? Eons and eons of water flowing, continually wearing away the rock, carrying it to the sea. A conflict that continues to this day. Conflict isn’t negative, it just is.3
Let’s face it, unless you’re a black belt like Thomas Crum, few people are genuinely excited about conflict. And yet it’s essential that we recognize conflict for what it is: an unavoidable and potentially beneficial part of being in a relationship with another human being.
Let me explain these two truths about conflict. First, conflict is inevitable. Any person involved in a sustained relationship is bound to experience conflict with that other person eventually. It’s a part of getting to know and adjusting to a person, his or her habits, values, and ways of functioning. Two people will never have the same expectations, thoughts, opinions, or needs. In fact, marriage expert Dr. Larry Nadig believes that a relationship with no apparent conflict may be unhealthier than one with frequent conflict.4
Absence of conflict suggests the presence of deadened emotions or a hardened heart, or that one spouse is being suppressed or giving in to his or her mate. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it’s very dangerous to the marriage. Anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be more intense than it needed to be. Second, although conflict is unavoidable, it can also bring amazing benefits to a relationship. Watch how this happens.
THE HIDDEN VALUE OF CONFLICT
Few people know that Murfreesboro, Arkansas, is home to Crater of Diamonds State Park, the only diamond-producing site in the world where the public can search for diamonds. For a small fee, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep whatever they find.
The park is located above the eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe. This “crater” is actually a thirty-seven-acre open field that is plowed from time to time to bring diamonds and other gem-stones to the surface. I will never forget my first impression of this place. It wasn’t pretty. What they don’t tell you in their lovely brochure is that the volcanic field (don’t forget the eroded part) is a treeless wasteland of dirt and rocks and, apparently, dia...