My wife and I sat at dinner a week ago as tension spiked between my two daughters. Someone’s portion of leftover Easter candy outweighed the other’s for dessert. As we attempted to iron out their issue with intense negotiation, I looked over at my wife and thought: Wow, it’s been awhile since she and I have had one of those “cancel all afternoon and evening plans because we have to work this out” fights.
Uh oh, I thought. We must be due.
Surely not, though, we’ve been doing so well lately.
It never fails that once I have this thought, we are only a day or two away from a conflict.
Sure enough, a day later, after putting the kids to bed, we found ourselves in the living room staring each other down.
Over our almost twelve years of marriage, the frequency of our fights and conflicts has lessened, but it still happens. And I am glad about this, too. Don’t get me wrong; I hate our quarrels. But in my experience as a psychotherapist and couples counselor, the couples that do not argue or contend with one another often possess a lifeless relationship. Translation: If you choose to care about life and each other, expect conflict.
Good, healthy God-given desire and passion offer life, and often they create tension in the process.
As I reflect back on our argument last week, I recognize I stuck to a couple principles that gave me the focus and energy I needed to engage my wife and our disagreement in a healthy way.
Stay in It
The temptation is always to check out. Physically leaving has never been my thing, but there are other ways to disengage. In moments of relational stress, the heart wants to be anywhere but present, and the mind will seek to disengage with fantasies, daydreams, or seemingly more pressing topics. Pursue the tension. Stay in it.
Guys, often women simply want to know you are in the trenches with them. Your physical and emotional presence, whether you surrender your point or not, can end up providing your strongest and most significant truth: You are not alone. We are in this together, and we’ll get through it.
Do the Work
Nothing worth having comes without a fight. The path to the relationship your heart desires is always through. No relationship which seeks to go around, under, or over the pressing issues will survive. As Proverbs says “There is a way which seems right to a man…” In marital conflict, the way that appears right is the path of least tension and resistance, and it ends in further disappointment and less connected relationship.
Commit to do the work. This process always includes self-awareness, telling the truth, and healthy interdependence along with grace and forgiveness. The only good way out is through.
Build a History, Become a Historian
This one comes with an asterisk. You can trust your history if you have stayed in it and done the work enough to have created a history. When my wife and I found ourselves wading through the muck last week, I never once doubted we would make it through to solid ground. My mental conversation went something like this: Here we are again. This stinks, and it will continue to stink until we move through it.
History takes time and patience to build. Seasoned healthy marriages contain couples that have committed long enough to know they will make it through. If you have built a history, remember the path you have traveled in the midst of conflict. You might even find an object to symbolize your past struggles and triumphs as a reminder.
If you have not yet cut a path with landmarks to look back on, know that it’s worth the work.
Believe in Baseline
I am making the assumption you married for a good reason. At some point before the mess of conflict, your relationship created a baseline you both enjoyed. As Mat Kearney sings, “Your the only one, That little crook in your teeth and your 5 inch feet…You put too much salt on everything you eat, Wake up freezing ‘cause I stole the sheets, And you talk to the wall, pop your gum in your sleep, You’re the only one.”
Your baseline includes the way you laugh together, the idiosyncrasies you love about one another, and who you both are together in the best of moments. In the midst of tension, remember your baseline and the work that got you there. While your attraction to his corny jokes may fade in the flares of anger and the sting of hurt, believe that baseline still exists. This vision for what will be and the memory of what has been, at times, provides the motivation to stay in it, do the work, and build a history you can trust.
As I sat down to write here, I attempted recall the fight my wife and I had. I wanted to remember so I could paint the scene, describe it in detail, and illustrate it well. To be honest, though, I cannot remember what we fought about. Whatever took hours of our attention that night and bled into intense silence and the avoidance of eye contact the next day lost its power as we found our way back to baseline.
Now if I can only guide my eight year olds on the same path as they count and compare their jelly beans.