Albert Einstein left us a famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. But his insight doesn’t take a genius to understand—anyone who has ever been married already knows the insanity that a downward spiral of marital conflict can become.
Virtually every couple falls into one of two tendencies in dealing with marital conflict. Some of us are escalators. We pursue under stress, and our responses are outward. We want to help our marriage by talking things through as soon as possible. When upset, we can get hot under the collar and blow steam.
Conversely, others of us are avoiders. We withdraw under stress, and our responses go inward. We would rather help our marriage by waiting for things to cool down or blow over. When upset, we can freeze our partner with emotional and physical distance.
Often there is one of each conflict style in a marriage. And the harder the escalator pursues, the faster the avoider runs. One spouse literally feels like they are chasing the other from room to room!
It would be funny … except it’s not. In fact, ineffective patterns of conflict resolution are frustrating and destructive. Being trapped long enough in a crazy cycle of conflict can lead to feelings of futility and even despair.
The irony is that both escalators and avoiders care about the relationship. The escalators want to “stay connected,” and the avoiders want to “stop fighting.” However, since they misinterpret each other’s motivation (and because they are angry!), this crazy cycle is easy to start and hard to escape.
So how do we break sinful patterns of marital conflict?
Calm down! (Prov. 29:11 – Only a fool gives full vent to his anger!) It’s a biological fact that when in marital conflict, your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Remember the “flight or fight” response from high school biology? During marital conflict, your ability to process information, pay attention, and engage creative thinking dramatically decreases. And when under physical duress, it is not a good time to solve marital problems! So DON’T. Take some time to calm down first. (Warning: If you take a break to calm down, make sure you schedule a time to come back and talk things through, or else the break will deteriorate into just another avoidance tactic.)
Remember the point of the argument. (Eph. 5:28 – He who loves his wife loves himself.) The point of any marital argument is not winning—it’s oneness! Oneness means it is impossible to win if your spouse loses. Your spouse is not the enemy. And getting your way in the immediate problem is secondary to the priority of your relationship quality. How many battles have we won only to find ourselves losing the war for oneness?
Soften your approach. (Prov. 15:1 – A soft answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.) Sociological research reveals an astonishing fact of marital conflict: 94% of arguments end exactly like they began. That means the first few sentences in a conflict can virtually determine the outcome. So above all, don’t start with accusations. Start with “I” vs. “You” statements, and remember to seek to understand as much as you seek to be understood.
Use your brakes. (Phil. 2:3 – Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.) Research shows that the average time a spouse spends listening before interjecting an opinion is just seventeen seconds! Never offer your opinion until you are confident your spouse feels you have understood them. And remember, you can prevent disaster if you know how to repair when things have gone off track. When you have hurt your spouse, humbly asking forgiveness and reassuring your spouse of your love and commitment will go a long way toward making space for the repeated attempts needed to put things right.
With God’s help, let’s stop the insanity!
*Ideas in this article adapted from Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.