How to NOT Handle Conflict

Did you ever watch the show What Not to Wear? It was an interesting, entertaining show where a person with bad fashion sense would be nominated by friends, co-workers, or relatives to receive a makeover. More than that, though, the goal was to teach the women how to dress well and feel confident in who they are. As part of the show’s format, the hosts would go through the participant’s wardrobe, throwing out all of the terrible, ill fitting, outdated, or scandalous pieces of clothing from her wardrobe before helping her create an entirely new wardrobe. I always found this format to be an effective teaching tool because it first showed you what not to wear before teaching you how to dress well. This week, we’re going to be doing our own version of this show. But instead of showing you what not to wear, as we learn about dealing with conflict in marriage, we’ll be doing a two-part series of articles that shows you first, how to NOT handle conflict, and then, how to fight well. Today, let’s explore what not to do when you find yourself in conflict. Confession: I have, many times, been guilty of doing these very things. In my marriage, even after seven years, we’re still learning every day how to serve and love one another well, and I expect that to continue until the day death parts us or the Lord comes back for us. So, please know, that as I write these for you and your relationship, I am also writing to myself!

  1. DO NOT Keep Score

Bringing up past fights or past mistakes is never a good strategy, unless your goal is to further anger your spouse. Keeping score is a quick, effective way to break trust and show them you really haven’t forgiven them. Remember, love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV).

  1. DO NOT Use the Silent Treatment

_MG_3482 I feel like this is something we learn as kids. My four-year-old son has used this more than once when he was angry at me. I say this to point out just how childish this practice is. I understand that there is value in not discuss troubling issues in the moment sometimes, as those situations often lead to things being said that you don’t mean. But if you need that space, establish it with your spouse and set a time to reconvene and discuss. By defensively stonewalling someone, refusing to talk or listen, we are being disrespectful. Not only does it exhibit a level of contempt, but also often causes the underlying conflict to grow and fester. The silent treatment solves nothing, and can cause way more damage than it’s worth.

  1. DO NOT Go on the Offensive OR the Defensive

I think it would be a giant understatement to say that insults and character or personality attacks are a bad idea. Calling someone lazy, stupid, needy, controlling, crazy, or anything else you can think of is not only disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning, it’s also abusive. Going on attack mode creates negative perceptions on both sides. On the flipside, when a spouse expresses constructive, objective complaints and difficulties, we often tend to get defensive and try to justify our behaviors or trivialize our spouse’s point of view. Defensive people vehemently deny wrongdoing, and usually deflect and avoid the possibility that they could be contributing to a problem. Believe me when I tell you that failing to own up to things creates long-term problems in a relationship, breaks trust, makes our spouse feel unheard, and allows unresolved conflict to grow—not to mention how it prevents us from growing and maturing as people.

  1. DO NOT Play the Blame Game

_MG_3461-Edit This is a big no-no. You never want to place blame on your spouse. This is such a damaging way to handle conflict. Similar to number three, placing blame is a surefire way to get someone to put up their walls and go on the defensive. Blaming someone doesn’t help resolve conflict, it escalates it. 

  1. DO NOT Overgeneralize

_MG_3556 Often in marriage, spouses seemingly become CSI analysts, seeing behavioral patterns you never noticed before! Sarcasm aside, starting sentences with, “You always,” or, “You never”—as in, “You always spend hours on the phone with your mother!” or, “You never help me out around the house!”—is never a good idea. Stop and think about whether or not this is really true. And even if it is true, consider whether it’s worth adding coal to the conflict fire . . . and be prepared for the retort, because two can play that game. 

  1. DO NOT Try to “Win” the Conflict

If there is one thing on this list I’m perpetually guilty of, it’s this one! And from experience, I can tell you that when one spouse tries to win the fight, everyone loses. My need to be right all the time is a constant struggle for me that rears its ugly head in discussions of all kinds, even in conflict with my wife. And when I go into “for the win” mode, I am missing the point of discussing our issue. The goal should be mutual understanding, resolution, respect, and peace. It should be meeting the needs of my spouse. But if I’m too busy making a case for why I’m right (which implies she’s wrong), I’m discounting her feelings, failing to see it from her perspective, and leaving the conflict unresolved.

  1. DO NOT Assume You Know How They’re Feeling

In addition to becoming expert pattern analysts, when you get married, you also seem to develop telepathy! If only, right? Sometimes, instead of asking our spouse what they’re thinking or what they’re feeling, we often convince ourselves that we know what they’re thinking and feeling. This is usually based on our interpretation of their actions, and for some reason, we consistently assume it’s negative—for example, feeling certain that a tired spouse is denying sex out of passive-aggressiveness, or that a quiet spouse is hiding something. This creates hostility and leads to misunderstandings. In a relationship, assume nothing! Always ask.

  1. DO NOT Fail to Listen 

_MG_3536  Most people are very good at saying their piece . . . but fall a little short on the listening part. You should never interrupt, roll your eyes, and go over what you’re going to say next in your head instead of actually hearing what your spouse has to say and trying your best to understand their feelings and/or concerns. When you fail to listen, you also fail to see your partner’s point of view, and to be quite honest it also hardens your partner to your point of view.

  1. DO NOT Bottle It Up

 If you’ve ever seen a volcano erupt, geysers explode, or the Diet Coke/Mentos experiment, then you know what the scene will be when avoiding conflict altogether ceases to be an option. Some people really gate confrontation, so rather than discussing their building frustrations and relationship pain points as they happen, they simply bury it deep down and bottle it up. They don’t say anything to their spouse . . . until they simply can’t take anymore and explode. When this happens, there is usually a lot of angry, hurtful things said. While this may seem to be the less stressful route—how can avoiding an argument and letting the matter resolve itself not be better than dealing with it in a respectful, loving, objective way?—it always causes more stress to both spouses as tensions rise, bitterness takes root, and a much bigger argument eventually erupts in fiery, devastating fashion.

  1. DO NOT Fight On An Empty Stomach

_MG_3512-Edit  There is a popular graphic tee with that says, “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.” It seems Mars Snackfood company was on to something when they told us that you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. So, if you feel an argument coming on, make sure there is a Snickers bar nearby, or maybe a pizza! Be sure to check back later this week as Pastor Ray and Vivian Fagin share some tips on the best ways to handle conflict!

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.