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
Through the years I have witnessed a lot of divorces and because the vast majority of my friends are Christians, most of those divorces 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 in their fifties or sixties the couple announces to the shock of everyone they know they are getting a divorce
Divorce is never a blessed event. However, these types of divorces are heartbreaking on multiple levels. The people involved always end up feeling 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. Further complicating the whole messy mess, there is almost always is a disturbing lack of emotional, spiritual growth in long-haulers. 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”. Irreconcilable differences simply means there was a very real conflict in the marriage that was never really dealt with openly or honestly (Ephesians 4:26). The unresolved conflict became, over time, a cancer in the relationship that eventually led to the death of the relationship. Sometimes the conflict was over sex. Either the couple didn’t have much of it 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). Other times the conflict was over things as mundane as the division of labor in the relationship or as complex as money and how it’s allocated in the marriage. Always, the conflict was over communication. At some point it broke down and they stopped talking about everything in life that really matters, which led to isolation, which led to misery, which led to divorce.
Here’s the thing:
I have had a lot of conversations with a lot of long-haulers and very long-hauler I have spoke with admitted their marriage COULD have been saved if they’d been willing to deal with the problems in the relationship early on. Many have also revealed they feared actually having an argument would make the problems worse. Their fear of conflict kept them from initiating the conflict that might have led to relational healing and a restoration of intimacy.
The 5th Century military mastermind Sun Tzu once 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 are the only path to true peace in a relationship.
Following are four ways to leverage conflict for a healthy marriage:
Find a way to discuss the problem-
It doesn’t matter what kind of problems are present in the marriage. The problem can be sex, kids, in-laws, chores or money. Any problem that gets pushed to the margins and ignored simply creates a large space for the problem as well negative feelings about your spouse to fester and grow. At some point that one problem will begin to have 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 problem goes away. It won’t. If it doesn’t get fixed today it will still be there in thirty years and you will want a divorce (Proverbs 24:26, John 8:32).
Deal with trust issues openly and honestly-
At the root of bad or blocked communication in marriage is almost always a giant trust issue. This usually happens because there has been a history of sinful behavior with one partner. Sinful behavior includes 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 talking about it openly so real healing can take place in the relationship. Oftentimes a professional is needed to help heal the hurt that created the trust issue in the first place.
No being mean when you talk about an issue-
Whatever problem the two of you have is the enemy not your spouse. Find a way to deal with the issue at hand without being accusatory or cruel (Galatians 5:15, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12) .
No quitting till the problem is worked out-
The most important rule in any kind of conflict management is: no one gets to quit until the issues are truly resolved and healthy change has taken place in the relationship (Ephesians 4:26). Commit to staying at it until the problem is truly resolved.
Marriage is meant to be a picture of the relationship between Jesus and His people (Ephesians 5:21-33). It is the place where children are nurtured into adulthood and people grow up together. 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.