Working through conflict to bear fruit in your marriage
Love, marriage and conflict
Did you ever get the song “Love and Marriage” performed by Frank Sinatra stuck in your head? It’s easy to see how love and marriage go together, as we feel love and see it in movies. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us about love and marriage:
“God who created man out of love also calls him to love the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes and this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation.” CCC 1604
But what about “marriage and conflict”? I haven’t heard a song that does the topic justice. We don’t see the fights between Prince Charming and his beloved after the wedding in the movies. This can lead us to think of conflict in a marriage as an indicator that we have fallen out of love or that perhaps we weren’t made for each other after all. Conflict in marriage is real and it can cause separation and isolation between spouses, for the Catechism of Catholic Church tells us:
“Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character. According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman.” (CCC 1606 & 1607, emphasis added)
To sum it up, marriage is an image of God’s love for us, and conflicts which cause separation are caused by disorder, stemming from sin and not from the nature of our relations.
Can marital conflict be redeemed?
If we want to understand how conflict can be redeemed in marriage, we will need to look at how God redeemed our relationship with him. Jesus freed us from sin after our relationship with him was broken by it. Jesus didn’t only come for our relationship with God, but also for our relationships in marriage and our struggles with infertility. One more time: conflict in marriage and infertility struggles are NOT an exception to the redemptive acts of Jesus' passion and death. Now the deceiver wants us to believe they are, since he wants this discord to be against husband and wife. Why? Because the deceiver despises the images of God’s love, which (if we go back to the Catechism) is our marriage. Just as he worked to deceive Eve in the Garden of Eden, he wants to plant that seed of doubt about our fruitfulness and our stewardship of God’s creation in our marriage.
Did you ever think conflict in marriage could be redeemed and even be fruitful? My husband and I entered a dark valley within our marriage about 7 years ago. We felt separated from each other, but luckily not from God. The conflicts we were having weren’t being processed, but were being dealt with then swept under the rug until the next one. Nothing was really being solved and we had cultivated a bad habit of keeping score in these conflicts. Our hearts had become hardened in these circumstances. God started to work on giving us new hearts through two opportunities. First, we attended a “Living in Love” retreat (now called “Ever More in Love”) where we learned more about the Theology of the Body and God’s purpose for our marriage. We learned new skills about our perspectives, how our families of origin influence our marriage, and how to communicate our feelings via love letters. This started to give us hope and God was well on his way to softening our hearts. About two years later, we were still struggling with the feelings of separation after conflict, the disconnect it left between us as not really being seen, heard, and loved by our spouse. Luckily for us, God had a plan for that as well. We were presented with an opportunity to learn new skills on processing conflict at the Gottman Institute’s “The Art and Science of Love” two-day seminar. This is what we needed to see real progress in the transformation of our hearts.
The Love Lab
The Gottman Institute was co-founded by Drs. Julie and John Gottman to further fund the research John Gottman started with Robert Levenson. They founded what the media called “The Love Lab”. Through this research at “The Love Lab”, they discovered most relationship problems (69%) never get resolved but are “perpetual” problems based on personality differences between partners. With eyes of faith, we can see in God’s wisdom we were made differently for his purpose. Not only are we each different with different gifts, but he also gave us free will. We all have this glorious purpose, but we all also have this free choice to reject love. As we all know these personality differences can be our greatest strength and also our greatest weakness. For example, the skills given to an engineer to be logical can be those same skills that cause conflict with an artist’s vision of beauty. Can you imagine the kinds of perpetual problems the apostles had? I am sure they are similar to the problems I experience with my spouse, friends and family.
Dealing with a fight or regrettable incident
One of the many tools presented at “The Art and Science of Love” was called “The Aftermath of a Fight or Regrettable Incident”. This was a game-changer for our marriage. We have had a lot of regrettable incidents and we are not perfect but each time, we offer our small attempt to the Lord to bless like loaves and fishes. The Lord takes our small loaves and fishes, blesses them and turns them into abundance. The process has allowed us to practice expressing our feelings, active listening, understanding perspectives and practicing forgiveness. It was also a stepping stone for us to desire to reconcile with God in the sacrament of reconciliation.
How did this process look in our marriage? It starts with waiting until the emotional flooding has subsided. This is a physiological event where God designed us with a fight-or-flight instinct. When we reach a specific stress level our basic instincts kick in to keep us alive, but it doesn’t allow access to the logical part of our brain. This means our intellect isn’t driving the train, and our feelings start to hijack the train to get us away and survive. While this works well to get away from an attacking bear, it doesn’t work well in conflict with our spouse. It is key that we reach a state where we won’t get back into the conflict when discussing. This can take hours or days. We typically signal our readiness to start processing by putting out our Gottman books. Then we schedule some time to start the process as we don’t want any immediate time constraints or start the discussion when we are both tired at 9pm. The process for us might take an hour or so, depending on how bad the regrettable incident was. The key to remember is this is not a trial to judge who was wronged: no one wins after a regrettable incident. Do you want to be right or married? If you answered that you would rather be married then you are ready to start the process.
When we are ready to start, we always open in prayer. We ask the Holy Spirit to come, to give us open hearts, and to help us see each other as God sees us. Then we start with just stating our feelings during the regrettable incident. We don’t go into detail on why we felt that way or where it was in the incident. We don’t comment on each other’s feelings. (For example, we just processed an incident about our smoke detectors going off at 5:30am when both of us were ill and not sleeping well. I felt frustrated, not listened to, exhausted, like my feelings didn’t even matter. My husband expressed his feelings too.)
Then we move on to step 2, taking turns to describe our realities of the incident. This is where we look at the incident from each person’s subjective perspective. The subjective perspective is like being a driver in a car, you see the road and feel the experience from your driver’s seat, whereas looking at it from an objective perspective would be seeing the traffic camera’s view. Traffic cameras can see all the details of the cars, but they don’t know the feelings of the drivers. It’s kind of like how all the Gospels tell the same story, but come from a different perspective and have a different focus. One person would start describing their reality like a play-by-play description. Since it is only from one person’s perspective, they should describe it with “I” statements such as “I heard you say…” The person listening is not there to judge, interrupt or correct the reality of their spouse even if they didn’t remember it happening like that. This can be super hard, especially when pride wants to keep bubbling up! The listener should validate and summarize their partner’s reality. After summarizing, ask “Do you feel understood?” and “Is there anything else I missed?” Then you switch roles. This part of the process is an opportunity to enter into your spouse’s experience of life and see the struggles from their driver’s seat.
(For example with the smoke detector, we weren’t sleeping in the same room due to illness and persistent coughing so I didn’t know he heard the smoke detector go off at 1am, then got barely any sleep before 5:30am. He went to get the ladder and replacement batteries and as he was up on the ladder, he heard me say “It’s not the batteries”. From his perspective, this action was interpreted as if I was working against his plan to stop the beeping and hopefully get sleep again. When I explained my perspective, I told him about how it went off two months ago. At that time, I changed the batteries and then they went off a month later in the other rooms so I knew for a fact all the batteries were recently changed, but he hadn’t been present during those incidents. I also explained after we had separated during the regrettable incident that I researched the blink pattern of the smoke detector and discovered the possibility of dust or a spider web setting the sensor off, and while he was on a call I cleaned it. When we had calmed down, we came up with a plan to replace the smoke detectors. Talking about our perspectives gives us a clearer picture about how our realities influence our decisions and reactions. Both realities were correct from our limited perspective in the driver’s seat of our own car.)
After we both confirm our realities have been understood, we move onto step 3: sharing experiences that contributed to escalating the interaction. These are places where we have been bruised before and it hasn’t been fully healed. This is a place for our spouse to greet us with compassion and understanding. You want to be careful not to bring up past regrettable incidents which included your spouse, but instead go to another incident like at school or growing up. This is another opportunity to understand your spouse a bit better. (For example, I felt powerless and I’m very sensitive to that. This feeling of powerlessness goes back to when I was a child in school and didn’t feel listened to by my teachers or my friends.)
The next step is taking responsibility for how you contributed to the regrettable incident. You have an opportunity to acknowledge your own role and what you regret, then most importantly ask for forgiveness. The listener should grant forgiveness lavishly. As in the parable when the master forgives the servant his debt, but then the servant turns around and expects repayment for a lesser debt. We are granted forgiveness lavishly by God and in turn we should also forgive our spouse. Once again you would each take a turn. (In our smoke detector incident, I’d been running on empty, stressed and irritable so these all contributed to me adding fuel to the fire. I regretted not being respectful and asked my husband for forgiveness.
The final step is coming up with a plan together for how you can make it better for the next time. There will be a next time. It may not be the same problem, but there will always be a regrettable incident since we are sinners. During this step, you each come up with something you can do better going forward and one thing to ask your spouse to do going forward. It is important you remain calm and open when you do this. You want to be as agreeable as possible and it is okay to acknowledge that the request is difficult. We find this the hardest part of the process - to not emotionally get back into the incident. (For example, we decided on my husband working on stating what he needs at the time and I would work on stating my rationale for my solution.) At the end of the process, we ask ourselves two questions. Do I feel ready to move forward and give myself to my spouse? Do I want to be in a relationship again with my spouse? If the answer is no, that’s ok. It just means we didn’t process something completely and will need to try again. What is most important is the attempt to repair the relationship and reconcile as quickly as possible.
We have seen a lot of fruit from this process in our marriage. We are able to see how our assumptions lead us to discord or how our own sin impacts our spouse. It is an opportunity to seek and grant forgiveness. Here are some recommendations from our successful and failed attempts.
Be patient and forgiving with each other as you practice this toolkit for processing conflict. In order to build confidence, start with something small. If you were learning to ski, you wouldn’t start with a black diamond hill. You would probably start with a bunny hill and it’s the same thing with this tool. There will be times it may take multiple attempts to really feel like you have been seen and heard. That’s okay! Just be willing to try again.
Try not to let the situation stew for days or weeks; life is way too short for us to be separated by conflict.
Don’t forget to ALWAYS invite the Holy Spirit into the discussion, as he works miracles with two stubborn people.
For additional learning and assistance, I would recommend checking out the Gottman Institute’s resources for conflict or taking a class with them if you struggle with processing conflict. I would also recommend attending an “Ever More in Love” retreat or session. It was the start of our journey into the Theology of the Body and provided many tools to enrich our marriage from a Catholic perspective. Dr Greg Popcak’s book “How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love” is also a good resource, which provides helpful hints to build up your own skills in case your spouse isn’t ready to participate in this process.