At this point in my life, I’ve come to view conflict as good.
Whenever you put two unique individuals together you’re going to have two persons who don’t come at every situation in exactly the same way. He has grown up around two unique individuals and she has grown up around two unique individuals. There are going to be substantial differences.
As a matter of fact, they’re going to have all kinds of places where the two of them take a unique perspective on things. It’s in the management of those unique perspectives that we have what could be called conflict. However, the management of that conflict can turn out to be a stair step raising you to a higher and higher level of marital satisfaction every time you manage the conflict well.
Here’s my concern: If you don’t have conflict, it’s almost always because of one of two things:
1. One person has decided to let the other person do all the managing of the relationship.
In other words, two people are living one person’s life. My mother was a little bit like that. She was a simple woman, very loving and kind, and she was always good to me and good to everybody.
My Dad was a real strong guy, and he was the most powerful person in my life. My Dad, without knowing it, had a way, especially in the early phases of the relationship, of almost always being in control of everything that happened. My Mom managed to endure that for a while.
But I noticed that she started having headaches and body problems of various kinds. I really believe, although we didn’t know about this in Iowa where we grew up, that my mother was depressed. That almost always happens to a person who allows another person to control them. If two persons are living one person’s life, not having any conflict, one person is going to end up resentful and depressed and hurt. They’re going to feel real empty inside.
2. You’re just pretending that conflict doesn’t exist.
Now I know what that leads to. Unfortunately, in religious circles, often times two people who think that conflict is bad will choose to ignore the conflict in the interest of making the relationship seem like it is working.
I get those two people into my office. They sit clear across the room from each other. They never look at each other. They hardly listen to each other. They don’t like each other very much. It is like ice in the room. Two married people who have ignored their conflict for so long that they have grown more and more distant from one another.
Conflict is good if conflict comes out and two people deal with it effectively. They come closer together. But beyond that, when they have that kind of conflict, both people participate in the building of a larger and larger relationship, a relationship bigger than either of their lives. That’s what marriage is all about. If you don’t know if you have the capacity as two persons who are dating to manage your conflict effectively, to resolve it systematically and consistently, then you’re not ready to get married. Until you have conflict and until you know that you can manage it, you know that you’re not ready to get married.
I often have people come to me and they think they’re going to kind of snow me. They’ll say, “Dr. Warren, you know Linda and I have never had any conflict at all. And we don’t think we’re ever really going to have any.” I’m thinking to myself, “Okay then, you’re not ready to get married. How am I going to handle this?“
What I try to say to them is conflict is inevitable in any relationship. You’re going to have it. The fact that you haven’t had it has not given you a chance to determine whether you have one of the most important skills of all for marriage: whether you know how to resolve your conflict.
Before I give you this plan I want to mention the most important single factor in two persons being able to manage their conflict: respect. If two people really respect each other then they have all the chances of being able to develop a conflict resolution style that will work wonderfully well for them.
When two people come into my office and they’re thinking about being married, I always look for the amount of respect that they have for one another. I can determine this by the way that they look at each other. I can determine it by the way they listen to each other. I can determine it by the way they bring each other into the conversation. I can determine it by the way they talk about each other. If there’s a nice pace to their conversation, he talks for a while and she talks for a while, and then he talks and then she talks. If they look each other in the eye, if they ask questions of each other, if they treat each other with dignity, with kindness, with respect, then I know that any conflict resolution problem that they have, I can teach them how to deal with it.
On the other hand, if they come in and they sit far away from each other, if they interrupt each other a lot, he seldom listens to her or she doesn’t listen to him, if they don’t bring each other into the conversation but seem competitive in the relationship, I worry. Maybe they don’t have the respect they need to have. But if that respect is there, then I can teach them this five-step model I’m going to teach you right now.
Step 1: Every person on earth deserves to have their own feelings and thoughts, even if those feelings and thoughts disagree with the feelings and thoughts of the person they love the most.
Every person on earth has a right to their own feelings and thoughts. We need to say that to each other. Pin it on the refrigerator door. Pin it all over the house. Each of us has a right to our own feelings and thoughts, even if our feelings and thoughts disagree with the other person’s feelings and thoughts. That’s point number one. Atmosphere will provide all the basics for this conflict resolution style to work extremely well.
Step 2: We all need desperately to be heard and understood when it comes to any feelings and thoughts that we have, especially when they disagree with the other person’s feelings and thoughts.
Marylyn and I used to have a way of carrying on our debates well into the night. I would say something and she would say something in disagreement to it. It was obvious to me that she must not have heard what I said, so I would say it again. It was obvious to her that I must not have heard what she said, so she would say the same thing again. Sometimes we would go on in this way for two, three, even four hours. It was a creative contest. I would try to say as creatively as possible what I had said in the first place. Sometimes I was a little louder than I was in the first place. And she would say as creatively as she could the same thing she had said the first time, maybe a little louder, until our discussion had become quite a conflict.
But somewhere in there, one of us would do this magical thing and say something like, “Okay now Marylyn, let me see if I understand what you’re saying.” If I happened to be the one to say it that night, I would say as precisely as I knew how exactly what I heard her saying. I could always tell a big change had taken place. There was quietness in the room. Just understanding her meant so much to her. We all desperately need to feel heard and understood, especially when our thoughts and feelings are in opposition to the thoughts and feelings of the person we love the most.
Step 3: Define precisely what the difference is between you.
Sometimes I worry about the fact that all of us have a tendency to throw everything into the discussion. “Don’t forget what your mother did five years ago. I’ll never forget what she did. And your brother, I can’t believe that he’d….” “We’re only talking about who’s going to take the car to get it washed Saturday morning.” “What your mother, your brother, I mean those have nothing….” Define precisely what the two of you are dealing with. What’s the conflict about, precisely? Leave everything else out.
Step 4 is simply this: There needs to be a compromise statement in your relationship vocabulary.
This is the statement I use with my wife, Marylyn. I wonder if she knows how many times I’ve used this: “Okay now honey, how can I give on this and how can you give on this so that we will be together?”
Whenever I use that statement or whenever Marylyn uses that statement we know we’re on the way to resolution. “Okay now honey, how can I give on this?” As soon as I hear her say anything like that, I’m pretty sure that as soon as she hears me say anything like that she knows that I’m in a giving mood. I’m ready to give to anybody who will give to me. And when she gives, and when I give, we resolve. Conflict resolution.
Step 5: Congratulate one another every single time you resolve conflict.
I’ve got to tell you that one of the best skills the two of you can ever develop is taking a conflict and turning it into an asset.
I often think about the fact that our conflict, Marylyn’s and mine, is usually in the same area over and over. Marylyn likes it colder in the wintertime and warmer in the summertime than I do. I really like it nice and warm in the winter and I like it plenty cold in the summer.
It makes perfect sense to me that the thermostat is the place we ought to operate on the problem. For Marylyn, I honestly believe that her thriftiness comes out. She wants the air conditioner on less in the summer than I want it on. She wants the heat on less in the winter than I want it on. And so we have an ongoing problem.
One night I was staying up late to watch the UCLA/Oregon basketball game—they used to come on in replays after the fact and it was really late. I noticed during the game that it was really warm in the room, but I kind of liked that, because I like it warm in the winter and basketball is in the winter. Once the game was over, I was all excited and went up to bed. The next morning Marylyn came up and said, “You know the reason we didn’t sleep very well is because the heat was left on last night. It was so hot in here.”
The heat was left on. She said, “Yeah, I turned it up kind of warm so that you could be nice and warm at dinner.” And I said, “Yeah, I walked right by that thermostat and I didn’t turn it down. I was the problem, and thanks so much for turning the heat up for me to be warm at dinner.”
Nothing else was said. That night she came home from work and she just said two sentences to me: “That was really nice the way you handled that problem about the heat. I’m glad that you understood what I was trying to say.” You know, I could hardly wait for more conflict with her. It felt like we had taken such a nice step. You see, what that conflict had done was it provided us an opportunity to get closer to each other. I felt so good that she turned the heat up so that I’d be warm at dinner. She felt so good that I’d taken responsibility for the heat being up all night so that we couldn’t sleep.
I felt so good that she felt so good about the fact that I had taken that responsibility. I just wanted more conflict. That’s the way to make a marriage work.
Make sure that you have mastered this five-step approach to managing conflict with the person with whom you want to be involved. Make sure you’ve mastered this before you get married because, if you have, your marriage will endure for as long as you live.