In a recently posted blog (Marriage: The Power of Communication), I quoted Ephesians 4:29 to affirm the healing power of spirit-controlled communication between a husband and wife : “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Even with good intentions, however, all marriages encounter conflict. When the “storm clouds” gather, how important it is to understand the role of disagreement in marriage. Where does it come from? Is it all destructive, or are there constructive attitudes that will strengthen a relationship?

I must admit that it has taken 38 years of marriage to help me grow in this area. My natural inclination is to pursue harmony in relationships, and I find it difficult to deal with conflict. While growing up, I rarely saw my parents disagree with one another. My mom is a wonderful Christian woman who approaches life with a “peace at any price” philosophy, so there was never open disagreement in our home. On one level, I am very thankful for that, especially when I hear stories of homes ravaged by vicious fighting. But, through those years I never observed a healthy model of constructive disagreement. Learning to understand this aspect of communication has been a growing process for me. Here are a few thoughts from life and from God’s wisdom in the Scriptures:

Understand the reasons for conflict in marriage.

We are all damaged goods, needing healing and redemption.When we return to the “blueprint” for marriage in Gen 2:20-25 (see earlier blog, “The Marriage Blueprint”), it is important to note that immediately following is the story of the fall (Genesis 3). Into a world where God and woman and man were perfectly harmonious, an enemy introduced doubts (3:1) and openly denied that’s God’s words were true (3:4). When Adam and Eve believed these lies and acted on them, we were all swept into a state of brokenness and alienation from God and each other. Complete openness and vulnerability (1:25) was replaced by fear and shame (3:7, 10). Healthy accountability was replaced by blaming others for our problems (3:12-13). Sin at its very heart is self-centered, a factor which regularly fuels the fires of conflict. In addition, all of us bring into marriage some spiritual or emotional “baggage” from the past. Unresolved bitterness from a past relationship . . . inability to know God’s full forgiveness for past sins. . . these are just examples of “ghosts” that can haunt any marriage. When we fall in love, we assume that marriage will solve all these problems, but it will not. Healthy marriages recognize this reality as the source of heartache and conflict.

Differences in the sexes and in personalities.When God created Eve, he intentionally made her different than Adam. While Gen 1:27-31 gives an account of the creation of human beings, the expanded story in chapter 2 emphasizes details about the differences between the sexes and their complementary design. Eve’s relationship with Adam (found in the meaning of the terms translated “suitable” and “helper” in 2:18, 20), assumes differences in the sexes. While some viewpoints today have attempted to deny this reality (e.g. radical feminism), many scientific studies have confirmed the obvious—men and women are different in significant ways! It is interesting that for many couples the attraction to their mate was sparked by differences in personality and temperament. My wife Leah is a multi-tasker; I am a focused person. I am more gregarious and find it easy to meet new people; my wife is shy and finds that difficult. You get the idea . . . and if you are married, you could provide your own list. While these differences often stretch us and help us to grow, they can also be the source of great conflict in a marriage.

Your spouse is not the enemy, Satan is!One of the most important factors to remember is that we daily live in “enemy territory,” and our adversary, Satan, delights in disrupting the marriage relationship. 1 Peter 5:8-9 says it clearly:

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Practically speaking, I do not live life with a “devil behind every bush” mentality. There is a danger of excusing our own failures by blaming everything on Satan. But, I do believe Satan and his diabolical armies are looking for every opportunity to disrupt lives living for God, and that includes our marriages. Think about it! Throughout the Scriptures, Old and New Testament, God metaphorically pictures his ideal relationship with us through marriage and the family—Old Testament Israel was God’s “wife,” we Christians are the “bride” of Christ, we are ”children” of our heavenly father. For this reason marriage and the family is one of Satan’s prime targets! If he can distort or destroy those relationships, he has succeeded in confusing our understanding of God. And that is exactly what he attempts to do. But be alert! Marital conflict can lead to frustration, and the wrong conclusion that my spouse is the enemy. Not so! Satan is, and when we resist him through faith, even “irreconcilable differences” can be overcome through good communication. Pray often with your spouse, and it will make significant difference in your relationship.

Healthy Relationships grounded in obedience to God

One of the defining New Testament passages about marriage is Ephesians 5:22-33. My intent here is not to explain in detail this passage, but to apply two commands within it to the resolution of marital conflict. The commands are simply stated as follows:

Husband, love your wife
Wife, respect your husband

Husbands are commanded to love our wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25), to the extent that a husband loves his wife “as he loves himself” (5:28, 33). The love commanded here is the Greek word agape, a selfless love of choice and commitment (see earlier blog, “Commitment—What is the Meaning of ‘For Better or for Worse?’”). This is a love that originates with God (1 John 4:19), so how fitting it is to find instruction about marriage in the context of a spirit-filled life (Eph 5:18) and mutual submission to one another (Eph 5:21).

In this amazing description of the husband’s spiritual leadership in the home, one finds the command for the wife to “respect her husband” (Eph 5:33). While there is much more to emulate in this passage, the simple commands of “love” and “respect” seem to go to the heart of the God’s unique design of a man and a woman. In a study done of over 2,000 marriages, those who had been married over 20 years to the same person were asked to describe that relationship. Though women said it in many ways, the common denominator was that they felt loved by their husbands. Similarly the men felt respected by their wives. When we obey God’s wisdom, it beautifully coincides with the way we are made, and harmonious relationships happen.

So what was God thinking when he created two such different creatures and brought them together in a marriage? This “mystery” was designed to teach us about our relationship with God (Eph 5:31-32). Because of our brokenness, conflict is an inevitable. But mutual love and respect can provide the environment for healing and forgiveness in any marriage.