How to Navigate Relationship Problems: 4 Steps to Healthy Disagreement

How to Navigate Relationship Problems: 4 Steps to Healthy Disagreement

Learning to disagree well is foundational to a good marriage: Here is my lovely wife Christine and I sharing a boat ride.
Learning to disagree well is foundational to a good marriage: Here is my lovely wife Christine and I sharing a boat ride.

Disagreement in our marriage is uncomfortable, but it is also the natural path to growth. There is no couple that does not struggle with relationship issues. All couples will disagree at one time or another. Where you have more than one person, you will have friction. The goal is not to avoid disagreement, but to do so in a mutually honoring and nurturing way.

Avoiding disagreement is really worse than a sharp argument because people lose self and postpose the inevitable. This creates a relationship of avoidance and lack of intimacy. Couples who do not fight may not be as intimate as those who do because they fail to stay engaged, listen, and work through. Make-up sex comes through disagreement.

The Argument Vortex

What is an argument vortex? It is that sucking black hole we get slurped into like a bug in the toilet whenever we get into an argument. Someone says something we do not like, and then we return in kind. When we have finally calmed down, if we have any self-awareness at all we say, “Well now that was dumb of me.” If we have little self-awareness, we blame it all on the other person.

How does this happen? Generally we have a false assumption that our own behavior is contingent upon the other person’s behavior. We say things like, “Well, I would not have done this if you hadn’t done that!”  Or, “You always do blank and that is why I can’t do blank,” and so on.

When we do this we are giving away control of our lives in order to avoid responsibility.

What kind of person do you want to be?

Is that the kind of person we want to be? Is it true maturity to only act mature when others are treating us maturely?

Lets ask the tough question: If someone does something bad to you, does that really “make” you do something else? This probably would not hold up in court, now would it?

Passing blame only comes at the cost of disempowering ourselves. While we are not in control of all our circumstances, we do have responsibility for self. I am not responsible another persons’ actions, but I have the power to be responsible for mine if I choose to be a thinking self.

When someone else is misbehaving, we have a choice how we respond. This requires resisting impulse to react. It requires self-modulation and the courage to think. This is the path to healing in relationships. And it has been shown that one person taking a thinking and intentioned approach in the relationship can work wonders in its overall functioning.

The argument process

Think about the typical argument process: Our spouse comes in the room and says, “Why do you always leave your stuff around? You are such a slob. Pick up after yourself.” The words are sharp and stinging.

Immediately you  feel your anger rising. But why? What is it about you that is so fragile? Have you thought about that? When we mistreat another we are actually embarrassing ourselves, not the other person. Yet for some reason, our first response is to answer in kind. Why? Because it is our own insecurity.

When we are not secure in our person, the offense of others causes us to throw up our defenses or even go on the attack to overcome it. But that is flowing from our weakness as a person, not a position of strength. If we want  to avoid the argument vortex, we need to begin developing our inner strength. By this I am referring to our self value or “self-confidence.”

What is your real self value?

The ease or degree to which we are offended is in direct proportion to our lack of self-value.

The less confident we are in our own self worth, the more easily we will be emotionally derailed by the words of others. Building self and trying to improve self confidence is a process of becoming truly accepting of self. It is not founded purely on our outstanding qualities. It is rooted in an honest self assessment that accepts self as a growing person in all our strong and weaker qualities.

Letting go of control

Here is why it is important. We have no control over the actions of another. We cannot prevent others from insulting or mistreating us. When we are not rooted in the impregnable identity that God gives us in Christ, then we are vulnerable. This creates the radical emotional swings. This kind of person is often referred to as oversensitive. It takes only the slightest pressure on their toe to set them off. But it is true of all of us to some degree.

Fights or arguments break out when folks try controlling the actions of another. This is always rooted in what we “think we deserve.” Fights generally follow a path of making demands about how the other person is going to treat us “or else.”

4 Steps to healthier communication and relationships

Only humans have what some have called the “executive brain.” This is our prefrontal cortex. And while we all have it, few of us when in an disagreement choose to use it. This requires a disciplined choice to override the tsunami of emotion that leads us to fight and react.

The only thing we can control is our own thinking and responses. Those are hard enough (Rom. 7:13-25 ) without trying to control the behavior of others. So what can we do about it? Here is a simple conflict management strategy to help  prevent derailing into the argument vortex:

1. Pay attention to your emotional urges – You know someone offended you by the feeling in your chest or gut. That is telling you that you are moving from your thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) to your lizard brain (amygdala). The Amygdala is the instinctive survival region of the brain. It is very important for saving your life from head-on collisions and such. But it is not the region you want to be using when engaging with your spouse.

2. Develop Your personal process – sit down and outline a few steps for dealing with your emotions when they kick in. Will you take a deep breath or take a walk? What do you personally need to self manage in anxious moments? Our parents always told us it takes two to fight. It is true. It is hard to fight if one person refuses to.

3. Ask questions (rather than making “You” statements) – We are often unaware of the offensive things we are doing when struggling with emotion. Learning to ask questions for clarity really helps prevent a conversation from derailing.

A spouse may say, “Why do you always do XYZ?” “You” statements sound accusatory. They are almost universally met with another “you” i.e. “Well what about how “you do SPQR?” or “At least I don’t do ABC like you!” Learning to be confident in self, but also openly accepting of personal faults goes a long way. This allows us to ask questions, listen, and understand. In that way, the person feels heard and we may learn something constructive about ourselves in the process.

4. Defuse passion with gentleness  – In 1 Peter 3:9 the Bible says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (See also Romans 12:17 & 1 Thessalonians 5:15) Moreover Proverbs 15:1 says, “A  soft answer turns away wrath.” Gentleness absorbs and defuses passion rather than throwing gas on it.

Adding more passion never helps. It only insults, escalates, and intimidates. This is why most arguments in our relationships usually morph from one thing to another.  A two hour argument broken down may end up being ten to fifteen separate issues, in which no progress was made toward resolving any of them.

The Bible is right. If you put pressure on a person, they automatically apply pressure back. It is involuntary. It takes the most keen self-awareness to see it and restrain ourselves. 

According to Paul, God has given us the Spirit of his Son and therefore the power to listen, think, and regard one another.  It takes intentionality to do so. But it will offer great dividends to the health of our marriages and other vital relationships.

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