Marital Conflict and Downward Mobility: “The Best Fight Ever!”

Actually, it’s wasn’t a fight, but it would have been any other time. It wasn’t an argument either, since we weren’t doing that. It was us talking about something very painful I had done to my wife. And it was the “best ever” because in the past, this never would have happened. We would have argued and fought, and most likely, nothing good would have come of it. Instead the outcome would have been only greater misunderstanding, pain, and distance between us. Here’s what I think made for part of the difference. (And it definitely relates to “downward mobility.”)

I gave up any right to defend myself. This is huge for me, since I’m known for my defensiveness. It’s a big part of how I’ve been for decades. (Being wrong would not have kept me from defending myself, nor made it any easier to renounce such self-defense.) I gave up my right to defend myself because I knew I had to. I knew what was natural and familiar to me was counterproductive. It’s just not possible to demonstrate love to someone you’ve hurt while mounting a defense strategy. (In my times with God, if I’m learning the power of relinquishing my rights – think here of the example of Jesus in Philippians 2 – then I will be better prepared to do so in this kind of situation.)

I gave up any right to be understood. Obviously, it’s important to understand and be understood, but timing is everything. When the other person is hurting, it’s not time for explanations that sound like excuses – or may actually be excuses. I have to approach my wife in her pain, and wait for another time – which may or may not come – to hope to be understood. Obviously, none of this comes easily.

In the midst of most arguments, it’s common for both participants to relate how their partner “always” or “never” does a certain thing. Motives are judged, and many times, because of the hurt, the very worst interpretations are placed upon innumerable actions of the distant and recent past. It can feel very unfair, and it can be very unfair. It can also be a painful time when God reveals some unpleasant “stuff” about you through your spouse. Selah. Either way, it’s natural to want to explain yourself. One hopes that doing so will create a more informed, forgiving environment. This is precisely what must be given up. The urge to be understood comes naturally, but in the presence of great hurt, progress requires another approach. My focus must be my wife and her hurt, not my self-protection. (If I’ve learned not to make excuses to God when he reveals my dark underbelly, that will be training of use to me now.)

I gave up any right for things to make sense. My training and life experience makes me a very analytical, cerebrally-oriented person. I’ve been trained to “distinguish the things that differ” and, almost like a lawyer, to avoid logical fallacies and press hard to win the case. For irrationally to prevail, or go unchallenged, seems a senseless and hopeless approach. After all, Jesus himself said, “The truth will set you free.” (I suppose this is just a subset of “needing to be understood” above, but it’s helpful to me to separate it out.) It’s counterintuitive to leave illogic unchallenged, and that’s the point. The counterintuitive way must be chosen. Trusting in the power of logic and reason demonstrates misplaced trust – as if hurt could be healed by logic and reason. (Again, if I’ve learned in God’s presence, to trust in Him whether it makes sense or not – and here we could think of Job – then I’ll more easily remember the limits of logic here.)

I gave up any right to control the outcome. I’ve mentioned already what I can‘t allow myself to do. The question remains, what will I need to make myself do? What specific change to promise? What sacrifice might I need to offer up? What do I have and what do I love that may be required from me as part of moving forward? And even the relationship itself – what will become of it? Will this be a “full moment” (Nouwen) that works for painful but powerful transformation and growth in the relationship? Will this represent the entrance into an unprecedented time of pain (the “for worse” of the marriage vows)? And when things are really bad, there is always the unspoken question, “Will this be the end of the relationship?”

I have some control over the outcome, of course – and that’s what I’m writing about. Ultimately though, I can only submit myself and my partner – and the final outcome, to God. I can’t approach God in this process as if striking a bargain – “I”ll give up these rights of mine, if you’ll give me what I want or feel I deserve in my marriage.” The Psalmist says, “With all that I am, I wait quietly upon God, for my hope is in him.” To “wait quietly” is to submit. We submit because we confess that we don’t know what is best. We don’t know what God is doing. And to “hope in him” is to depend on my relationship with him more than anything else. I need to trust him, and I can trust him. I need to have hope in this process, and I can have hope. I can have hope because of his unfailing love for me and for my spouse. I can hope because the God of the Resurrection and the Exodus (the two great saving events of the Bible) is exceedingly more than sufficient to save. But to hope in him also means a release of anxiety about the outcome, a refusal to bargain with him or to manipulate my spouse. It means stepping out into the great greyness of “unknowing” – and “waiting in expectation” (Psalm 5:3) upon God.

Postscript: I don’t have any illusions that I did a great job in this conversation of ours, and I don’t want to give that impression. My point is that I did much better than in the past – and that my taking a different approach allowed my wife to do much better too. (My friend Tad would explain that when I changed, the family “system” was changed.) More conversations and work must follow, and that’s why I wanted to remind myself of what to do. In forcing myself to think it through, and write it out clearly, I’m developing a Rule of Life for times of conflict. I know the only good strategy will focus on being changed myself. I also know that only God can change me – and I know that’s a big order. I’m counting on the fact that He is a very big God, and on that, although I’m tempted to do so at times, I’m not giving up.

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“My life is a mystery which I do not attempt to really understand, as though I were led by the hand in a night where I see nothing, but can fully depend on the love and protection of Him who guides me.” – Thomas Merton

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2 thoughts on “Marital Conflict and Downward Mobility: “The Best Fight Ever!”

  1. Ray says:

    This is very wise; giving up something held for so long is hard. This reminds me of the line in the song “I Surrender”: “I’m laying down my rights, I’m giving up my pride for the promise of new life.” When I sing that, I think “Yeah, but I’m not really doing that.”

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