SEVEN RULES FOR FIGHTING FAIRLY WITH YOUR SPOUSE
(Adapted from Brent Hunter, and The Triumphant Marriage by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, plus other sources forgotten, and my own material)
There are two theories on arguing with women. Neither one works.
A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything. They had kept no secrets from each other except that the little old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or ask her about.
For all of these years, he had never thought about the box, but one day the little old woman got very sick and the doctor said she would not recover.
In trying to sort out their affairs, the little old man took down the shoe box and took it to his wife’s bedside. She agreed that it was time that he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two crocheted dolls and a stack of money totaling $95,000.
He asked her about the contents. ‘When we were to be married,’ she said, ‘my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was to never argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.’ The little old man was so moved; he had to fight back tears. Only two precious dolls were in the box. She had only been angry with him two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘that explains the dolls, but what about all of this money? Where did it come from?’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that’s the money I made from selling the dolls.’
That story led to the following prayer,
Dear Lord, I pray for Wisdom to understand my man;
Love to forgive him and Patience for his moods.
Because Lord, if I pray for Strength,
I’ll beat him to death, because I don’t know how to crochet.
Arguing with your spouse can be productive if done properly. It can also be self-destructive.
Walter Winchell once asked a battered up and retired old professional wrestler why he had quit the “grunt and groan” circuit. The aged warrior replied, “Well, I wuz a-fightin’ wid Big-Nose Nanetti. Da Foist fall is mine. Da second fall is his. Da thoid time I got his shoulders on da mat, when suddintly he hooks a leg around my neck and trows me. I grab his leg and twist it. He gets me in a Indian death-lock. I pulls a half-Nelson on him. He puts on a hammerlock. We do a couple monkey-rolls an’ we’re knotted up like a pretzel, him and me. Suddintly I sees my big chancet. Right in frunna my eyes I sees dat big nose…so I bites it as hard as I can…and its MINE!!!”
Husbands and wives often hurt themselves when arguing in an ungodly way.
Alan King said, “Marriage is nature’s way of keeping people from fighting strangers. Have you ever noticed the similarity between the words marital and martial (warlike)? Just flip the I and the T. Or how about wedlock and deadlock? When a couple marry, the ministering official often pronounces them “husband and wife.” The way some marriages are, he should prophesy, “husband verses wife.” What does each marriage (and any relationship whether congregational, business, or familial) need to succeed – they need to know how to fight.
The following passage is not all about the husband-wife relationship, but the advice is still good and godly.
1 Peter 3:1-16 HCSB Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the Christian message, they may be won over without a message by the way their wives live, (2) when they observe your pure, reverent lives. (3) Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes; (4) instead, it should consist of the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God’s eyes. (5) For in the past, the holy women who hoped in God also beautified themselves in this way, submitting to their own husbands, (6) just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You have become her children when you do good and aren’t frightened by anything alarming. (7) Husbands, in the same way, live with your wives with understanding of their weaker nature [i.e., weaker position of subjection - PDH] yet showing them honor as co-heirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. (8) Now finally, all of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble, (9) not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you can inherit a blessing. (10) For the one who wants to love life and to see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit, (11) and he must turn away from evil and do good. He must seek peace and pursue it, (12) because the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are open to their request. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. (13) And who will harm you if you are passionate for what is good? (14) But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, (15) but set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (16) However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.
I. WHY IS CONFLICT SO IMPORTANT?
To have a great marriage, there must be two authentic partners. Authenticity involves the full and free expression of each person’s true self, with all of its uniqueness. When both people are fully authentic, their complete agreement on everything is highly unlikely. Some conflict is inevitable.
Ephesians 4:25 HCSB Since you put away lying, Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another.
If this is true of Christians, who are “members of one another,” would not the same truth be even more substantial to husbands and wives who are “one flesh?”
A couple, who were celebrating 50 (?) years of marriage, bragged to a marriage counselor that they had never had any fights in their entire marriage. They then asked him what he thought of that. He told them they must have an extremely boring marriage.
A wife, Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, was asked if she and Billy always agree on everything. “My goodness, no!” she said. “If we did, there would be no need for one of us.”
What that implies is that a relationship doesn’t need both of its partners if they are exactly the same. The wonderful thing you do for your marriage is to share that part of you that is different from your mate. But as sure as you do share your differences, there is bound to be conflict. This is the kind of healthy conflict, though, that gives you the opportunity to expand your marriage.
Imagine a marriage in which one person wants everything about their lives together to be precisely the same. This simply wouldn’t be much of a marriage; it would merely be two people living one life. For the person whose uniqueness was ignored and never incorporated, there would inevitably be a sense of not counting much, an intense feeling that his or her ideas, tastes and preferences were unimportant, unnecessary and unwanted.
Conversely a marriage in which each person brings ideas, attitudes and approaches – even to the point of creating disagreements – is a marriage that will build on the best that both partners have to offer.
We are all familiar with Genesis 2:18 where God said He would make “a helper suitable for” Adam. Can you imagine all the trouble I would have been in if my wife always agreed with me? One of the greatest blessings in my marriage has been her talking some sense into me.
Here is some pre-marital advice for all. An important fact in determining if you are getting married to the right person is if both of you frequently ask the advice of the other…and then usually take it.
For example, if you like country music and your spouse loves classical, the two of you face a challenge. Every time the subject comes up, you can, each deliver a few critical remarks designed to make the other person’s musical preference look silly. Such as, “What do you have if you get your dog back, your job back, and your wife back? A country song played backwards.” Or you can hate every moment you listen to your mate’s music. Maybe you could decide never to listen to any music in the other’s presence. Or what I prefer, you might say something like, “Honey, you love classical music, and I love country. I suspect that we could come to appreciate each other’s musical tastes if we worked at it a little. I would really like to do that. What do you think?” After she agrees, then switch to a “Classic Country” station.
Compromise might be impossible on some issues. My wife will never learn to like anchovies. And I will never grow to appreciate collard greens. But compromise can be done if both express their opinions. My wife and I have traveled often in our 26 years of marriage. The air conditioning control, how cold, used to be a…point of discussion. We compromised – whoever was driving got to control the temperature. Then I decided I will do most of the driving!
Learning from each other is a marriage-building strategy designed to expand the boundaries of your corporate lives and to increase the interests in your life and marriage. A psychologist of thirty years knows a couple who fights like cats and dogs, but they are wildly in love with each other. What’s more, they have one of the healthiest marriages he knows of. Does that shock you?
If that does shock you, get ready for some bigger surprises. His thirty years of experience slowly taught him a difficult-to-believe fact: The amount of conflict in a marriage only determines the speed at which the marriage is moving toward greatness or toward destruction.
If you want to sit still in your marriage, rule out all conflict. If you want your marriage to crash and burn, let conflict rage but refuse to learn the skills necessary for managing it. Well-managed conflict is like stairways that can lead you to higher and higher levels of marital greatness.
If any couple thinks they are not going to have disagreements, they are tragically self-deceived and headed for trouble. Almost 50 percent of all divorces take place within three years of the wedding day. Think of that! Couples get married, encounter conflict, and give up – all within three years.
There are two disturbing points about this. First, these couples must have been profoundly unaware of how challenging it is to make a marriage work, and they were certainly unaware of the number of conflicts that would arise. Recently I heard of a couple that got divorced because of their disagreements. She remarried to only then realize that disagreements were not only part of marriage, but that her second marriage was worse than the first.
Second, they must have been alarmingly ill-equipped to handle their conflicts. The management of conflict is a complex but entirely learnable skill. Unfortunately, these couples never developed this skill, at least not to the required level of proficiency.
Let me make this point clearly: Conflict is a necessary part of every marriage for as long as that marriage lasts. If there is no conflict, or if conflict suddenly slows down or levels off, it is a sign that something is wrong with the marriage. There are countless reasons for no conflict, but they all indicate a reduction in that part of a marriage that gives it the potential for growth and change.
The bottom line is this: Conflict that is mismanaged can destroy a marriage. It can turn the whole relationship into a battleground where the only winners are sure to be
eventual losers – and the losers are sure to be filled with resentment.
If the couple decides to eliminate all conflict in the name of maintaining peace, there will be a terrible price to pay. The individuals’ uniqueness is likely to become more and more repressed and stifled. They will have to develop a mask to hide their frustration. This kind of relationship is bound to become cold and distant.
When two people find themselves together for a lifetime – both with an abundance of thoughts, feelings, opinions and interests – they have chance to build a magnificent marriage. Blending the uniqueness of one partner with the uniqueness of the other takes great skill, but the potential for a totally new corporate identity with maximum breadth and depth is an incredibly valuable goal to pursue.
In conclusion as to why conflict is so important, remember two ideas about hostility. First, accept it as a natural part of life ‑‑ when you have motion (growth) you of necessity have some friction. Since it is inevitable it makes sense to have some kind of agreement under which you will agree to settle your differences. Second, “fights” should not be viewed as tragedies but as opportunities. Venting personal heart‑felt frustrations through lips which have learned how to do it can serve a wonderful purpose. It takes skill and self‑control to turn potentially destructive squabbles into “fair fights” that solve problems and produce positive results but it can be done.
Having said all that, there is a difference between healthy arguments, and constant nagging.
- Proverbs 11:22 HCSB A beautiful woman who rejects good sense is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.
- Proverbs 12:4 HCSB A capable wife is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.
- Proverbs 14:1 HCSB Every wise woman builds her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her own hands.
- Proverbs 19:13 HCSB A foolish son is his father’s ruin, and a wife’s nagging is an endless dripping.
- Proverbs 21:9 HCSB Better to live on the corner of a roof than to share a house with a nagging wife.
- Proverbs 21:19 HCSB Better to live in a wilderness than with a nagging and hot-tempered wife.
- Proverbs 25:24 HCSB Better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house shared with a nagging wife.
- Proverbs 27:15 HCSB An endless dripping on a rainy day and a nagging wife are alike.
Marital conflict is important to become better, but nagging results in becoming bitter.
II. HOW DO YOU FIGHT?
As in all of life, people are different, and that includes even how couples argue and fight. Here are four ways of arguing. Others could be suggested.
Cats and Dogs
Characteristic: This style tends to get the matter resolves quickly, but it may leave one or both spouses battered and bruised (at least emotionally). This style is characterized by yelling, waving arms and pointing fingers. It’s loud, explosive and in-your-face.
Benefits: What are the benefits of handling conflict in a cats-and-dogs style? For one thing, all the feelings and thoughts are presented early. Every shred of evidence is introduced through the use of adrenaline-induced energy. There are no secrets; everything is out in the open. The intensity and passion create a tremendous amount of brain activity and verbal expression.
Drawbacks: The downside to this approach? Most people do not have a strong enough relationship to handle it. Any mistake is magnified many times because of all the passion involved. With the adrenaline flowing, the partners may resort to name-calling or even bring out old, unresolved issues. For those who don’t know how to channel the energy and hot emotions, this style of conflict can get nasty.
Bury It And Forget It
Sometimes couples will experience a conflict that seems too difficult and too dangerous to talk about. So they silently agree to leave the conflict alone, to simply let it be. Thousands of couples have developed a highly consistent style of conflict management. They pretend it doesn’t exist! Perhaps they feel ill-equipped to deal with it verbally. Or perhaps they fear their “terrible temper,” or their mate’s terrible temper, will get out of control. Whatever the reason, they look the other way when conflict occurs.
When a married couple remains silent about their conflict, they are headed for destruction. That is a guarantee. Remember, not all marriages that don’t end in divorce are happy! This type of relationship stops growing and expanding at the point that conflict is no longer processed.
If a couple cannot process their differences, as they would in a “rational and orderly” approach, they simply cannot move forward.
Aggressive and Passive Aggressive
This type is defined by someone who is in total control of the discussion – both sides of it. And the silent one “gets back” through passive aggressive behavior.
What is passive–aggressive behavior? It is a personality trait that is passive, sometimes obstructionist, which resists following through and manifests itself as learned helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.
Rational and Orderly
With this approach, both partners sit down together and calmly explain their opinions, examine all sides of the issue, dialogue back and forth, and then come to some sort of consensus. This approach is generally preferable. There may be tension, but it doesn’t escalate into yelling or storming around the house.
Having said all that, it is very possible that your marriage has a combination of any or all of the above.
III. SEVEN RULES FOR FIGHTING THE CLEAN FIGHT
RULE #1 ‑ DO YOUR THING TO COOL OFF
(Eph.4:26; Prov.15:18; Prov.29:20; 29:8; 30:33; 17:27)
Proverbs 29:20 HCSB Do you see a man who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
Proverbs 15:18 HCSB A hot-tempered man stirs up conflict, but a man slow to anger calms strife.
Never be ashamed of anger ‑ it is natural and not sinful; the only thing you need to regret is when you use it badly, or when it uses you. Since one is literally in a state of intoxication (anger is an intoxicant with adrenalin levels up, etc.) when one’s “fuse is lit” it is best to reduce the emotional state before you begin a discussion.
Remember, if you argue while you are angry, you are apt to make things worse. Do your thing to cool off before continuing the discussion. Go for a walk. Engage in some physical activity. Take a hot bath. Spend time alone (or together) in prayer ‑ it will help to calm your spirit and help you to see the situation more clearly.
This particular point goes well with disciplining your children as well. A mother’s patience had finally run out. She reached for her son in a way that let him know he was going to “get it.” So he suggested with apprehension, “Mommy, don’t you think it’s time to pray?”
Afterward cooling off, one may decide to forget the whole thing (Prov.17:9; 19:11). If not, proceed to rule #2.
RULE #2 ‑ ARGUE WITH THE RIGHT PERSON
Proverbs 3:30 HCSB Don’t accuse anyone without cause, when he has done you no harm.
Proverbs 25:9 NET When you argue a case with your neighbor, do not reveal the secret of another person,
It is very important to express our frustration or anger towards the person we are really angry with and not some innocent third party. Such misfiring is often done to avoid confronting the real culprit. If you are angry with your boss and don’t express it you’re apt to take it out on your spouse or children.
A comical illustration of this that did not fool the umpire was when a baseball manager started yelling at the players, but was really yelling at the umpire. The players knew it, and were laughing. The umpire knew it, but wasn’t laughing. The manager knew it, and got thrown out of the game.
A definite danger sign that you are confronting the wrong person is when your anger is way out of proportion to the actual offense (over‑reacting). This is called “dumping.” Dumping is cruel and allows the person to escape the real issue or party. It resolves nothing. Have the courage to “speak the truth in love” to the right person.
To help us all not dump, remember the Law of the Garbage Truck
One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us.
My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean—he was really friendly. So I asked, “Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!” This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, ‘The Law of the Garbage Truck.’
He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they’ll dump it on you. Don’t take it personally.
Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don’t take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.
The bottom line is that real spiritual people do not let garbage trucks take over their day.
Again, this applies to disciplining our children.
RULE #3 ‑ ARGUE ABOUT THE RIGHT THING
Proverbs 15:7 HCSB The lips of the wise broadcast knowledge, but not so the heart of fools.
Proverbs 15:28 HCSB The mind of the righteous person thinks before answering, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things.
Many arguments are started and fought about the wrong subjects. A husband may criticize his wife’s housekeeping when the real problem is something far more personal (i.e. her love‑making). We must be in touch with our own feelings and ask ourselves “Am I really angry because of this or is it something else?”
People often avoid real issues because of the risk involved. There is the fear of being embarrassed, laughed at, and rejected, etc. One must not abuse each other’s feelings but instead love and trust each other enough to allow for transparency.
RULE #4 ‑ ARGUE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Proverbs 25:8 HCSB Don’t take a matter to court hastily. Otherwise, what will you do afterwards if your opponent humiliates you?
Proverbs 25:11 HCSB A word spoken at the right time is like golden apples on a silver tray.
Before you begin you must both agree the time is right. Here are some times not to argue:
- In front of company (in public).
- When you have limited time (just before leaving for church, work, etc.).
- When hungry or tired.
- Immediately upon spouse arriving home from work.
One survey suggested 80% of marital fights occur between 5‑6 p.m. A good rule of thumb is not to discuss problems until after dinner. Before you begin to argue make sure you know the bailiffs two questions:
- Is the plaintiff ready?
- Is the defendant ready?
RULE #5 ‑ DON’T BRING UP PAST FIGHTS
Proverbs 17:9 NET The one who forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats a matter separates close friends.
Ephesians 4:25 HCSB Since you put away lying, Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another.
Some things you must never forget while other things you must never remember. Forgive and forget. Once an argument is resolved it ought to be buried, never again to be resurrected. An indiscretion, or offense, once forgiven should never be brought up again. When you bring up items the spouse thought was resolved it breeds mistrust and a lack of confidence in the relationship.
RULE #6 ‑ AVOID NAME CALLING
(Prov.14:22; 31:26; 27:4)
Proverbs 14:22 HCSB Don’t those who plan evil go astray? But those who plan good find loyalty and faithfulness.
Proverbs 31:26 HCSB She opens her mouth with wisdom, and loving instruction is on her tongue.
Proverbs 27:4 HCSB Fury is cruel, and anger is a flood, but who can withstand jealousy?
I venture to guess that not a single marital conflict in the history of mankind was ever resolved because one person called the other a derogatory name. It doesn’t matter how creative the disparaging label is – if it is meant to depreciate and demean the other party it isn’t going to help overcome the problem.
Every couple should establish this rule: in the middle of conflict, no matter how heated or intense, there will be no name-calling. There is no excuse for hurling insults or profane names at loved ones. Especially damaging to a relationship is to abuse a couple’s intimacy and resort to “knife twisting.” Thoughtless names (labels) puncture deep and are remembered for years. Along this line, likening one to another ‑ “you are just like your mother.”
There are thee reasons why personal verbal assaults are so destructive:
- Throws the argument off track.
- Focuses attention on the mate rather than how to solve the problem.
- It hurts the relationship and ruins mutual respect.
Here are three suggestions:
- Avoid attacking the person to justify yourself. (Tackle the problem not the person ‑ fix the problem instead of assigning blame.)
- Lower your voice one octave instead of raising it two (Prov.15:1)
- Avoid “you statements” and replace with “I statements” (instead of, “you lazy bum”, say, “I feel you’re not working as hard as you could.”)
RULE #7 ‑ AVOID “STAMP SAVING”
Proverbs 10:18 HCSB The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool.
Some save up grievances like saving green stamps years ago ‑ waiting until the book is full to cash them in. One unloads in rapid succession other things during an argument over something else.
Be sure you only discuss one argument at a time. Nothing is quite as frustrating in the middle of a conflict as an emotion-laden comment that is totally unrelated to the subject at hand. Such comments are thoroughly distracting, and they stall any effort to move toward. It’s like changing the channel on the TV but the other didn’t realize it, and tries to figure out the new plot twist.
A comedienne once suggested that all a woman has to do to win an argument is to change the subject to be about a former girlfriend.
More seriously, be sure you don’t let things build up but instead foster the type of relationship where you can express frustrations, irritations, etc. Stamp saving is:
- Overwhelming to the poor mate who is bombarded with so much all at once.
- Disconcerting to the mate who finds out that “true feelings” weren’t revealed earlier.
- Breeds distrust and a lack of confidence.
The cure to this type of failure is to:
- Express your displeasure at the earliest convenient time or make up your mind to forget it forever.
- If it is a recurring fault bring it up at the next time it occurs and not during an
- Some recurring faults may require you to simply ignore them (not putting the cap on the tooth paste, his/her smoking).
These rules are not the only ones that are good. Here are some additional pointers:
Recognize marriage as a “we” business. Any couple who gains a “we” perspective eventually experiences great success in marriage. But a marriage starts to shrivel when it becomes a matter of two “I’s”
Process the data as quickly as possible. Even though conflicts can lead to expansion and growth, there’s nothing wonderful about prolonged conflict. The secret is to get it out in the open and deal with it. That’s why some people who fight like cats and dogs have an advantage. All the important facts and feelings are expressed quickly and unequivocally.
Don’t intimidate. When the heat is turned up and things get a little mean, some people become focused on self-preservation. They fear losing part of themselves in process of hashing out a disagreement. Panic builds, and they start throwing verbal punches. They become obsessed with winning – or at least not losing.
Turn up your listening sensitivity (Jms.1:19). In the midst of conflict, there is absolutely nothing that produces gains as dramatically as listening. But believe me, I understand that when you’re fuming about some intense issue, the last thing you want to do is listen. When I open myself to what my partner is saying, then resolution has begun. It works like magic. When you are listened to, you aren’t nearly so eager to win at the other person’s expense. To be listened to makes you want to listen.
Practice give and take. Marriage is a partnership and, therefore, requires both give and take to be successful. Some people have learned to give generously and freely, and they seem to have no expectation of getting in return. Show me a marriage in which one person has mastered the art of giving, and I’ll show you a marriage in which conflict gets resolved quickly and completely. Be sure your solution is best for both and not just selfishly one-sided. Compromise is not a dirty four-letter word.
Have a happy disposition. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22 HCSB).
Take your share of the blame. Maybe you might need to stand in front of a mirror and say, “I am sorry.” And then miraculously watch yourself NOT die.
Don’t make demands or give ultimatums. They generally lead to disappointment and resentment.
Don’t use unfair means of getting your way. Wives should not use sex to get their way. themselves in this area.
Celebrate victory. Why is it that we often fail to recognize our victories? After the dust has settled and peace is restored, take your lover in your arms and say, “We did it, Honey. We were totally at odds and, yes, it was tense there for a while. But we overcame the hurdle. Congratulations.”
In conclusion, mature partners realize that differences are not wrong overall and can be worked out fairly, amiably, and lovingly. Both partners must be honest and now allow a wall of silence to come between them and drive them apart. Discuss these rules and apply them! Marriage run by God’s principles can be a little bit of paradise left to bless both man and woman in a sinful world.