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Use Conflict as a Catalyst: Communication in Marriage

by C Gary Barnes on July 7, 2006 in Articles

I received a call recently from the wife of a pastor who told me, “Our marriage has been going in the wrong direction for years. So now, at best, we’re silent roommates. I can’t live another day like this.”

Sadly, in my practice as a therapist, this happens regularly.

When we think of what the Bible says about God’s design for marriage, we think of words such as nurturing, mystery, and oneness expressing itself in love. However, because of sin, we have to acknowledge that an accurate theology of marriage must also include a theology of conflict. This includes three fundamental beliefs: (1) Because of the Fall, conflict is inevitable; (2) Conflict is the enemy of oneness, leading to separateness in relationships; and (3) Conflict can serve as a catalyst to a greater experience of oneness in relationships.

Christian marriage partners must avoid what comes naturally if they are to survive the inevitable conflict, which results in separateness. In Ephesians, Paul stresses that greater oneness will characterize our relationships with other believers as we “put off the old self … and put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24). Unless we exchange worldly ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting for godly ways, we will experience separation in our relationships.

What specific thinking patterns do we exchange? Paul gives three suggestions. First, put off falsehood and speak truth (4:25). Next, exchange unwholesome talk for edifying speech (v. 29). And third, replace obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse jesting with thanksgiving (5:4).

I find it interesting to compare this scriptural teaching (special revelation) with recent research about relationships (general revelation). Based on the last twenty years of empirical research on marriage, experts have identified variables that are highly predictive of relationship distress and breakdown.

I was the project coordinator for a replication study at NYU Medical Center attempting to answer the question, “What differentiates distressed and divorced couples from non-distressed and non-divorced couples?” This followed an earlier study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health at the University of Denver led by Dr. Howard Markham and Dr. Scott Stanley. This longitudinal study began in 1980 with 135 couples and continues to this day.

This foundational study, along with others from major marital research labs, suggests a key finding: It is not our differences so much as our way of handling these differences that makes the difference! Also, even though positive communication is significant, the results demonstrate that damaging interactions have far greater predictive value on the outcome of relationship stability and satisfaction.

Researchers have now identified specific variables that predict future distress or divorce with greater than 90 percent accuracy. How? Based on how couples handle conflict. Four highly significant predictors involve four negative ways of interacting. They form an acrostic, WENI (as in, “Don’t be a weenie in the face of conflict”):

W — Withdrawal. Withdrawal is the automatic tendency to move away from any perceived conflict. It might involve silence, leaving the room, changing the subject—even making a sandwich. Although I meet women who withdraw, men tend to be the champions of this pattern.

E — Escalation. Escalation exhibits itself fairly evenly among men and women. It happens when someone exchanges one negative thought, emotion, or behavior for an even greater negative. A couple with a pattern of escalation may begin by talking about kitchen chores, but by the time the argument is over, they have been “discussing” divorce.

N — Negative interpretation. This is the pattern which females tend to champion.  Negative interpretation is a pervasive perception attributing a negative to any behavior, thought or expression. In other words, it assumes that the partner has a negative motivation. The end result is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” For example, bringing home surprise theatre tickets for a night out together might be met with, “There you go again—spending money unnecessarily and trying to get me to enjoy something you like.”

I — Invalidation. A person firmly entrenched in the habit of invalidation sees that “any difference from my own gets evaluated as ‘less than.’ ” This can take a subtle or direct form. The end result is the same: one spouse puts down the other any time a difference is expressed, whether in feelings, thoughts or behaviors. Invalidation says, “Don’t feel that way,” or “Too bad you’re not strong like me.”  For example, a couple might be talking about their children. One parent expresses sadness that a child’s athletic performance did not turn out as well as hoped. The other parent comes back with, “Don’t feel sad. You have no reason to feel sad. She didn’t try hard enough.”

The driving force behind destructive interaction is selfishness and self-protection. Or as Paul explained, a failure to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2). Paul urges his readers to replace negative patterns with new ones, which promote unity and self-sacrifice.

The Denver study confirms what the Bible has suggested all along—that it is not the unchangeable things, such as personality type (temperament) or family background, which cause the greatest damage and distress. Rather, the changeable thoughts and behaviors have the greatest impact on our relationships. And that’s actually good news because God is in the attitude and behavior changing business. Thus, the cry of “I can’t take another day” can become the catalyst for a greater experience of oneness in the couple willing to continually yield to and collaborate with the work of God in their lives.

Gary Barnes, Ph.D., is Director of Counseling Services and Associate Professor of Pastoral Minstries at DTS.

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