What to Do When Couples Cannot Agree

by James Rudy Gray

What to Do When Couples Can't Agree

Do husbands and wives disagree? The key is not that we argue sometimes but how we argue. A huge factor in building a better marriage is understanding the differences that cause the conflict, while loving the one with whom we disagree. Proverbs abounds with admonitions about conflict management. Every married couple must learn to be good conflict managers because we cannot expect to avoid all conflict or disagreement.

After about 16 years of research, Dr. John Gottman has observed that most couples' conflicts can neither be solved nor resolved. He divides marital disagreements into two types: Those that can be resolved (31%) and those that are perpetual (69%). Solving conflict in the first case involves finding a solution through compromise. In the second case, it involves acceptance of the people and the situation through compromise.

A solution may not always be the reality we live with, but coping with whatever it is we have to deal with is a possible and wholesome outcome. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." I would submit that this same principle can be applied successfully to living with your spouse even in times of pain or conflict.

Psychologist Dale Wile in his book, After The Honeymoon, says, "When choosing a long-term partner you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you will be grappling with for the next 10, 20, or 50 years."

Men have a tendency to be more solution-oriented about just about everything, while women are more relationship-oriented. We will have some conflict and disagreements. The denial of conflict is probably worse than the conflict itself. Can you disagree with your mate and still show him or her that you love, respect, and honor him or her?

Gottman emphasizes: "You do not have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive!" That is a potentially dangerous statement because it could influence some wrong-thinking spouse into believing he or she is supposed to always win the argument. They could then easily move from being conflict managers to combatants who live disengaged lives. Our job as husbands and wives is to love each other-which means showing the other person that we value him/her. We should listen, not to agree, but to understand. Then, if we still disagree, we have sent the positive message that we care about the other person. We can agree to disagree. We can disagree with our mate's concept of something and at the same time affirm our love for her/him. Some conflict is actually healthy.

One very practical point which research in this area has shown us is that the first three minutes of a disagreement are the most important. A harsh start-up usually means a harsh outcome.

Gottman's conflict management model inolves:

complain but do not criticize or blame;

use "I" statements instead of "you" statements;

describe what you feel or think but do not judge;

be clear, be polite, show appreciation, don't store things up.

Even though Gottman is known as America's foremost relationship expert, God has even better counsel for us: "Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph. 4:26). Even if we cannot reach an agreement we can still communicate to our mate that disagreeing with them is better than the best agreement with anyone else!

James Rudy Gray, who pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.