Jacob pulled into his driveway at 6:00 PM. Today was not a banner day. Things didn’t go well at work, and his boss unfairly took out his personal frustrations on Jacob. Knowing it wouldn’t be to his advantage to argue back, Jacob internalized his boss’s stress and added it to his own.
The lunch he ate at 12:30 PM is long gone, and he can feel his stomach gnawing at him. As he approaches the front door, he sighs and takes a deep breath. He isn’t sure he is ready for more stress. He opens the door and immediately hears Liam and Olivia, his four- and two-year-olds, chasing each other around the living room.
His wife, Emily, approaches him looking like she has just survived a hostage situation. “How was your day?” she asks, not waiting to hear the answer. Immediately, she launches into a blow-by-blow description of everything that went wrong in her day. “So, after Olivia flushed a towel down the toilet and flooded the bathroom, the dog threw up on the white carpet, and the air conditioning stopped working. I called a repairman, but he can’t be here until next week and I’m not sure we can afford the repairs …”
Jacob listens quietly. After a while, he realizes he has zoned out. He looks at his watch. 6:22 PM. “And then my mother called. It sounds like she is still offended that we didn’t send thank you notes for the birthday gifts she sent for the kids, and then Liam started getting a runny nose which makes me wonder about cancelling the play date at the park I had scheduled for Saturday, and …” His mind drifts off. What time do we eat dinner? He surmises there must not be a set time because it always seemed random and unpredictable. Their family life was so unlike the clockwork home in which he was raised by his military father. Emily is an Avant Garde artistic type who enjoys keeping things “flexible” so she can shift plans on a dime if something more interesting emerges.
“And we still haven’t decided on whether or not we are going to sign Liam up for tumbling classes, and …”
“What time is dinner?” Jabob asks. It is now 6:31 PM.
“Dinner?” Emily is clearly annoyed as she realizes Jacob was only half listening to her. “I’ll have to go see if we have anything to make.”
Jacob doesn’t answer audibly, but internally he thinks, “See if we have anything? If we don’t have any food, we have bigger problems. Why wouldn’t we have food? Why do we go to the grocery store and not buy enough food to last for the week? And why would Emily have not started even thinking about whether there was food to make until 6:31?!”
Jacob realizes he is getting “hangry” (that odd mix of hungry and angry that only those who have experienced it can adequately understand).
As Emily begins to make dinner she is stewing. Why am I the only functional parent here? Why does he tune out every time I try to talk to him? Why does he seem uninterested in the lives of our children and leave all the big decisions to me? It’s bad enough that I have to be the one who makes all the meals, does all the laundry, and handles most of the household chores. But then I have to be “Mr. Fixit” as well. I understand he isn’t very good at repairs, but how hard would it be for him to make a phone call sometimes to at least keep things moving forward when something breaks? I’m sure he knows more about repair needs than I do. And why does he always seem so mentally distant when he is home with the kids and me? Does he not enjoy being here? Surely, he doesn’t act all zoned out at work. Does he just not want to be here? Is he falling out of love with the kids and me? Are we going to survive this? Our marriage is barely working. Does he notice or care?
The Source of Marriage Conflict
Have you ever noticed that a conflict can go from zero to full impact in almost no time? When we are in the middle of a conflict it can be hard to remember what started it, or identify the real issues.
Many people think the Bible is a book full of abstract ideas about ethereal concepts like “salvation” and other spiritual matters. While it is that, it is immensely practical as well. It gives us guiding principles that help us navigate the most minute aspects of daily life.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2a, emphasis added).
James tells us the source of all conflict. It is totally possible to have a one-sided negative dynamic in marriage. Assault can be one-sided. Abuse can be one-sided. But it always takes two to have conflict.
It is interesting how we betray our assumptions with the terminology we use to describe our conflict. “You are making me so angry!” That sounds justifiable at first glance, but James tells us we are being dishonest with ourselves. It isn’t the other person’s words or actions that anger us. It is the desires within us.
We want something and we aren’t getting it, so we get frustrated. Another word we like to use in this context is “expectations.” Proverbs 13:12 explains this dynamic: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Wanting something and not getting it creates disappointment, frustration, stress, and anger. All of this is rooted in our deep desire to love and serve ourselves. We are born with selfishness. We love us some us! No one must teach a toddler to grab a toy from a sibling and yell, “Mine!” That innate desire to make the world our way is part of our sinful nature. David said in Psalm 51:5 (NIV), “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
We all have an expectation of how life is supposed to go. It is supposed to make us feel happy and fulfilled. We resent anything or anyone who hinders our pursuit of happiness. If life doesn’t constantly smile upon us with lavish favor, we often get angry with God (revealing our false assumption that God owes us something). Many people respond to one of the evangelistic methods of the popular “Four Spiritual Laws” that claims, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” by thinking, “It sounds like God and I will get along great. I also love me and have a wonderful plan for my life! This should be a good relationship!”
We usually approach marriage with the assumption that this other person will fulfill us and make us happy. We are ecstatic when we find another human who seems willing to love us almost as much as we love ourselves. Rarely do we stop to consider that they are probably getting married for the same reason we are: to make themselves happy and have another person heighten their own sense of happiness and self-fulfillment. Once we are married, we often find our desires are incompatible. Our desire to please ourselves meets up with their desire to please themselves, and conflict arises.
Identifying Desires and Expectations
One key to resolving conflict is to identify our expectations or desires. What do we want? Sometimes this is difficult because we are rarely very self-aware. We know we want something and aren’t getting it, but we aren’t sure what that elusive thing is. When you find yourself in a conflict with another person, it is usually wise to ask two questions: “What do I want?” and “What does he (or she) want?” Identifying the source of the conflict won’t automatically solve the conflict, but it is a necessary first step.
Let’s go back to the scenario with Jacob and Emily. While they didn’t necessarily have a fight, there is a tension brewing between them. Both have hurt feelings and are frustrated with each other (and at life’s circumstances that feel increasingly overwhelming to them). If Jacob could identify his inner desires, he would likely conclude he wants to be served by his wife. Although he has likely never stated it, he probably desires to arrive home at 6:00 PM to find dinner on the table, hot and ready to serve. This is what his dad expected of his mother, and she always seemed more than willing to oblige. Why is that so difficult? If he dug deeper, he would probably appreciate being able to offload all his stress from the workday on Emily, in the same way she does to him. He has no one else to talk to and can’t complain to his co-workers about his boss’s bad behavior. But he knows that would accomplish nothing but to add to her stress, so he keeps it all bottled up inside. The problem is, he is becoming like the proverbial soda can that someone has shaken up and left in the hot sun. He worries that he will soon explode if he can’t find a healthy release for his inner stress.
Emily’s desire is to be heard, understood, and validated. She wishes Jacob would give her a long hug and say, “I’m so sorry you have had such a stressful day!” She doesn’t even want him to fix everything. Okay, eventually, she would like him to try to fix a lot of their problems! But at the moment, she just needs some comfort—something that shows he cares and that they are a team. Instead, he just sits there and stares. She isn’t sure if he is bored or mad. He doesn’t say. In fact, he seldom says much of anything. It drives her nuts. Why won’t he talk to her? And why doesn’t he seem happy to be home with her and the children?
Different Backgrounds Create Different Expectations
When two people marry, they usually bring at least a couple of decades of life experience into the relationship. Most of their views of how family dynamics work were formed in the home in which they were raised. In Jacob’s family, dad was in charge. He wasn’t mean or abusive, but he was strong, confident, organized, punctual, efficient, and expected (and received) respect. Jacob admired his dad. Sure, he could be hard to grow up with. Jacob didn’t get a lot of slack. But he was an honorable man who was highly esteemed by everyone who knew him. Somehow, Jacob’s mom must have accepted her expected role early on. She knew how to make sure her husband was successful. She thought about the “unimportant” things related to domestic life, so he didn’t need to. She was a lot like June Cleaver on the old “Leave it to Beaver” TV show. She was put together and kept Jacob and his brother on task without nagging or being overbearing. She was the right mix of firm but loving. Overall, Jacob had a good childhood. His parents weren’t perfect. No parents are. But life was good, and he was grateful.
Jacob fell in love with Emily because she was everything he was not. Although she had never had an official ADHD diagnosis, Jacob was pretty sure that would be one test she could pass with flying colors! It was wonderful when they were dating because she brought life and unpredictability to his rather orderly existence.
Now, somehow, in marriage, the things that attracted him to her were beginning to annoy him. Why couldn’t they keep to a schedule? Why was she so lenient with the children? They got away with so many things he wasn’t allowed to at their age. She was disorganized, so the house was usually a mess. His mother’s house was never a mess! He hated having to step over toys in the living room when he came home. He rarely said anything because he didn’t want to nitpick or stress Emily out, but it bothered him. Why didn’t she value their things the way he did? If the kids broke a dish, she’d just make a joke and sweep it up. He felt they should be taught to take care of their property, the way his parents did with him.
As you can imagine, Emily’s home life differed greatly from Jabob’s. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she shared her time bouncing between life with her mom and stepfather and her dad and his second wife. While she would describe her upbringing as mostly good, there was a lot more unpredictability and uncertainty than Jacob’s. She didn’t have a close relationship with either her father or her stepfather, and she longed for Jacob to be the rock in their relationship that she missed growing up. For the most part, he was. He was a steady guy who worked hard and made sure they always paid the bills. She knew he loved her, but increasingly, there wasn’t much spark between the two. She wanted something more from him but wasn’t entirely sure what. Maybe more compassion? More empathy? More teamwork for sure. Why couldn’t he see that she needed these things and that he wasn’t meeting them?
Fight, Flight, or Freeze?
There is a physiological phenomenon that occurs when our bodies are attacked (or threatened). We get a burst of adrenaline that helps us defend ourselves and protect our lives. If an angry dog is chasing us, we will use this boost of energy to defend our lives against the attack or we will run as fast as we know how in the opposite direction. In rare occasions, some people go into shut down mode and will lock up, not responding at all to the attack. This is uncommon but possible.
Reponses to Unmet Desires
Following are a few of the many ways people often respond to unmet desires and expectations:
These are all ways we seek to protect ourselves from harm. Sometimes, people who have experienced relational trauma will seek to hurt others before they can be hurt. Hence the origins of the popular saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” While this is no excuse for bad behavior, it can be helpful to understand and recognize root causes that at least explain some of their irrational actions.
Our Inside Person
In many ways, our physical body is not the real “us.” It is a lot like a vehicle that helps to get us from place to place. The real “us” is the person who lives inside our bodies. It is the person with a mind, will and emotions. Some people call it “the soul.” According to Christian theology, the eternal soul, “the real us,” lives on far after our physical bodies have died. (We do not want to create a gnostic dualism here that claims the physical is bad and the spiritual is good. We realize we consist of both body and soul. Both were created by God and are a good and necessary part of our total being).
When someone attacks our “outside person” (our bodies) we go into defense mode. But this can happen on an even deeper level when our “inside person” is attacked. Our beliefs, values, desires, and convictions are far more important to us in many ways than our physical bodies. When the “real us” is assaulted, deep emotional wounds can form.
We learn through experience to protect our inside person against harm. Most people, based on their personality type, will retreat from someone who attacks their ideas or values, or they will turn and attack the attacker. We do this because we care. What we believe matters to us. This is why we are often warned against talking about politics and religion at social gatherings. Those categories are, in many ways, an external, societal reflection of our close personal values. When people are glib and disrespectful to our views on those issues, it can cut deeply and become personal quickly. The more we care about a person, the more their words and actions can hurt us.
When I (Israel) was a child, I had a verbally and physically abusive stepfather. He would often say hateful things about how I was worthless and would never amount to anything. While no one likes to hear such words, I was generally unphased by his comments and haven’t carried them with me through life. The reason was because we never had a positive relational bond. He was an intrusion into my life, and I never respected him or wanted a relationship. Had my own biological father or mother said such things, the wounds would have undoubtedly been long lasting.
If a perfect stranger says we are ugly, we may not react. Or we might laugh. Who cares what they think? It’s fairly easy to shrug it off. But if a close friend or relative speaks hurtful words, the results are much different. There is no relationship in which we are as vulnerable as we are with our spouse. At least in the early stages of marriage, before barriers of self-protection go up, we care deeply what they think about us. So, when we are hurt, we often respond far more emotionally than we would in other contexts. Our visceral reaction to our hurt can often cause hurt in our spouse, which creates a cycle of pain that we inflict upon each other.
Ascribing a Motive to an Action
We often try to discern the motives of our spouses. Why did they make that decision? When Jacob comes home and seems disinterested and disengaged, Emily runs dozens of scenarios through her mind, searching for clues that will help her understand his actions. He does the same. Why does she not see that he is tired, hungry, and just wants to unwind with some TV after dinner? What’s so wrong with that? Why does she have to make all of life about her?
Here are some of our common perceptions:
- Actions equal love or “unlove.”
We often assume someone has done something with an intentional desire to hurt us emotionally. It is easy to decide that if our spouse truly loved us, they wouldn’t have acted in a particular way. Jacob could assume that if Emily loved him, she would have dinner ready when he arrived home. Emily may determine Jacob doesn’t love her because he is distracted when she is talking to him.
In both situations, neither conclusion is correct. In the grand scheme of things, Jacob and Emily both love each other deeply. They just don’t communicate well, and it leads to misunderstanding and hurt.
Unresolved Conflict Leads to Deterioration
We all know how to cause (or respond badly to) conflict. What we need is conflict resolution skills. When conflicts are not resolved they lead to:
- Loss of Appreciation
- Loss of Joy in Marriage
- Loss of Intimacy
- Lessened Willingness to Walk through Sanctification with our Spouse
On the other hand, when they are dealt with in a God-honoring way, the results can be:
- Deepened Appreciation
- Rekindling of Joy in Marriage
- Healthy Atmosphere for Intimacy
- Deepened Willingness to Walk through Sanctification Together
Examining Our Choices
In most cases, when we discover we are not getting what we want in a relationship, we have three choices:
- Give the other person what they want.
This can be a healthy approach to resolving marital or relational conflict. If it is not a sin issue, deferring to the desires and wishes of the other person is sometimes the most Christ-like thing for us to do.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Perhaps Emily can be inconvenienced by having dinner on the table at 6:00 PM as her husband desires. Perhaps Jacob can get a hamburger on the way home from work so he’s ready to eat whenever Emily has dinner ready at 7:15 PM.
- Meet in the middle.
Perhaps Jacob and Emily can make a compromise to eat dinner at 6:30 PM. Maybe it’s not the ideal for either of them, but it might be a middle ground they can both live with.
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (Rom. 12:16).
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).
- Stand your ground.
In our view, the only time you need to stand firm and fight against your spouse is when they are doing something immoral and/or self-destructive.
Find Outside Help
In some situations, true love would not give your spouse what they want, and compromise is not an option. When there is an impasse, it is usually necessary to get outside help. Your first go-to should be trusted close family members, and then your local church elders. If your church elders are not Biblically qualified to give wise counsel and guidance, you may want to consider why you are attending that church. Sometimes, a trained Biblical counselor may be a useful resource (see the location finder on BiblicalCounseling.com).
Learn How to Communicate
To overcome habits of conflict in relationships you must learn better communication skills. We will look at that topic next.
Israel Wayne is an author and conference speaker and the Director of Family Renewal, LLC. He and his wife, Brook, have been married for 25 years and have recorded a six-part audio seminar on marriage: https://familyrenewal.org/store/product/marriage/
Family Renewal recommends the following resources:
The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace
The Exemplary Husband by Stuart Scott
Other Links of Interest
Israel & Brook’s blog
Family Renewal Facebook Page
Israel Wayne’s Facebook Author Page
Israel Wayne on Twitter
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Israel Wayne on MeWe
Israel Wayne on LinkedIn
Family Renewal YouTube Podcast