August 22, 1999
Several years ago I traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, to see a world heavyweight championship boxing match. I arrived at the arena about three hours before the big bout began in order to watch some of the preliminary action. I was mesmerized as I watched all of the celebrities pour into this beautiful facility. I happened to notice that right behind me was a man I recognized, the famous boxing referee, Mills Lane. Mills is a fascinating character. He has a bald head, a crooked nose, and a one-of-a-kind voice. He is an appellate judge/referee who also has his own television show. Being the shy and introverted guy that I am, I walked up to him, sat down, and began to talk to him about this brutal sport.
Mills is a really cool guy. He was wearing his boxing referee garb and was preparing to officiate a fight. It is really interesting to watch him at work. He brings the two trained and toned boxers into the center of the ring. Then he goes over the rules. He says, “OK, I want a clean fight. No low blows, head butting, or excessive clenching.” Then he pauses and looks at them. “Let’s get it on!” The crowd erupts, the boxers go to their neutral corners, wait for the bell, and then they go toe-to-toe as they battle.
You know, marital conflict is a lot like boxing. Husbands and wives step into the ring and go toe-to-toe. They throw those verbal punches, display fancy footwork and incredible skills of negotiation. Fights, arguments, spats, brouhahas are inevitable in the math of marriage. There will be those times when lines are drawn in the sand, sides are taken. There will be those times when you are hugging one side of the mattress, your spouse is hugging the other side, your eyes are filled with tears of anger, and you want to tear your spouse apart. You want to put up your gloves and take them out limb from limb. You want to go through the head butting, the low blows, and the excessive clenching. You want to win.
Early this week I was driving through a suburban shopping area filled with shops, coffee bars, and restaurants. I couldn’t help but notice a myriad of married couples around the complex. I saw some walking arm in arm window-shopping. I saw others sipping lattes. I saw others sitting on park benches watching that beautiful Texas sunset with beads of perspiration dripping off their noses. I said to myself, “What a beautiful sight.” Husbands and wives in different stages of marital development all enjoying one another. But I intuitively knew, although they looked so nice and kind and sweet on the surface, behind the Dockers and Hawaiian shirts, behind the sundresses and sandals these folks were sporting some serious boxing gear. I knew that they regularly entered the ring of marital conflict, and I knew that they regularly fought over the big four that cause those spectacular fights: sex, finances, children, and work.
I ask you, would a professional boxer even entertain the thought of stepping into the ring with millions at stake and a title on the line without being trained and toned, without a general knowledge of the rules that govern boxing? No. No. Yet, countless husbands and wives get married and deal with conflict without any training and without any working knowledge of the general rules that should govern conflict resolution.
Well, I want to change that. Today I want to share with you some ground rules and guidelines about creative conflict resolution. These guidelines hold true in every relationship and they hold true in marriage. Specifically today I want to talk to you about the connection between a husband and a wife. If you are not married, statistics says that 94% of you will get married at least once in your lifetime, so you had better listen up.
Now as I go through these guidelines and ground rules for creative conflict resolution, I do not want you to think for a second that I have a corner on this market. I am a fellow struggler with you. I still have a long way to go in this conflict resolution, but Lisa and I have applied these principles over the years, and they work. Before I dive into these seven guidelines and ground rules, I want you to think about something; this question is just directed to those who are married. Think about your last fight. Maybe it was a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it was several days ago. Maybe it was this morning on your way to church! What tactics did you use? How loud did you speak? What issues were being batted back and forth? Any low blows, head butts, or excessive clenching going on?
Now let’s talk about the first one. You are in an argument, a conflict. Number one: Assess the damage before you launch those verbal missiles. It is so tempting to launch verbal missiles. We love those zingers, those punches, don’t we? Marriage is a process of collecting intimate data. Our spouse shares with us those things, those feelings, those struggles, and we download them into our spirit. And here is what happens. In an argument, or a conflict, when tempers are flaring and we feel that we are losing, we fire those verbal missiles. Name calling—we compare our spouse to the dog, the cat, some other person. We label. We compare. Can you believe it? We take this sensitive information that we’ve downloaded from them during intimate times of sharing and we use it against them.
A well-placed verbal missile can mess up a lot of stuff in a marriage, and the tough thing is the verbal missile never works. And I am here to tell you that a verbal missile doesn’t work. I have had the opportunity to talk to thousands of married couples, and I have never had one tell me, “Ed, that verbal missile did it. That one-liner did it. When I called her that name…. When I told him….” No, it does not and will not work. Assess the damage before you launch the verbal missile.
I read a study of marital conflict this past week. It said that one verbal missile can tear apart and take away 20 acts of kindness. It is the 1:20 ratio. Can you believe it? One verbal missile can tear apart 20 acts of kindness. Pretty scary, huh?
Excuse me for a second because I want to take a break and have a candy bar. I am a health nut, but my favorite candy bar is a Kit Kat bar. I just had the desire for one. So here goes. Someone put a stopwatch on this, OK? I am going to eat this, and I want to see how long it takes me. On your mark, get set, go. [starts eating] I have a huge mouth. My dentist compares my mouth to a town house, plenty of room to work. Stop. How long? Twenty-three seconds. Amazing. It took me twenty-three seconds to eat this Kit Kat bar, loaded with fat, sugar, and calories. It will take me twenty minutes to work off that one little bite of a Kit Kat bar. Do the math. Talk to a nutritionist. That is like a verbal missile, huh? We can throw a verbal missile out in seconds, but it takes a lot to work it off. Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Have you ever noticed that verbal missiles are usually pretty vocal? A gentle answer turns away wrath.
The next practical suggestion—number two: Wave the banner of good manners. As you are doing life together intimately, as you are sharing your heart—even in conflict—wave the banner of good manners. Why is it that oftentimes we are nicer to and more considerate of our friends and acquaintances than our spouse? Why is that?
Several months ago Lisa and I were in an argument. I was kind of raising my voice a little bit and the phone rang. I was transformed from an angry person into a caring, compassionate pastor. “Hello. Oh, everything is great. How are you doing? Thank you so much for calling. Oh, really? Oh, that is wonderful. Congratulations. When is it due? We will be praying for you. Thank you very much. Goodbye.” And then I went right back into the argument. Wave the banner of good manners.
Let’s say that you had a friend over for some coffee. And let’s say you had just had brand new hardwood floors put in your home. You friend spilled the coffee and the mug shattered. What would you do? Would you say this? “Hey, you idiot, you uncoordinated fool. Why did you do that? Do you know how much we paid for this new floor? And then you do this? You are never coming over again.” We wouldn’t say that, would we? What would we say? “Oh, it’s OK. It’s all right. It is easy to spill things. It will come up. Don’t worry about that mug. Here is some fresh coffee in a different mug.”
People think that to change the marriage they need big, giant, monstrous miracle-like deals to occur. Then the ultimate marriage will happen. That is not necessarily the case. I believe that for most marriages to turn into great marriages it takes small tweaks to move the relationship to higher peaks. And those higher peaks start with being polite. Start with saying “thank you” or “I appreciate that.” It starts with those little things like opening the door.
1 Peter 3:8, “All of you be of one mind….” The Bible says that when a husband and wife commit before God they become one flesh. “Well, it’s his problem.” “It’s her deal.” No. It is our deal. “…Having compassion for one another, be tenderhearted, be courteous….” The word “courteous” has the word “court” in it. When you are courteous toward your spouse, mannerly toward your spouse, you are courting them. What do you do, for example, when your spouse does a chore around the house? Is your first reaction, “You missed a spot.” It shouldn’t be. It should be words of appreciation. Are you waving the banner of good manners? Are you being polite? Your spouse should matter to you because your spouse matters to God.
Number three: Stick to the point, and stay in the present tense. When you are arguing, stick to the point. It is so easy to drift, to go from this subject to that subject. And if we are not careful, it can spiral and tailspin into a crash landing. The husband walks into the kitchen. The wife spins on her heels and asks for help since the kids are driving her nuts. “You are always asking me to help. I am tired. I am stressed. Do you realize what kind of pressure I am under? You are always nagging just like your mother.” “Don’t bring my mother into this situation. How about you? You are so lazy. You sit there on the couch and channel surf all the time.” “Channel surf all the time? You just totally forget me. We haven’t made love in six weeks!” “Made love? Who would want to do that with you? You wear those same college gym shorts every day. You don’t comb your hair and you have coffee breath.” “Don’t you see what I look like? Most women would give their right arm to be married to me. I am not going to take this anymore. I am going to find another relationship.”
They started with a simple household chore. The wife asked the husband for some help, and from there it spiraled into a tailspin of communication problems—the in-laws were dragged in, threats were made, and even sex and divorce were mentioned. This cannot occur. We have got to stick to the issue. If the issue is finances, have solution-driven arguments about finances. If the issue is sex, have solution-driven arguments about sex. Don’t go from this subject to that subject to this subject to that subject.
Stay also in the present tense. Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting what lies behind….” When we bring up the past, we are doing something that God doesn’t do. Any time you bring the past up, you are doing what the evil one does. Satan is the master of bringing up the past. “Oh, God can never use you at the Fellowship Church. Do you realize what you did a couple of weeks (months, years) ago?” Hey, forget what lies behind. “…And reaching forward to what lies ahead.”
One time Lisa and I were in a conflict, and I was showing my selfishness. I got so desperate, I started bringing up our high school dating days. Can you believe? That is sad, isn’t it?
Number four: Avoid the subterranean level. A lot of us are subterranean fighters. A lot of issues come up—big issues, small issues, medium size issues. Many of us just bury them. We go subterranean with them. Maybe it is the style of conflict that we saw modeled in our family of origin. “Oh, everything is fine. No problem. Everything is cool. Everything is smooth.” The problem with this is that once we go subterranean with issues, all that toxic waste begins to leak into every venue and slice of our life. Our marriage ends up being a three-mile accident. Deal with issues rapidly. Deal with issues when you both are rested and can talk about them. And deal with them, the Bible says, before the sun goes down.
Talk about a convicting verse, look at Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Seventeen years ago, Lisa and I said that we would commit to that verse. And we have. We settle every fight before we say good night. We do. That is why I encourage couples to pray together before they go to bed. You can’t pray if you are in an argument or a conflict. And many times Lisa and I have had to stay up almost all night resolving issues because we don’t say good night until we have ended the fight. This is a great, great thing, husbands and wives, because it deals with all the toxic waste that is messing too many of us up.
Number five: Absolutely no psychobabble. We have read a few books, taken a few courses, maybe we listen to Dr. Laura. We think that we can psychoanalyze our spouse. “Oh, you are being so anal retentive. You are such an enabler. That is textbook, classic stuff.” Don’t even go there. Matthew 7:3 is a verse we rarely apply to marriage because it is so convicting. “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” That is humorous, isn’t it? Jesus was using some Hebrew humor. Just picture it. Here is a husband with a Sequoia in his eye saying that his wife has a speck on her contact lens.
When I am critical of Lisa or Lisa is being critical of me, we are being critical of ourselves because we are one now. We are on the same page. It is not a dissonance deal, it is a harmony deal. And in our meistic world we have a tough time with that. So, no psychobabble.
Number six: Listen without winding up. A lot of us get ready to pounce instead of listening to what our spouse is saying. We do a John Wetland windup. We cannot wait and throw the fast ball at their head, oftentimes while they are still talking. We will interrupt them; we are not listening. When we listen we should list things. And once we have listed them mentally, then we should give them back to the person we are arguing with so they can either say thumbs up, you got what I said, or thumbs down, you misunderstood. Proverbs 18:13, “He who answers before listening, that is his (or her) folly and his (or her) shame.” If you do that, you will not communicate.
Number seven: Make a U-Turn. U-turns are difficult to negotiate, especially if you drive a truck like I do. Friday night I had the family in my truck, and we were driving around looking at neighborhoods and houses. I got lost as I typically do. I had to make two U-turns, using people’s driveways. It was embarrassing. We need to make U-turns in marriage. We use the word “you” too much. You. You. You. “You always waste money.” “You never talk to me.” We should use “I feel” statements. “I feel that we should save more money.” “I feel like we are not really communicating.” It changes the whole dynamic because revealing your feelings is the beginning of real healing in a relationship. We have to do that.
Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” It is not an optional thing. You know when you train with weights, they always encourage you to train with another person so they can spot for you. They literally make sure that everything is okay, help with the poundage and with the last two or three reps. It is the best way to go. They are literally sharing the burden. We are to become relational spotters for our spouses. “OK, here is your burden, a difficult run at work. I want to bear your burden.” “Oh, you are feeling down about something that your father said to you, I want to bear your burden.” It is a feeling deal, not a “you” deal, a “we” deal.
You know, I could talk all day and all night about these conflict resolution principles. They are from the Bible. But it is a pipe dream to think that you can apply these issues unless you have dealt seriously, radically, and rapidly with your conflict. We are talking about conflict, but a lot of people here are in an un-win-able and un-resolvable conflict that happens to be the key to all of conflict resolution. That’s right. Many of you are in a conflict with God. And some of you know what I am talking about. You have this uneasiness, this sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, knowing that one day you will have to face God and give an account of your behavior.
The Bible says that all of us have made mistakes. All of us have sinned relationally, morally, and spiritually. We have violated God’s standards. God is holy. He is perfect. Yet we have turned our back on Him and gone our own way. There is an un-win-able and un-resolvable conflict that many people are involved in right now. Well, here is what God did. God, even though He was the violated party, took the initiative in this conflict. He commissioned His only Son to live a perfect life, to die on the cross for all of our mistakes and sins—past, present, and future—and then He rose again. And if we come to a point in our lives when we apply and appropriate what God did for us through Christ, our sins are forgiven, the conflict is over, and we are reconciled to God through Christ.
If we have not taken this step, we are in serious trouble. I don’t care how good you are, how sweet you are, how kind you are, how much money you give away to charity or to a church, you are going to fall miserably short of God’s standard of goodness. You are still going to be, at the end of your life, in conflict with Him. Conflict resolution starts with a step of faith saying, “Christ, I accept what You did for me and apply it to my life.” Your marriage will never work, your life will never work, if you have not made and taken that step. I am not talking about religion. I am not talking about the denominational thing. Denominations are not mentioned in the Bible. The Catholic church is not mentioned. The Baptist church is not mentioned. The Lutheran church is not mentioned. It is just a personal relationship with Christ; just Christians are mentioned. That is what I am talking about. So have you taken that step, made that choice? The moment that we receive Christ and what He did for us on the cross, let me tell you what happens. This is such an awesome deal. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. All this is from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
That is the key to conflict resolution. That’s it. The ministry of reconciliation. If I did not have the ministry of reconciliation, if Lisa did not have the ministry of reconciliation, we would have a rugged marriage. It would not be very pretty. I don’t even think that we would be married. Lisa and I have a great marriage. I love her more today than I did seventeen years ago. And let me tell you the reason. It is the ministry of reconciliation. Every time we have a conflict, we think about the ministry of reconciliation. When Christ comes into our lives He places the person of the Holy Spirit inside of our hearts and the Holy Spirit gives us the RPMs, the octane, the juice to take action in this ministry. The Holy Spirit says, “Hey, Ed, quit being so selfish. You have been reconciled to God through Christ, something you don’t deserve. Hey, get on the same page, reconcile with your bride.” Lisa has it operative in her life, too, and that is what makes conflict resolution so awesome.
If you don’t have it, when conflict arises, you have the ministry of retribution, the ministry of retaliation, the ministry of head butt and low blows. That is what you have. And that is the reason that most marriages are failing right now. You see the ministry of reconciliation is huge. When you have a conflict, you take it to God. I challenge you when you have a relational sticking point in your marriage to talk to God about it. Nine times out of ten when I bring it to God, He says that I am the one with the problem. I regularly pray for my spouse every single day. You see, you take the problems to God and you pray for your spouse, you are in the ministry of reconciliation.
Today if you say that you are ready to get serious with God—hey, it can work. You can be a great person with creative conflict resolution. You can do it as you rely on the spirit of God. But it is a choice that each person has to make. Next weekend I am talking about intimacy because I truly believe that conflict resolution done in a biblical way opens the door to greater levels of intimacy.