Conflict is bound to happen. Conflict is part of relationships, including healthy ones.
Whether it’s living with friends, a dorm roommate at college, a spouse, or children, sharing a living space with people is hard. We each bring in over-sized baggage. It doesn’t take long for us to bump into one another as friction and frustration mount. That’s even more true in this season of social-distancing when so many of us are confined to our homes, facing challenging circumstances, and lacking some of the people and outlets that help us let out some of the steam in life. How can we handle conflict between roommates, spouses, or parents and kids?
My assumption going into marriage was that conflict is always bad. I assumed conflict made problems worse, not better, so I avoided conflict. But avoiding an issue isn’t the same as resolving the issue. Sweeping difficulties under the rug doesn’t mean they go away. That increasing pressure will eat away at us like an acid and cause bitterness, or it will build until it explodes like a volcano.
Conflict can’t be avoided. It’s either resolved in healthy ways or eventually it comes to a head in unhealthy ways. Though I don’t like conflict, I’m learning it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Conflict can be an opportunity for relational growth when it helps us deal with issues and remove relational barriers.
Below are 7 pieces of advice (that I need to apply more!) when it comes to conflict resolution inside the home. While it directly relates to marriage, I think much of it applies to conflict in general.
God calls us to be peace-makers, including in our family.
A theology of peacemaking is foundational and essential to conflict resolution. Avoiding conflict is not true peace. In the Bible, peace is different than how we use it today. When we talk about peace, it’s often between two opposed parties where the goal is simply to get them to lay down their arms and not kill each other. We talk about peace or peace-treaties between countries but we mean the suppression of hostility. But when the Bible talks about peace, it refers to actual unity, harmony, and oneness.
Peace isn’t a neutral zone (DMZ) where we agree to get along. Peace is fellowship and friendship around a table.
God is the peacemaker who shows us what peace looks like. Because of our sin, humans are estranged from God and at odds with Him (Eph. 2:1-4). But the Father pursues reconciliation by sending Jesus to pay for our sins so we can be made right with God. Jesus’ doesn’t merely remove our sin and create a neutral relationship with God, but he brings us into God’s family and causes us to be welcomed, loved, and fully restored. That’s peacemaking (Is. 52:7; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 1:15-23; Rom. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:20). God initiates peace and accomplishes peace. “Reconciliation is peacemaking. It involves God’s taking the initiative to make friends out of his enemies.”
God’s peacemaking models and motivates being a peacemaker. We can give grace and forgiveness leading to peace because we’ve received these gifts. We can extend peace because God did so to us.
It’s not easy. It requires giving mercy and grace, extending forgiveness, being patient, and dealing with difficult issues. But this is what God calls us to be as His image-bearers, a work we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to do in and through us. Peace isn’t avoiding conflict to keep from war; it’s dealing with issues as they come up to avoid war.
“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19; see Matt. 5:9; Heb. 12:14)
See conflict as an opportunity to deal with issues causing a divide or distance.
Problems, tension, and unresolved issues in marriage don’t go away and they rarely resolve themselves over time. Waiting them out isn’t the answer. Hoping your spouse will change their mind or see the light doesn’t work. The choice is settle for unresolved issues creating distance and tension, or do your best to work through those issues.
Conflict can be an opportunity to remove or reduce relational barriers. The goal isn’t getting into conflict, but addressing honestly and humbly the things creating a divide or distance. It might be a disagreement, dealing with an offense or hurt, or seeking to align your desires.
It’s kind of like going to the dentist. A little temporary pain can save us bigger pain in the long-run. You might not want a dentist poking at your teeth, but if a small cavity goes unchecked it’s only going to get worse.
Begin by dealing with yourself first.
Admit your own sin and failures first. Remember that you can’t change anyone else, but you can ask God to change you. You can work on you. You can take responsibility for yourself, which includes humbly admitting your issues and faults. can only change the person inside this circle. Take the log out of your own eye before asking your spouse to get the speck out of their eye (Matthew 7:5). Confess your sins to your spouse more than you point out their sins to them.
We all think we do more than everyone else, we’re in the right more often, and our spouse is the bigger problem. Somehow my wife and I both think we do 75% of the house chores and our spouse does 25%, but that’s statistically not possible. We know all the things we’ve tried or done, but we often ignore or skip past all the good things our spouse has tried or done. Approach conflict with a dose of humility and with more gratitude to your spouse.
Start with identifying your sin or weaknesses or how you’ve contributed to the problem you’re in. If we can be honest about how we’ve contributed to the problem, how we’ve failed, what we’ve not done, that helps us see we played a role in this. This act of humility usually is a “peace offering” or a “bridge of grace” to hopefully seek resolving the issue rather than defending our camps.
We also see the things we do as not that big a deal, but the thing our spouse does as a huge deal. For example, I get really annoyed when my wife leaves her shoes out but think it’s fine to leave my socks everywhere. She thinks leaving her shoes out isn’t a problem but me leaving my nasty socks out is the problem. This is the human heart. We minimize our own faults and overreact to others. We give ourselves a lot of grace but often withhold it from others.
We need to both be more perceptive and humble about our contribution to problems, while also giving our spouse the benefit of the doubt more and letting cover many of the annoyances.
There’s a war waging at the level of our desires.
Conflict in marriage is often the battle of two kingdoms. Each of us have a desire we want to see happen. Sometimes those desires might even be good, or at least start out as good before morphing into a desire that’s really a demand, or an idol. We have our own kingdoms we’re trying to advance and defend. Our focus isn’t on God’s kingdom, His desires, or His agenda for us; the focus is on what we want.
“When you are hurt, angry, or disappointed with your husband or wife, it is not because he or she has broken the laws of God’s kingdom, and it really concerns you. No, you are most often angry because your spouse has broken the laws of your kingdom. Your spouse is in the way of what you want, and it mobilizes you to do or say something that will rein your spouse back into service of your wants, needs, and feelings.” Paul Tripp
Conflict is a heart issue (see James 1:13-15; 4:1-3; Luke 6:45). We need to pinpoint our idols, what we’re really wanting, and what’s driving our words, thoughts, and actions. In conflict, ask yourself, how am I defending my kingdom or trying to advance my kingdom rather than seeking God’s kingdom first? Where am I going to war with my spouse rather than dying to self?
Identify the real issue.
This connects to our prior point on how things are really operating at a heart or desire level. The issue isn’t the issue but what’s underneath the issue. Look under the surface and identify the root issues.
- Why is what they’re doing making me angry?
- What do I want?
- Is this a hurt, a disagreement, or a difference in desires?
- Is this a secondary/surface issue revealing conflict or is this a primary/deep issue driving conflict?
- What is my desire? What am I worshipping or idolizing?
- Am I just yielding to avoid conflict or am I wanting to honor God by pursuing peace?
If we don’t identify the real issue, we won’t resolve our issues.
Shut up and listen.
“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (James 1:19; see also Prov. 10:19; 17:27-28)
The goal of communication is mutual understanding. That requires listening—not just waiting until your turn to speak but hearing your spouse—and trying to understand where they’re coming from. Do you really want that or do you want to win?
- Not talking, but hearing.
- Not thinking about talking, but listening in order to talk. Not thinking about you will say without first hearing what they’re saying and responding.
- Hearing beyond words. Noticing tone, posture. Listening to what’s being said underneath what’s being said.
- Asking clarifying questions. Are you saying this? Why did you think or feel that way? How could I have approached this differently?
- Not just listening to your spouse, but also listening to the Spirit’s wisdom and conviction.
Speak for the sake of building up and unity, not winning, being heard, or defensiveness. It’s not that we should never speak, and maybe some of you don’t speak up enough or share what you’re thinking (I can be guilty of that), but most of us speak more than we listen and before we listen.
We don’t avoid conflict, but there are times where we need to trust the Lord more to be at work in our spouse and to fight for us rather than feeling like we have to be the one to change our spouse’s mind and heart.
A humble, listening spirit can break down walls and win over your spouse more than a tightly reasoned argument.
Not all times are equally good times to handle conflict. When Lily was a baby and we were tired and stressed out at 2 a.m., that wasn’t’ the best time to handle conflict. If you know you’re so fired up that you’re going to say something damaging or sinful, it’s probably not the right time. As Daniel Tiger says, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” I don’t think going in a room and counting to four is the ultimate answer, but the idea of temporarily taking a step back and letting a bomb defuse is wise.
Timing matters. That’s not an excuse to avoid conflict or delay it forever, but it is a general principle to help it be productive.
 Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 306.
 Paul Tripp, “The Problem of ‘Kingdom’ in Our Marriages” https://www.crossway.org/articles/the-problem-of-kingdom-in-our-marriages/