I know very little about football. When I say very little, I mean I honestly have no idea what my husband is talking about when he uses terms like safety, blitz and line of scrimmage. But one thing I do know is the goal of the game. Get the ball into the end zone more than the opposing team and you are the winner… right? It’s a game with many confusing rules (at least to me), but one clear objective, to win. Kind of like marriage. More specifically, conflict in marriage. Figure out the rules, then do whatever it takes to get the win. We each receive our training in vastly different arenas, with a wide variety of instructional techniques. Some of us learn the subtle strategies of manipulation to get what we want. Some know nothing but full blown free-for-all brawls, where the last man standing wins. Still others have found that the only safe thing to do is avoid conflict at any cost and opt out of the game altogether.
I’ve always been one to jump right in the game; I’m not much of an avoider. Partly personality (I kind of like to win) and partly just survival (my family dynamic was less than supportive). Of course, my husband comes from a completely different kind of family. Mostly avoiders, unless the conflict grew to mammoth proportions and one particular person finally exploded. Two entirely different backgrounds, two entirely different set of rules. So, yeah, that’s been fun.
Surprisingly, we never fought during our 3 1/2 year dating relationship. But from day 1 of marriage, the gloves came off. And we spent 11 years getting pretty much nowhere, feeling like no matter who won the argument, we both just lost the game. How could two educated, semi-mature, mentally stable people who cared about each other be so horrible at conflict resolution? Why did we seem to go round and round and finally just give up in frustration, building up more and more resentment? We loved each other deeply, but we were positioned as opponents on this playing field. And neither side was winning. One day, we finally had enough. We decided it was time to recruit some professional coaching. This “coach” (i.e., highly qualified therapist) gave us three key rules for fighting fair. Over time, we realized these weren’t simply new rules, these were game changers. They revolutionized our fights and our marriage. They taught us how we could both win the game/argument every single time.
RULE #1 USE THE INVALUABLE TOOL OF A CRITICAL PAUSE
A Critical Pause is basically just a grown-up Time Out. Time to calm down, allow for some space and gain some clarity. I’ll be honest, this one was really hard for me at first. I couldn’t stand unsolved problems. I needed resolution to be okay. And that was a big part of the problem. My co-dependence drove me time and time again to push closure on an issue before one or both of us were ready. My own insecurity brought feelings of panic when conflict arose. I was afraid of what it meant for our marriage when we had major disagreements. Was it over? Would he leave me? Would we never resolve the issue? What we realized, however, is that when emotions are high and tempers volatile, conversations are usually less than productive. In fact, this is often when the most hurtful, careless words are spoken. And once they’re out there, they can’t be unspoken. Which creates a whole new set of problems.
The Critical Pause is a tool that has helped us learn to process our thoughts and feelings so we can respond in maturity and not react in anger. We’ve learned to pay attention to where there’s “heat” in our communication. When our voices start to rise, when we start feeling defensive and angry, one of us can call a Critical Pause. We use this time to process our own feelings through prayer, journaling, or with a friend. Once we both feel ready, we come back and revisit the issue. In the beginning, we sometimes needed several Critical Pauses for the same argument! But it has been amazing to see the difference in our ability to communicate and work through issues when we use this invaluable tool.
RULE #2 ACKNOWLEDGE THAT AN ARGUMENT IS ALMOST NEVER WHAT IT SEEMS TO BE ABOUT
When used correctly, a Critical Pause usually reveals that the heated feelings are almost never about the issue at hand. Instead, we often realize the issue has triggered far deeper feelings beneath the surface. These heated arguments can be opportunities to process and work through unresolved pain, anger, fear, trauma, etc. Maybe there are serious trust issues that need to be worked on. Maybe we feel unappreciated in general and haven’t known how to communicate that to our spouse. Maybe we are depressed or in a spiritual crisis.
Taking time apart often reveals that the issue at hand is really not that big of a deal to us after all… maybe we realize we are just completely exhausted or hungry or upset about something that has absolutely nothing at all to do with our spouse. It can be very scary and painful to dive beneath the surface and get down to what’s really going on. Sometimes we must acknowledge root feelings of rejection and unworthiness and allow God to heal the woundedness that occurred long before our spouse came along.
RULE #3 REMEMBER THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS HOW YOU TREAT EACH OTHER IN THE PROCESS
This rule flipped everything completely upside down. Our whole lives, we’d been trained to believe that the most important thing is the outcome. Getting our way. Being right. That was certainly the case in my family of origin. But maybe it’s not the most important thing after all. Maybe, in our most treasured human relationship with the person we have committed to love, honor and cherish ’til death do us part, the most important thing is not getting our way, but how we treat each other in the process. Talk about a game changer! The outcome might be important, but it’s not what’s most important. This one truth is the very definition of what it looks like to LOVE. And putting it into practice has transformed our relationship into something really beautiful.
The power of these rules is that they create a win/win for both people. The drawback is, it takes a LOT of practice and a great deal of failure to get good at keeping them. Five years in, I’m still really not that great at it. I am, however, light years from where I was. I still have these out of body experiences as I see myself slipping back into old patterns and hear myself communicating in old, unhealthy ways. Let me be clear, however, that since the first time my husband and I put these three rules into practice, we have never, not once, come to a stand still on making a decision or working through conflict. When we use critical pauses to process through heated feelings, acknowledge and work through underlying resentments and unresolved issues, and treat each other with kindness through the process, we always come to a mutual agreement. Everything changed when we realized we could be on the same team, with the same goal. And then we both win.
Held by Him,