My husband and I married young, and every relational cliché applies to us—the good ones and the hard ones. Each year of marriage seems to be better than the last, and it’s really difficult to merge your life with someone else’s. He’s my best friend, and he knows how to push all my buttons. We have so much fun, and we have our fair share of conflict.
Early in our marriage, these times of conflict were exhausting and defeating for both of us. And even when things were going well in between, there was an ongoing awareness that another disagreement was sure to arise. When it inevitably did, we weren’t sure how to navigate it in a way that was compassionate, loving, and kind.
We definitely don’t have it all figured out, but we’ve learned some things over the years that have made conflict easier for us to navigate together. It’s become more constructive and helpful, rather than destructive and draining. I’m proof that it’s possible to find and embrace growth through healthy conflict.
3 Tips for Handling Conflict in Marriage
1. Not all conflicts are created equal.
In every marriage, there will be some conflicts that are quick and easy to solve, and others that feel like a merry-go-round that you can’t stop. My counselor describes these two kinds of conflict as “solvable” and “perpetual,” and that changes the way we approach things.
Solvable conflicts are usually situational and easy to fix, and they rarely resurface. Perpetual conflicts, on the other hand, are often tied to differences in morals or personalities. These conflicts are the ones that seem to keep coming up, even after you thought they had been resolved. It’s likely that for this type of conflict, you’ll need different solutions for different seasons.
Here’s the thing with these two types of conflicts: They look different for each couple. What is a perpetual conflict in my marriage might be a solvable conflict for you. When you can identify your perpetual issues, you can address them differently. You can start your conversations knowing that what might have worked before isn’t working right now, and that’s okay. When we need to revisit these topics, we now know that it’s not from a place of “stirring the pot” or “beating a dead horse.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to examine what worked well in the past, discuss why it might not be working now, and brainstorm what we might try next.
Experiencing conflict doesn’t mean that you’re bad at marriage—it means you’re a unique human married to another unique human. So you get to come up with some uniquely tailored solutions to whatever you face together!
2. Create house rules for conflict—before you need them.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “fight fair.” This was something we heard often in the early stages of our relationship. When we were dating, we made a point of talking about how we handled conflict and what it would look like to fight fair. But when we got married and moved in together, we really had to put these guidelines to the test—and we’ve had to reassess our rules for fighting through the years.
House rules help you understand and know how you can best communicate and love your spouse when emotions are running high in conflict. For us, we have an established rule that we don’t yell when we’re in conflict. This not only keeps us in check when we’re in the heat of an argument, but it also helps us remember that our spouse is still our partner.
If you haven’t already, have a conversation with your spouse (when you’re not in conflict) about the ways they can love you well when you’re having a disagreement. You might write them down on a shared note on your phone or put them somewhere for accountability the next time you find yourself in conflict.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Listen to understand first, and respond second.
- Don’t use degrading language (name-calling, profanity, etc.)
- Share how you feel: “When you did _____, it made me feel _______.”
- Don’t bring up the past.
- Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
- Don’t joke or threaten divorce.
- Be okay with taking a time-out. Sometimes you just need a snack or a nap.
3. Connect when it’s done.
Have you ever reached a resolution and still had residual anger or wondered if your spouse was really okay? Conflict can take a toll on your emotional and mental energy, leaving you feeling exhausted when it’s over.
That’s why it’s important to intentionally connect with your spouse when you’ve come to a resolution. This effort to connect is a sign that you’re okay and ready to move on together.
In keeping with how unique we all are, this will look different for each argument—and each marriage. For us, it can be watching our favorite TV show together, holding hands, or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. The connection is best when it’s mutual and appropriate for the situation. A larger conflict might need a larger, more intentional act of connection, while a smaller conflict might end with a light-hearted, appropriately timed joke.
Regardless of what your connection looks like, make sure it happens more than it doesn’t. The connection helps diffuse any lingering tension, while also bringing you closer to each other.
Conflict in marriage is going to happen, and that’s okay. I’ve learned that the goal isn’t to avoid conflict but to be kind, loving, and empathetic in the midst of it. Remember that your spouse is your partner, and that the argument is rarely a “you vs. me”—it’s more of an “us vs. the enemy.” Even though it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, we can work through the inevitable conflict with growing kindness, honesty, self-control, and understanding.