By Sue Schlesman, Crosswalk.com
You’re at it again. A simple conversation. A teasing remark. An instruction. Venting after work. And somehow, you and your spouse (or significant other) are locked into a knock-out round that leaves you weepy, angry, or unsettled for the rest of the day.
You’re not sure how a comment or observation ignited into such a big fire. Like oxygen to flames, your friendly critique or sarcastic response has created a problem that’s not easily extinguished.
What should you do and how can you avoid fighting with the person you love the most? Here’s a simple strategy:
- Adjust your tone (Are you mad? Unkind? Disrespectful? Take a time-out and try later.)
- Redefine your goal (Are you trying to win?)
- Identify the triggers (We all push other people’s buttons, sometimes on purpose)
- Talk about your problem, not the other person’s problem (Use “I feel” statements, not “You ….”)
If your tone is disrespectful or rude, it doesn’t matter what the topic is or who’s to blame. You’re going to fight. If your goal is to win every conversation, you’re going to fight a lot or shut down your spouse emotionally. (If you’re married to an avoider, you’re going to get the silent treatment.)
It’s helpful to identify the potential landmines if you want to avoid verbal insults and emotional manipulations. Be aware that most of us fight around these 7 topics.
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Generally, we have opinions about how our spouses spend their time, when they’re with us and not with us, particularly in when trust has been broken.
Usually, our opinions relate back to us: Am I getting enough attention? Does he/she prefer time with other people over me? Are we doing things together that we both enjoy or just that one of us enjoys? Are we splitting our time evenly between work, play, and family?
The conflicts we have about time reflect deeper problems and insecurities (for example: jealousy, low self-image, materialism, ambition, and selfishness).
In order not to fight about working late hours, missing family gatherings, or going out with friends, every couple needs to discover their emotional need regarding time and attention. You need to discuss it.
One of you might require a lot of quality time while the other doesn’t. If that’s the case, a 50/50 split of time is not necessary, but a different kind of attention is needed. Talk through what you both expect and how it makes you feel when you don’t receive the attention you need. Give grace in areas that don’t matter.
Avoiding or resolving arguments requires a couple things:
1) Put your spouse first. That doesn’t mean he/she “wins” the argument; it means you value him/her over winning the argument.
2) Decide on a win/win outcome for every discussion. If you can’t agree, wait and pray about the decision. Most decisions can wait longer than you think they can.
3) Always confess and ask forgiveness when you’re a jerk. Own it, ask forgiveness, and change.
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Many of us couples have differing beliefs about how to spend, save, give, and invest.
You and your spouse may have different opinions about how much you should pay for something or how to shop for things. It’s wise to talk through all purchasing and saving goals early in marriage to learn how the other person treats money.
Couples entering marriage with huge credit card debt or student loans bring a lot of stress into the relationship and on your whole family; learning to stay out of debt and prioritize paying down debt is integral to handling money together without fighting. Also, you need to talk about saving for the future to lessen your money-related stress.
While couples often have their own careers and spending money, it’s probably unwise to keep all your accounts and belongings separate, as if you are roommates rather than a married couple. The process of merging “mine” and “yours” is a critical part of becoming one. This act will require vulnerability, humility, and selflessness--but will make your marriage that much stronger as a result.
Yes, merging everything (especially money) invites difficult discussions, but keeping everything separate fosters a separate-but-equal mentality in the marriage, forging a comfortable pathway for competition, pride, and even divorce.
If you have debt and spending problems, seek out a financial advisor and develop a plan to manage your money responsibly. The positive momentum will reduce your conflicts over money, and the overall stress of your relationship.
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Our childhoods and our parents form the framework for how we parent our own children.
Unless you married someone with a nearly-identical family culture, you will naturally approach many parenting dilemmas differently. For instance, you may have had a very strict upbringing that in some ways you resent, so your parenting style may be more carefree. But your spouse may have craved the attention and guidance that rules bring if they lived in a too-lax home, so they may wish to lay down the law.
It's important to recognize that differences exist so you can work towards being on the same page, rather than expecting it to just happen.
It's also essential to recognize that your children will also learn quickly who to approach to get what they want. It’s important to check with one another or you will end up arguing about decisions before and after they’re made.
Taking parenting classes together is helpful for getting you on the same page regarding discipline, training, and connection with your kids. It’s also helpful to become friends with other couples ahead of you in life stage whose marriage and parenting style you both admire.
Watching people parent and watching how their kids react provides a phenomenal learning environment. It’s important to check with one another about how to handle tough discipline situations and keep the communication lines open if you have something you want to bring up, and vice versa.
In parenting, being proactive always trumps being reactive; anticipate problem situations before they happen and talk about how you want to handle something.
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4. Extended Family
In-law relationships are not easy, even if your in-laws are lovely people. Every family has its own dynamic and culture, so it takes grace and intentionality to merge new worlds together.
Again, the way you grew up will have a huge impact on your expectations for extended family. Maybe you're used to your whole family gathering for days on end for holidays and vacations, using eachother's things, or stopping by unannounced. But if your spouse did not grow up this way, they might interpret these actions as a crossing of boundaries, and might feel frustrated or unloved if you don't help protect their boundaries.
Or, another situation that may come up is what kind of say extended family has on your relationship. Maybe you want to include your parents or siblings in your private lives--like how many kids you want and when, or how to spend your money. But check with your spouse first, as they should have a say in who is involved in their marriage, too.
If your extended family culture is toxic, dysfunctional, or invasive, you and your spouse will have to set up perimeters for prioritizing your marriage and your parenting while still showing respect and love to the family members in your lives. Learn to set loving boundaries with your extended family.
“Blood deals with blood” is good rule of thumb in handling family communication and problems (especially early in the marriage, when parents are getting used to their kids being a unit apart from them).
That means you communicate, decline, and confront your family members when needed, and your spouse does the same with his/hers. This prevents many additional problems with in-laws and reinforces the boundaries.
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Unless you and your spouse had the same friend group before you became a couple, you will have to adapt to your spouse’s friends and their spouses for the sake of your marriage.
Some couples find it difficult to form couple friend groups where everyone “clicks.” One of the beautiful things about the church body is learning to love and support people who are different from you.
Often, we don’t form these types of friendships as single people, but we are forced to do so as married people. Learning to make new couple-friends is an important part of married life.
This doesn't mean that you're forced to become best friends with all of your spouse's friends--but if they're important to your spouse, it should be important for you to get to know them.
If you know that one of your friends is not your spouse's favorite person in the world, be considerate of that. Don't cut them out of your life of course--there's no growth in that--but do include your spouse in on the decision of how much time that friend might spend at your house, etc. You might have to have honest (but respectful) conversations about each other’s friends, especially if a friend has a toxic relationship with your spouse.
Find married friends who share the same values as you and your spouse do. Church groups are a great place to find these kinds of friends. Start having people over or going out together until you begin forming friendships as couples.
You will need these in the days ahead.
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Authentic intimacy leads to good sex, and good sex is dependent on intimacy. However, many marriages lack either or both important bonding tools.
Today, many couples enter marriage with emotional baggage from abuse, previous sexual activity, insecurity, and pornography—all of which hurts intimacy in marriage. Do the spiritual and emotional work of self-care so that you can love your spouse unimpeded by fear, guilt, or comparison. As hard as this work is, it is so necessary to have a healthy marriage well beyond physical intimacy.
Talk to your spouse about what helps them to feel loved and connected, and share your needs vulnerably in turn. And, just as importantly, ask them what makes them feel unloved. If cleaning your dirty kitchen alone after dinner while your spouse watches TV is an intimacy killer for you, your spouse needs to know that!
Without giving time, attention, and kindness to one another, both intimacy and sex will disappoint.
Make it a priority to talk to one another before or after dinner without distraction—catch up on the day, talk through your day, and discuss problems you are facing together. Then give yourself time to be together in the evening before you go to bed. Intentionally making time to decompress early in the evening will keep you from fighting when you’re tired, as well as facilitate a loving environment when you climb in bed.
You sleep better when you haven’t had a heavy conversation when you’re lying down.
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If you and your spouse have different faith backgrounds or vary in your perspective about church involvement or affiliation, you might find yourself disagreeing regularly about which church to attend, how involved you should be, or if you should attend at all.
We can also easily judge or criticize one another for the personal way we practice faith: reading, listening to music, going to Bible study or small group, serving, giving. All of these avenues for faith provide a possible platform for argument.
Ask a lot of questions about church and faith background when you’re dating, and don’t assume you can change someone’s mind after you get married. (You won’t.)
Decide what theology and church practice are non-negotiable to you and choose accordingly. Marriage pushes us to adapt and concede in many areas; faith is often one of them (what kind of concession is critical to your own spiritual growth).
Here are a few important questions when it comes to disagreeing about faith: Are you willing to leave your faith to keep peace in your home? Are you willing to pray and give grace when you disagree? What does God require of you as a married believer? Is your spouse asking/demanding that you disobey Scriptural practices and theology?
Arguments evolve from pride and stubbornness. Discussions evolve from mutual respect.
It is always more important in your marriage to prioritize how you disagree over what you’re disagreeing about. Even if the issue at hand is critically important, you can’t resolve the conflict if you can’t conduct a civil conversation. Learn to conduct disagreements where you both feel validated and loved, no matter what decision you make.
Sue Schlesman is a Christian author, speaker, English teacher, and pastor’s wife. She has a BA in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Theology & Culture. Her second book Soulspeak: Praying change into unexpected places is a Selah Award finalist. Sue’s material appears in a variety of print, online, radio, and podcast mediums. She has a passion for missions, social justice, traveling, reading, and the local church. You can find her writing about life, education, family, and Jesus at sueschlesman.com.
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