Before we got together as a couple, Cheryl and I had known each for almost a decade.
In all those years as friends, we were amicable on the whole. And after a period of exclusive dating, when we got together, we tried as far as we could to walk into the relationship with our eyes wide open.
But one thing we didn’t expect at the start of our relationship was just how much friction there would be between two individuals learning how to love each other.
They say that the start of a relationship is the honeymoon period, but I don’t think that was the case for us. Our first year was mostly spent ironing issues out together, and that made for some pretty painful conversations.
But, because there was so much ironing to do, we eventually got better at it. Now, I’m no marriage expert like Tim Keller – I’m just an engaged guy – but here are some thoughts on fighting well as a couple that I’d love to share with you.
4 D’S FOR FIGHTING WELL
1. Decide early
Things tended to get emotional and heated in some of the bigger quarrels earlier on, and it made it easier for the both of us to say things that might have been hurtful — things we usually didn’t even mean.
This abrasive pattern of conflict resolution went on for quite a bit until we stumbled upon the game-changer, which was to decide early that we wouldn’t let the issue divide us.
Resolving conflicts got a lot easier once we made a conscious choice that we would always try to respond to the issue — not react at each other — in a loving and humble way, pleasing to God.
Now the conversation is undergirded by the knowledge that we were on the same team — fighting for the relationship and not against each other.
We learnt to grow an awareness in being able to just take a step back in a tiff we were having, and remembering that it wasn’t me-against-you — it was us versus the problem.
When we began to see the issues that needed ironing out from that perspective, it immediately afforded us a lot more unity. Because, now, whenever we had to discuss difficult things, the conversation was undergirded by the knowledge that we were on the same team — fighting for the relationship and not against each other.
So decide early that whatever issue it is you’re facing — you’re facing it together. Whether it’s housing, money or career … You are looking at it together, working on it together — and the both of you will be closer for it.
2. Don’t accuse
“Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbour, and casts no slur on others …” (Psalm 15:1-3)
Cheryl and I have banned certain phrases from our vocabulary. “You never” and “You always” are two things we decided early on never to say to each other.
Because as humans, the natural tendency is to point fingers when things are going off-track. But the thing about pointing fingers is that it’s never productive.
Regardless of who’s right, accusations only make each other feel bad. Accusations only build up resentment and keep a record of each other’s wrongs.
But there is a better way: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
Unless the issue is a non-negotiable, there’s great value in learning to be offended less easily, especially with the person you’re going to live with for the rest of your life.
Whenever I come across this verse, I am reminded to have the right perspective on our conversations — especially tense ones that must be had. Before we speak, we pray, and we ask ourselves if this is going to be a productive angle to approach the issue from.
Additionally, I personally ask myself if this is an issue that will come up next month, or the month after — is it going to be recurring issue? Can I ask God to grow me in grace and help me overlook it?
Unless the issue is a non-negotiable, there’s great value in learning to be offended less easily and quickly (Proverbs 12:16), especially with the person you’re going to live with for the rest of your life.
Love believes the best of each other. Love meets the person where she is, but believes in who she could become in Christ.
So don’t react out of anger. Respond and speak out of love and a desire to build each other up into greater Christlikeness.
3. Divine intervention
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
We can never truly love our spouses if we do not know the way of love (1 Corinthians 13). Without love, all we do amounts to nothing. So then, how can we do without love — when our God is the very definition of love?
Without love, we are nothing. Without love, we cannot love.
Right from the beginning, Cheryl and I decided that we weren’t going to chase the Hollywood style of love we grew up with on movie screens. We wanted something real.
We wanted our God with us, divine intervention in everything we did together — especially in the context of a difficult discussion.
Now, practically, that looks like inviting God before, during and after a tough talk. When the God of love is invited and present with us, the atmosphere in the room becomes tangibly different.
We had a serious conversation one time in the car, when Cheryl was in the process of deciding whether she could see herself being married to me. Things were understandably tense, and there was even some anger on my part — why wasn’t she committing?
Having sat together for the longest time in tense silence, something in the air broke the moment I opened my mouth to pray, and we could speak heart to heart after that. We got together not long after.
When we invite God into the conversation, we move from us against the problem — to God-and-us against the problem. A very different kind of mindset and posture underpins our behaviour when we let God run the show.
This becomes the logic we live by: Because we are first loved by God, we love Him. And because we love Him and are filled with His love, we love each other from that overflow.
Such a love is humble, and has a way of bringing down walls and soothing hurts.
4. “D-word” – never say it!
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.” (Malachi 2:16)
This is a serious one, so also add this to the list of things you’ll never say to each other: Whatever happens in a fight or quarrel, however angry or hurt you feel — divorce or breaking up is not a card you can play and threaten with.
It shouldn’t be on the table unless your partner has committed adultery, or you are going through actual abuse. Playing the separation card as a threat does nothing but wear down the integrity of one’s relationship or marriage.
Love never threatens, it doesn’t play with ultimatums or insists on its own way at all costs.
Do you believe that your mouth and tongue have great power (Proverbs 18:21)? Words go one of two ways – they either build up or tear down. They let in life or deliver death. There really isn’t an in between.
For me, it’s as simple as choosing never to use words like “stupid” or “stubborn”. It’s choosing not to laugh at things like her cooking but encouraging her and believing the best of her.
The things we choose to say to each other will draw us closer in the love of God, or separate us. So choose life.
I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t know it all, and we certainly don’t have all the answers. These four handles are just some precious lessons that God has taught us in our time together thus far.
As we look towards our marriage, we are filled with great excitement for the many more things God is going to show us in our lives together. For to my mind, there are few greater joys than seeing the very face of Christ increasingly revealed in your spouse as she is transformed from one degree of glory to the next.
I believe that’s what quarrelling well, doing marriage — indeed what all of life is about: Pursuing Christ and imitating Him in all things for the glory of God.