Dave and Linda’s story is all too common, one that’s repeated again and again across thousands of marriages.
It works like this: They have a disagreement and erupt into conflict. They think they’re angry with each other about the specific issue they’re fighting about, but they’re not. There’s something much deeper at work.
It’s like the time Dave came home from work thirty minutes late. Linda was furious and gave him an earful the second he stepped inside the front door.
Dave was baffled at her reaction. He was rarely ever late, and this night, he’d simply gotten hung up at work and had forgotten to call. Besides, it was only thirty minutes.
Linda didn’t see it that way at all and spent most of the evening crying angry tears at him.
It wasn’t until much later while in counseling that they discovered what was underneath Linda’s emotion. It turns out when she was a child, her dad often came home late … because he was cheating on her mom.
You see, Dave’s tardiness wasn’t really the problem. It simply triggered something deeper within Linda.
At some level, it’s the same story for most of our marriages. There’s usually a deeper issue beneath the surface that drives our conflict.
We all have buttons that get pushed. They may be deep-seated fears, unfulfilled expectations, or childhood wounds created by a parent speaking harshly to you or an embarrassing situation in the presence of other family members or friends. These buttons trigger feelings of worthlessness, failure, or the sense that you’re unloved, disrespected, or that you’re never going to measure up.
These deeper emotions set us up for what Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley call the “reactive cycle.” Your buttons get pushed, and you react, which pushes your spouse’s buttons, and he or she reacts, which pushes your buttons again. And that quickly, you’re in a cycle that goes round and round and round.
How can couples pull themselves out of that deadly spiral?
It starts with Matthew 7:3: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your …” what? “your own eye” (emphasis mine).
Matthew 7:5 goes on to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
In other words, the first step is to deal with yourself first. Your buttons have been pushed. Your heart has been shut down. You need to step away from the problem to get some clarity and to let your heart open again, so you can have a productive conversation with your spouse.
Second, when you do come back together, make sure each other feels safe and both of your hearts are open. Are you both in a place emotionally where you can have a civilized, open-hearted conversation about your situation? If you still feel defensive or like you want to continue to argue, your heart is still closed.
Third, once you’re certain your hearts are open, you can now see clearly to resolve the issues by listening to one another and talking the problem through.
Are those three steps that straightforward and easy for every couple? Not necessarily. That’s why Greg and Erin are joining us in the studios today and tomorrow to get beneath the surface of marital conflict and to discuss solutions with us.
A lot of marriages that wind up in trouble reflect the patterns we’ll be discussing – an argument erupts, and the couple digs in deeper to their unhealthy patterns rather than learning how to handle conflict better. As Greg explains, when disagreements are handled well, they can lead to deeper levels of intimacy in marriage. We’ll talk about how to do that.
Other couples feel like their relationship is drowning in anger. Author Gary Smalley (Greg’s dad) says, “You never bury anger dead. You bury it alive. And sooner or later it’ll resurface.” If your marriage suffers from on-going conflict that never seems to get resolved, give us a call today at 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459). We have counselors available to listen and pray with you and to provide tools to help strengthen your marriage.
And for those couples who have been stuck in a tailspin for so long you fear you may never be able to pull out of it, we have answers for you, too. Our Focus on the Family Marriage Institute offers 4-day retreats in Branson, Missouri, where you and your spouse can go a long way toward restoring your hope, facilitating healing between you and your spouse, and bringing restoration to your relationship. For full information call 1-866-875-2915 or visit online at nationalmarriage.com.
Greg is the vice president of Family Ministries here at Focus and, together, he and Erin do a great job in helping lead our marriage outreach.