When I was young, my parents taught me a great distinction that I now appreciate as a therapist a whole lot more than as a five-year-old. My parents enjoyed a good debate, and they were careful to distinguish between an argument and a “discussion.” Discussion is often a more accurate word for what we think of as a marital disagreement. It’s a difference of opinion, something that needs to be hashed out as a couple or a family, a normal part of the process. There isn’t something wrong with you as a couple if you don’t see eye to eye on every pinpoint of day-to-day life. Living a life well together means being vulnerable enough with one another to share our deepest opinions in a safe place. As well as being able to say “I see it differently” about where the trash can should go, without concern for judgment and backlash.
Marriage itself is an open invitation for discussion. To love, honor, and cherish is also to invite our spouse to open their mouth to share, to open our ears to hear, to debate, to more fully see things by seeing close up from another perspective. The ebb and flow of discussion honors our spouse, shows love to them by listening and responding with care, and cherishes them by letting them know that their words are valuable.
However, we all know that marriage isn’t always sweet words and cherished moments. It’s also nitty-gritty and hard work. There are usually forty-seven other things happening when a discussion arises—babies need diaper changes, someone needs a snack, or people need you to be somewhere. All these factors can easily lead a reasonable discussion down an ugly path to hurtful words and slamming doors.
Paul wisely warns the Galatians in chapter 5, verses 13–15:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
We are the free people of Christ, not only in the church building, but in our marriages as well. We can use this freedom to learn more from one another when differences rise up, or we can bite and devour. Sometimes we believe in our own opinion so fiercely that we want to consume our spouse’s. We want to be heard so much so that we inadvertently aim to silence them. Paul points out that the goal is never to consume but to love.
One way we can avoid the biting-and-devouring syndrome, or minimize it at least, is by paying attention to what is going on around us when we are arguing. The where of the argument can have a great impact on the how. Here are three places to agree never to argue.
If 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, then the car is a clear winner for the worst place to argue. No eye contact and fierce concentration for survival do not bode well for good communication on important topics. Add in traffic and missed turns or maybe a child yelling from the back seat . . . yikes! When you feel a discussion turning into an argument in the car, try to table the topic until you get to your destination or hit the pause button until you are home. I know this is hard, but consider the alternative—how many times have you arrived at an event sore with each other and hardly enjoying your time together because of something started in the car on the way there?
Ephesians 4:26 exhorts us not to let the sun go down on our anger, and I’m pretty sure this verse has a special place in marriage. How many of you have rolled over at night, turning your back to your spouse, angry, feeling very alone? Sitcoms frequently reference husbands sleeping on the couch or being “in the dog house.” Our bedrooms are places of deep intimacy; as such, arguments can feel more tender to our spirits once we have crawled into bed with each other, when we are changing our clothes together, or when our eyelids are halfway to dreamland. If you begin a discussion in your bedroom that is quickly escalating, try tabling it for the next day or, if you feel you need to come to common ground (which is often the case at our house), climb out of bed and go hash it out on the sofa or at the dining room table with a warm cup of tea. This sounds like so much work, but your marriage will thank you, because it allows you to keep your bedroom a place of absolute emotional safety.
In front of other grown-ups
Surroundings matter, whether inorganic or organic. Sometimes we fail to ask ourselves who else is involved and influenced in a situation. We do not live on little marriage islands. The way we handle our conflicts impact those around us in ways we may not fully understand. Go back to those marriage vows—to love, honor, and cherish. Arguing, truly arguing, not debating or discussing a topic, can be very dishonoring, embarrassing, or demeaning for our spouse in front of friends or strangers. It’s a little like throwing someone you love under a bus while others look on, when we really meant to love our spouse and love our neighbor by spending time together. When something gets heated with other adults around, wink at each other, yell “Mexican Sponges,” or visit the loo together and table the discussion for another time.
Honor rather than consume, cherish rather than bite—this is God’s grace through His Holy Spirit coming through in our marriages. And when we mess up, when we plow ahead rather than bridle our tongues, there is always confession and forgiveness ready and waiting. The cross can handle all our burdens and all our arguments. Praise be to Christ!