Fighting Fair – How to Successfully Navigate Conflict in Your Marriage

Conflict is common in all marriages. We fight about sex, money, parenting styles, in-laws, priorities, and more. Therefore, the goal is not to be conflict-free, but to handle conflict well when it occurs. You see, marriages don’t end because of the presence of conflict, marriages end because couples fail to apply effective strategies in resolving conflict and restoring their relationship!

My wife Shannon and I have learned a lot on this topic from FamilyLife’s “Weekend to Remember” marriage retreat, Craig and Amy Groeschel’s book From This Day Forward, and several other excellent resources on communication skills, conflict resolution, and so on. However, we have also learned a number of important lesson on this topic through our own struggles and failures.

In the Groeschel’s book, they provide this important contrast between “fighting fair” and “fighting dirty”:
• Healthy couples fight fair and focus on resolving the conflict and restoring the relationship
• Unhealthy couples fight dirty and focus on winning

So, are you a “healthy” couple or an “unhealthy” couple relative to how you fight?

I used to fight dirty! I never raised my voice, called names, threatened divorce, or a number of other “unhealthy” tactics. But combine my “hard side” personality, first-born tendencies, and three years of high school debate and I was all about “winning” arguments. Thankfully, God softened my heart, I saw men I respected love their wives well through periods of conflict, and Shannon helped me learn making-up was much better than winning an argument!

I am a big fan of the book of James. In James 1:19-20, we find some timeless instruction on the topic of fighting fair. James writes, ”know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Let’s dig a little deeper into the three instructions James provides in this text on how to fight fair.
1. Stop to listen carefully. Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Who wants to be that guy? There’s a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth. We would be in a far better place relative to conflict resolution if we all listened twice as much as we talked.

2. Guard your words faithfully.
Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” Ever have your mouth get you in trouble? Here’s another question, do you actually believe “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” According to research by Dr. John Gottman (and just common sense and life experience), nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the words we use with one another in our marriage relationship are the greatest determinants of our relational health and the longevity of our marriage. Bottom line, our words matter. So encourage, build up, or be quiet!

3. Handle your anger righteously. In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul writes, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Notice it’s okay to feel anger, but it’s not okay for anger to control you or to get out of hand. The devil thrives where anger lives. While it appears this text requires us to resolve our conflict before the day ends, that is not the case. The issue is “anger” needs to be diffused. It may be best to pray together, get a good night’s rest, and schedule a time you can both give your best to resolving the conflict and restoring the relationship. Seldom is bedtime, when you are both tired the ideal time to resolve conflict well.

Two final suggestions for successfully navigating conflict in your marriage.
First, be really good at “seeking forgiveness” (the offender asking for forgiveness) and “granting forgiveness” (the offended giving forgiveness). Jesus’ teaching on forgiving others in Matthew 18:21-22 is our model as Christ’s followers. The punch line of Jesus’ teaching is “don’t stop forgiving.” I love this perspective, ”forgiven people should be forgiving people.” If you have accepted Jesus’ atoning work on the cross resulting in your forgiveness, you should be one who is ready and willing to forgive others.

Second, pray together every night as a couple. Hold on to one another and pray that God would bless your marriage, watch over those you love, and give you the wisdom and strength you need to live each day for His glory. You will be amazed how quickly “big things” don’t seem so overwhelming and “little things” never have the chance to morph into “big things.” Keeping your marriage before God’s throne has a way of keeping things in perspective which makes resolving conflict and restoring the relationship a team effort! Research shows, couples that pray together stay together!

Joe and Shannon Greenhaw have been married for almost 38 years. They have three children and six grandchildren. They serve together at Legacy’s Blue Valley Campus.