I don’t know much about boxing, martial arts and other types of fighting other than what I’ve gleaned from movies (thanks to Mark Wahlberg, Hilary Swank, Russell Crowe, Sylvester Stallone, and the like). But I do know one thing:
Every good and fair fight has rules.
These days, rules in professional fighting might be as basic as no biting and staying inside of a ring (I’m pretty sure those are the only rules in UFC, right? I really don’t know).
Likewise, to have a fair fight in marriage, you have to play by the rules. Don’t have any established rules? You should.
A few years ago, Marc and I took a fantastic class together called Dynamic Marriage. One of the lessons we learned is that any marriage is generally going to be in one of three phases. The first phase is called intimacy – you’re emotionally close, in love, and ooshy gooshy happy. The second phase is conflict. Couples in conflict are not necessarily in a bad place. They have to be in conflict in order to work their way back towards intimacy. The third phase is the worst one. It’s called withdrawal. Couples in withdrawal have given up fighting. They may still technically be married, but they are emotionally distant – perhaps they are even looking outside the marriage to meet their desires to be intimate. In order to get back to intimacy, couples in the withdrawal phase have to go through the fighting phase.
Marc and I make it our goal to be in the intimacy phase. But to do that, we have to fight sometimes. To fight with that intimacy end goal in mind, we have to fight fair. And to fight fair, we need rules.
Thus I give you our marriage conflict rules of engagement (Please note: These rules work under the assumption that there is no abuse in the marriage – physical, sexual, emotional, or whatever. All bets are off when there’s abuse—that usually requires some serious outside help.):
- No use of the “D” word. Ever.
“The man who hates and divorces his wife, ” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. (Malachi 2:16, NIV)
Divorce is just not in our vocabulary because it is not an option. I might as well say, “I’m going to move to Argentina and start a banana stand!” The only reason one of us would use this word would be to be intentionally hurtful. Which brings me to the next rule…
- No saying things that are intentionally hurtful.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29, NIV)
The natural response to feeling hurt is to want to hurt back. Sometimes I have to very willfully bite my tongue so I don’t say something that is just mean and nasty—and drives us further apart. This rule takes some self-control (and requires apologizing if it’s broken). I should note that this rule doesn’t mean to avoid telling the truth so as to avoid hurting feelings. But as truth is told, it should be told in love. This brings me to our next rule…
- No lying.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:25)
Early in our marriage, we fell into the common trap of telling half-truths to avoid conflict with each other. You know, like being very vague about how some money was spent so as not to upset your spouse. Or not confessing when you do something you know the other person wouldn’t like. Bad, bad idea—this is the shortcut route to withdrawal. Concealing truth is the same thing as lying. Not being completely honest destroys trust, which is vital for intimacy.
- Take time-outs.
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. (1 Corinthians 7:5)
The apostle Paul in the above passage was instructing married couples to meet each other’s physical needs, but then he put in this somewhat surprising pointer: get away from each other and pray (by mutual consent for a short time). Hmm…I wonder why? Probably so we can cool off when we’re hopping mad and need to get our heads on straight! Whenever either one of us is feeling like we’re going to say something we’ll regret, we have the right to a time-out to go cool off and collect ourselves. This is not the same as a cold shoulder. We have a mutual expectation that we will resume the conversation once either party has dealt with his or her anger in a productive way.
- Get support.
Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice. (Proverbs 13:10)
Occasionally we come to an impasse during an argument. When that happens, we agree to seek counsel from another person or married couple we mutually respect. I can’t think of a single time after we sought such advice that it didn’t help.
And that’s it! These five rules are invaluable to helping us work through virtually any problem we encounter in marriage, large and small. Disclaimer: this is not a magic formula, particularly for deep and complicated issues. But it sure helps a lot.
I should note that another thing to remember is…in marriage you’re on the same team. So at the end of a fight, both parties win! I believe when we’ve worked through a conflict, we have mutual understanding and forgiveness.
So keep on fighting!
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