So, I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. Galatians 5:16 NLT
I have had the opportunity to see a lot of marriages go the distance. Unfortunately, through the years I have also seen a lot of divorces.
Because the vast majority of my friends are Christians, most of the divorces I have witnessed were between couples I am convinced are genuine Christians. The saddest and most common divorces have been between what I call “long-haulers”.
Long-haulers are couples who stay quietly but miserably married for two, sometimes three or even four decades. Then, seemingly out of nowhere the couple announces to the shock of everyone they know they are divorcing.
Divorce is always sad but these types of divorces are heartbreaking on multiple levels. These couples almost always feel as if they have “wasted” the best, most productive years of their life in a relationship that brought little real intimacy or joy. Long-haulers nearly always have kids, grandkids, a vast network of friends and a church family who are all psychologically, emotionally and/or spiritually impacted by the divorce. And finally, there is nearly always a disturbing lack of emotional, spiritual and sometimes even intellectual growth in long-haulers. Sometimes this is due to sin in the lives of the couple. However, most of the time the lack of growth occurs because both partners are too busy trying to manage the pain of the relationship to focus on their own spiritual development and health (Hebrews 2:1-3).
The “reason” given for divorce in these types of marriages is almost always the hazy, vague catch-all term: “irreconcilable differences”. In most cases “irreconcilable differences” really means there was conflict in the marriage that was never really dealt with openly (Ephesians 4:26). The unresolved issue became, over time, a cancer in the relationship that eventually led to the death of the relationship. Sometimes the conflict was over sex. Either they didn’t have much of it at all over the course of the marriage or one person in the relationship was having way more of it than the other (Exodus 20:14, 1st Corinthians 7:3-5, 1st Corinthians 6:18). Sometimes, the conflict was over communication. At some point it broke down and they stopped talking about everything in life that really matters, leading to isolation. Other times the conflict was over things as mundane as the division of labor in the relationship or as complex as money and how its allocated in the marriage.
Here’s the thing:
Every long-hauler I have known has admitted that their marriage probably could have been saved if they had been willing to deal with the problems in the relationship early on. Many have also revealed they feared that having a fight would make the problems worse. Their fear kept them from initiating conflict that might have led to relational healing and a restoration of intimacy.
The 5th Century Chinese military leader Sun Tzu said “sometimes the path to peace is war”. Nowhere is this truer than in marriage. Conflicts that bring issues out into the open where they can be discussed and dealt with openly are the only path to true peace in a relationship. Following are four ways to leverage conflict for a healthy marriage:
If there’s a problem find a way to discuss it-
It doesn’t matter what kind of problems are present in the marriage. The problem can be sex, kids, interactions with parents, chores or money. The reality is any problem that gets pushed to the margins does not actually go anywhere. All this does is give the problem space to fester and grow. At some point it will begin having an adverse effect on the rest of the relationship. If you can’t find a way to talk productively to each other get a professional involved. Whatever you do, don’t just hope the problems go away. They won’t. If you don’t fix it now the problem will still be there in thirty years and you will want a divorce.
Deal with trust issues openly and honestly-
Frequently, at the root of poor or blocked communication in marriage is a trust issue. This usually happens because there has been a history of shady behavior with one partner. Shady behavior can include emotional and/or physical affairs, use of pornography, verbal abuse, mishandling money or any other behavior that has caused one person to become distrustful of the other. The only way to deal with a trust issue is through talking about it openly so real healing can take place in the relationship. Oftentimes a professional is needed to help heal the hurt.
No blaming or shaming when you talk about an issue-
The problem should be the enemy not your partner. This means finding a way to deal with the issue at hand without being accusatory or cruel.
No quitting till the problem is worked out-
The most important rule in conflict management in marriage: no one gets to quit until the issues are truly resolved and healthy change has taken place in the relationship.
Marriage is meant to be a picture of the relationship between Jesus and His people. It is the place where children are nurtured into adulthood. If marriage is done right it becomes a safe place for two people to grow into the image of Jesus. Those are the things worth fighting hard for.