Who Goes First? Conflict Resolution for Marriages

March 3, 2022 | Read Time: 4 mins

By: Mrs. Kenda McVeigh

I’m a runner. I always have been – but maybe not the type that usually comes to mind when someone says those words. I run from conflict. If there’s a hint of tension or some hard conversation about to burst forth, I’m outta there. And if I can’t leave the room I definitely shut down. “What’s wrong?” someone may ask. “Nothing” is my typical response when the dialogue bubble over my head would tell a completely different story. For most of my life, keeping conflict at bay either by avoiding it or becoming the peacemaker has been a way of life. While it can be challenging, it’s just always been a part of who I am.

Now enter into my life, the love of my life, my amazing husband. He is not a runner. When it comes to conflict, he’s like a lawyer. I don’t know how, but when conflict occurs, he has the ability to instantaneously create and line up a logical argument that would take me three days to research and compile. In one fell swoop, he can refute my point and turn the tables on my reasoning. Like I said, he’s like a lawyer when it comes to conflict, and he does it well. Running away or shutting down never even cross his mind.

In the early days of our marriage, it might have been quite comical if someone had been watching us have a difficult discussion. A tense topic comes up and he proceeds to make his point as I’m walking out of the room, and… he’s following me. He wants to work it out and I want to hide. He follows me all over the house as I attempt to evade him, and he attempts to continue our talk. And when he asks me “What’s wrong?” my answer of course is “Nothing.” Obviously, it’s not very productive, and we both just end up frustrated and discouraged.

As leaders in ReEngage Marriage Ministry, we learned that we are not alone in how we handle difficult conversations. One of the sessions of this study delves into four negative communication styles: Withdraw, Escalate, Negatively Interpret and Invalidate. Chances are we all fall into one of these categories when we are faced with conflict. You can learn more about each of these styles from a video found here. 

For my husband and me, it was not just learning about our conflict styles that was helpful but figuring out what to do about it. Uncovering the idea of initiation – who’s going to stop the craziness first – was a game-changer for us. One of us had to take the lead in making a change even if the other person didn’t deserve it or hadn’t earned it.

While in the heat of the moment, this concept of initiation seems hard if not impossible, we do have an example to follow in Christ. In Romans 5:8 we learn, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Let’s just think about this a bit. While we were still sinning, Christ died on the cross for us. He didn’t wait for us to get our act together, or for us to ask, or for us to do anything – He just did it. He initiated a path for our forgiveness in a way that caused Him great pain, humiliation and ultimately death, while we were still sinning. His sacrifice was the true game-changer.

So how does that look – to be the one who initiates the change in moments of conflict? Well in our situation, it looks like my husband taking a deep breath, controlling his reaction, and putting aside his need to be right so he can listen better. For me, it looks like staying in the room and actually sharing my thoughts or concerns without shutting down. I’ve occasionally found myself getting up from the kitchen table during a hard discussion and simply pacing the floor, wanting to leave the room yet knowing I must stay to help bring resolution to the conflict. And to be fair to my husband, he wants me to stay and share my concerns and thoughts with him. I find that when I do, when I remember that I can change the cycle by initiating a new response, he too can begin to relax and listen and communicate calmly.

Is it easy? No, it’s not. We both have set patterns for handling conflict that were developed when we were young. Are we always successful? No, because we’re imperfect people and we can easily fall back on our previous habits. But is working to establish healthy resolution to our conflict worth the effort? Absolutely.

It usually only takes one of us putting down our defenses and laying aside our ego to change the direction of our conflict. So, when I’m about to shut down and make my hasty exit, I stop and remember that I can make things different. When I don’t feel loving, I can still make a loving decision. And what once might have been a perpetual game of hide and seek, becomes a real opportunity for growth, communication and intimacy in our marriage.