Chapter 3

Winning Arguments Is a Losing Proposition
Communication and Conflict Strategies

Be careful with your words — they cannot be rethrown like a bad pitch.

The man is used to waging heated arguments in the marketplace — and thinks little of the emotional fallout when it is over. He can have a strong argument with a colleague or friend and forget about it an hour later as they go on their merry way. Not so in a marriage, where the way you say what you say can do more damage than the content of your words.

A woman needs responding more than reasoning when her needs are not being met. Avoid the "I've got to fix her problem" syndrome.

The husband needs to look under the surface when tempers flare and find the source of frustration with tender-loving care.

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The night before I was to leave on a long overseas trip to Asia, Donna and I planned a romantic evening. Get the kids to bed early and have lots of time to communicate in all the right ways — if you get the drift.

   What ensued was the opposite of what we really wanted most — because of the strange mood I found myself in. I admit it; it was all my fault. I, Hans, began a downward spiraling argument about what, we don't even remember anymore, and that was just a few months ago!

   In fact, tonight as I write these words, I asked Donna if she could remember what the argument was about. We both remember that it was one of the most hurtful disagreements we've had in years. And yet the amazing thing was, as we sit here tonight and try to remember what it was about, we couldn't. I thought it would be a great illustration to use here, but then I said to Donna, "Wait a minute. Let's not bring it up because it has obviously been buried." Really — the truth — I was worried that we would remember what it was about and start it all over again. But that was not going to be a problem.

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   Actually, Donna improved on my thought when she said, "No, it hasn't been buried; it's been forgiven and forgotten." That was the beauty of what happened that night: We did resolve it before we went to sleep. We would not let the sun go down on our wrath (Eph. 4:26). We would not sleep with it unresolved, nor would I have taken off for O'Hare without our hearts being right with one another. We worked through our misunderstanding . . . even enjoyed physical intimacy before dozing off to sleep. Talk about the full range of emotions.


   When I was a young boy, I loved cave exploring. One of the things that I often did with my Boy Scout troop was to go on camp-outs in northern Alabama near forests that were filled with caves to explore. Since these were unprotected caves with no guides, we had to be careful that we left a trail along the way as we explored deep into these dark caverns. In fact, we would usually take some sort of marking system or even string so we could retrace our steps when necessary.

   We have found that arguments are very much like cave exploring. Once you have fallen into the depths of a disagreement or conflict with your spouse, there are two options:

(1) Dig deeper, accelerate the hurtfulness and dig the wounds deeper, causing more distancing (which is equivalent to getting lost in the cave, a real dead end!).


(2) Backtrack, find your way out and try to find your way back to the opening that led into this cave (back to the origin, shedding "light" on the real causes/ issues).

   Begin the healing process by going back to the beginning of the feelings that led to the hurtfulness. Just recently, while I was balancing

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the checkbook, I lashed out at Donna for writing so many checks. She keeps a record of the checks that she writes in her check ledger (quite faithful, I might add), and then I transcribe that information to Quicken software on my computer. I lashed out at her and hurt her deeply that night. The feelings just escalated because she naturally felt defensive about what I was accusing her of.

   The fact of the matter is, and I hate to admit it here but I will, in our family she is much more conservative in spending than I am. As we chilled out and calmed down, I realized it was not her spending that caused my frustration, but it was the pressure I felt to balance the family budget when there are so many expenses related to running a large household. I channeled toward her my general personal frustration about the lack of enough money. In fact, I've often seen that when I attack her for no apparent reason and we sit back and analyze what is going on, it becomes obvious that she is the one who is closest to me and who happens to be most convenient and "safe" to unload my frustration upon. The frustration is going to fly; she just happens to be the closest target.


quoting his wife Muriel

"Once, before we signed off for sleep, I was winning the argument with irresistible logic when she raised up on one elbow, transfixed me with fire in her grey-green eyes, and said, 'Well, let me tell you something. Logic's not everything, and feeling's not nothing.' "

From "Muriel's Blessing," Christianity Today (February 5, 1996), p. 34.

   We have met some people who are proud to say they never fight. "Why, Hans and Donna, all this talk about arguing is totally foreign to us. We have such a great maturity and understanding in our marriage that we never argue."

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   Recently a couple told us that their parents are very proud that they have never fought in their whole married lives. This couple said to us, "You know why they don't fight? Because they have a declared, permanent, ice-cold truce." There is no way a male and a female together can keep from having some sort of disagreements from time to time. If you're not comfortable calling them arguments, then you probably wouldn't ever use the terminology "fight." Then you might just want to leave it at the concept of "conflict" — O.K., that's a word we can all agree on. Or call them "disagreements."


Swapping Pet Peeves

From a creative negotiating wife:

"If you both have annoying habits — and who doesn't — try offering up one of yours for one of his: "I'll try to leave the mail in one place so you can find it if you'll try not to leave your dirty socks on the floor of the closet.' "


   Let's go back to the major conflict that flared up between the two of us over something as insignificant as a hubcap. Of course, to Hans it seemed insignificant, but to Donna the whole incident was of major proportion in its seriousness. Just to recall the facts, I, Hans, had gone out of town to Pennsylvania to speak at a weekend conference. Donna was on her way back home with the van, after speaking at a women's conference in Iowa. As she drove home, she had a blowout on a dark and secluded road in the middle of nowhere in northern Illinois. Fortunately she did manage to get help, and after quite an ordeal made it home safely around midnight.

   When I returned home and happened to look in the garage, I noticed that the hubcap was missing on the van. I had no clue of the

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storm that would erupt by uttering these four words: "Where is the hubcap?" Donna was very angry and hurt that I would even think to question her about the location of the hubcap.

   I, on the other hand, merely wanted to know if she had looked around for the hubcap while she sat on the side of the road for an hour waiting for a tow truck. "Look around for the hubcap!?" she stated with a rising fury. "You think I'm going to get out of the car in the middle of nowhere in the rain on a dark, empty highway with no flashlight in my dress clothes and backtrack along the road to look for a stupid lost hubcap!" The reality and powerful emotion of her trauma was having a head-on collision with the logic of my sense of responsibility to care for the automobile.

   As a further backdrop and for my reasoning, I had just recently replaced another lost hubcap on her van at a cost of $85. I didn't want to think about the cost of another new hubcap on top of the cost of a new tire, and having the automobile towed home. To put it mildly, this was a true blue, state of the art, bonafide, major argument between two people who think they understand each other after twenty years of negotiating a warm and healthy relationship.

   Let's take apart the pieces of this argument and try to understand what was going on. Why was Donna so upset at Hans' question about the hubcap? And why was Hans so driven to try to understand why this had happened and what it was going to cost to fix the problem? For Donna, she had been through a dangerous trauma, which she had faced alone in a state of exhaustion in the dark along a lonely highway in the middle of nowhere. What she needed from me was tenderness, care, concern, and empathy for the horrible experience she had gone through. My question communicated to her that I didn't care about what had happened to her, but cared only about the automobile. As far as she was concerned, the car was of greater value than the wife. Of course, in my way of thinking, nothing could be further from the truth. She was obviously

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home safe and sound, and everything was O.K.

   The immediate problem was that the hubcap was gone. So in my way of thinking, Donna was fixed, but the car was still broken. No matter how logically I might have approached the situation, I put a serious breach in our relationship by lacking sensitivity to her needs. I could have escalated the situation and made it even worse by pressing her as to why she didn't look around for the hubcap. It certainly was going through my mind, but fortunately I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut.

   One major thing I should have done to show my true love and concern for her (but didn't) was — simply express my joy at her safe return by taking her in my arms and saying, "Wow, I am so glad you weren't injured or worse, honey. I don't know what I would have done if you had been hurt!" By the way, I didn't figure this out on my own. She had to coach me all the way.

   It happened again the other night. You would think after all these years we would learn how inflammatory the "a" and "n" words are. Donna said to me, "You always leave the dirty dishes in the sink for me." I can assure you that comment raised my blood temperature immediately. Want to guarantee an all-out war of words with your spouse? Try these two bombshell words as you assassinate the character of the other: "You always . . . " and "You never . . ."

   Now I have to admit that I am

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just as guilty as she is. On a recent occasion when we were late for an important engagement, and of course I, Hans, was cooling my heals at the back door waiting for her, I concluded it was Donna's fault. I couldn't resist letting the words flow out of my mouth even though I knew it wouldn't be well received, "We never make it anywhere on time." Of course, I was implying that it was because of her that we never make it anywhere on time, and thus I was saying directly to her "you are always making us late." It was not a pretty sight.

   When we try to take apart the dynamics of a situation like that, we realize that neither one of us is telling the truth. There is never a time in a marriage when a situation merits using the words "always" or "never." And yet we like to say those things because of anger that tends to boil up inside of us out of frustration. What we have tried to do as a couple is covenant with each other that we will avoid whenever possible — meaning we'll try to never use it — the "a" and "n" words of "always" and "never." Why are these words so destructive? Because they tend to write off a person in one, quick, heartless judgment. It gives the recipient no hope for improvement and a helpless feeling that it's an area in which they are a complete failure. And since the recipient usually doesn't agree with this statement, it's the perfect setup for a heated conflict.

   What would be the right thing to do in a situation like this? The right thing for me would have been to say, "Donna, I am feeling very frustrated about being late to this important engagement. Is there anything we could do to try to avoid this happening again?" And for her, instead of heaping guilt upon me for "never" doing the dishes in the evening, she should say something like, "Hans, I need for you to do the dishes more often. It gives me a real relief for you to do them. I'm also really tired, and it's very discouraging to me to wake up with a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning."

   The bottom line is this: Avoid the words that are going to be inflammatory.

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Instead, try to share with one another how you are feeling, and in a loving and gentle way try to get across to your spouse what specific change they could make to improve the situation. It's not the natural approach that any of us take because of our own selfish natures, but it is the high road of maturity, which will make for a much stronger relationship.


   In our experience and study, we've learned that any couple who never argues or has a disagreement in their relationship is usually in deep denial. Hopefully, as a couple matures and adjusts to one another, the frequency of conflicts will lessen through the years of marriage. But the reality is that when two people live so closely together and deal with the pressures of life, they will have conflicting viewpoints and attitudes from time to time.

   We have isolated the most common reasons for the escalation of conflict between husband and wife, which are these:

Needs not being met — If conflict arises over something that seems insignificant or trite, before allowing tensions to escalate, look deeper! Ask, "Is there something I have done to offend (or hurt) you?" If not, ask, "Are you feeling pressure from something that I could help relieve?" Usually you will discover a deeper issue that needs attention (remember coming out of the cave into the light of "origin").

Differing expectations — Communication is the key to preventing conflict. Stop before reacting, communicate "where you are coming from," and ask your spouse to share their perspective or outlook. Taking the time to share your expectations regarding a given decision or problem and making the effort to understand one another will often resolve the issue. The radical differences in perspective may not easily be understood, but

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we must come to accept one another as part of mutual submission in love. (Eph. 5:21 — "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.")

Displaced anger — Stress from outside sources: overwork, demands and needs of children, financial concerns, fatigue, all may come out toward our spouse — the "safe" one to "vent" on. Stop! Remember, angry words will only escalate the situation. Tell your partner what it is you are really dealing with, and allow him or her to "bear your burden" with you! Who better to do this than our mates? "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). The "law of Christ" is, of course, to love one another! (James 2:8)

Violation of rights — Mutual respect for one another is the bottom line here. Assume little! Each of you must have the perspective of your spouse. Make a practice of talking through all decisions that affect the family together. This should be an inviolable rule. It relieves pressure on either partner when they are under pressure to decide something alone.

Personality conflicts — Find ways to meet each other halfway when your basic tendencies cause conflict. Both must give and not expect their mate to be the only one to change. For example, I, Donna, have adjusted as a very open "people person" to Hans' more private ways by not "bearing all" to "everyone." I am more selective with whom I share our family and personal information. Hans, on the other hand, has adjusted his naturally hard-nosed "Germanness" to work on being more tender, expressive, and showing loving concern if I'm not feeling well.

Dramatically different family backgrounds — Hans' studies in "Corporate Culture" were very helpful to us in this area. Although we had already adjusted to one another's differences in many ways, we didn't truly understand the impact of "Family Culture" until we had been

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married fourteen years! We have a true "cross-cultural" marriage with Hans having been raised in a strong German subculture in Alabama while I was raised in a very American and emotionally open Christian home. My family expressed love constantly and openly. Meanwhile, the German people as a culture do not openly express their love.

   We strongly believe that this area of "Family Culture" gives us our most basic instincts. As no two families are alike, every marriage will have "culture" conflicts that must be worked through. "My way is the right way" is a natural way to feel, but it takes maturity on the part of both in a marriage to adapt and give up some of those ways that offend or conflict with our spouse. Our godly professor Mr. Buck Hatch at Columbia International University used to call some of those ways, "Tremendous Trifles" — such as the particular way we squeeze the toothpaste. He confirmed that they are only the tip of the iceberg of what lies below — the basic culture and way of looking at life that each one of us have. Each one is unique. We believe that by "becoming one flesh" and "leaving and cleaving," the Lord can help us study, accept, adapt, learn from, and even love those differences in each other. But it takes commitment and work, and it must be looked at as a mutual journey of discovery.


   This story is not really about healing conflicts, but more about being insensitive, which is a root cause of disagreements and unhappiness in marriage. Ron and Jamie have been married for seven years. For six of those seven, Ron has done zip for Valentine's Day. Maybe he figured that he got his valentine and married her. Thus, there is no need anymore to make a big deal with red hearts and roses. Wrong!

   How does Jamie feel when Ron does nothing? Unappreciated at least and unloved as well. Many women feel a sense of being taken for

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granted by their husbands when they act this way — or fail to act. She starts to feel like the TV or the furniture or refrigerator — just another one of the conveniences in his life that he has ready and waiting when he needs it.

   Finally, after all these years of neglect, Jamie got through to Ron that it really made her feel unloved and unnoticed that he did nothing on Valentine's Day. I'm not sure if it was a sledgehammer or a crowbar, but the message finally got through.

   I think what Ron did deserves our hero husband reward for Valentine's Day. First, he took the day off from work. Second, he asked her to go shopping at the places of her choice — ended up going through lots of those little feminine stores with lots of knickknacks and fancy frills. Ron would have preferred the hardware department at Sears, but he hung tough and spent several hours with her going through the shops.

   But that's not all! Ron called one of Jamie's best friends a few days early to do some research. This guy really went all out! He discovered that Jamie was tired of her hair the way it was and wished so much for the chance to try something totally new — a complete makeover. But since she knew it was out of the question with their budget, she didn't even bother. Well, after the shopping time in the early afternoon, Ron surprised Jamie and took her to a fancy hair styling salon downtown for a complete hair styling makeover. What a hit! Home run with Jamie? Absolutely. He filled her love bank and communicated in loud tones that he loves her and the role she plays in their marriage.

   One postscript on this story. One of the smartest things Ron did was call a good friend of Jamie's and ask for advice about how to communicate that he really loves her. We have seen men do things that they think will make their wives happy only to bomb out and make matters worse. Don't be too proud, men — ask an expert: a woman.

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   The best way to work out an argument is to take the following steps:

1. Stop the hurtful words.

2. Cool off.

3. Reflect on your feelings.

4. Ask what's down deeper.

5. Don't let the sun go down on your anger.

6. Forgive and forget.

7. Seek help in necessary.

   If you have a pattern of consistent arguments and conflicts in your marriage, you should probably seek professional help from a pastor or counselor. We would also encourage you as a first step to look at our list of "Why tempers flare" earlier in this chapter and try to identify what causes conflict in your marriage. Perhaps you can find the right teachable moments to discuss the list together.

   A few final thoughts on finding a "Win/Win" situation in marriage. Make praise a practice in your marriage! It is so much easier to see the problems and weaknesses in our mates, and it's common to let stress overcome us and just simply react to our circumstances. That's where conflict gets to be a habit — an easy lazy reaction. Ask the Lord to remind you to Praise, Praise, and Praise your wife. Gary Smalley reminds us of the great power of praise: "I can vividly remember my boss saying years ago, 'If only I had ten men like you, we could change the world.' After that, I was so motivated I couldn't do enough for him."

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   Teachers know how praise motivates children. One teacher said she praised each student in her third-grade class every day, without exception. Her students were the most motivated, encouraged, and enthusiastic in the school. When my high school geometry teacher praised me regularly, my "D" average climbed to an "A" in six weeks.

   Knowing how significant praise can be, why do we as husbands fail to express it to our wives? Several reasons. The most common is preoccupation with our own needs, vocation, and activities. We lose sight of the positive and helpful qualities in our wives when we are preoccupied. Even worse, we fail to acknowledge our wives' helpful traits when we do notice them.

   When a husband forgets his wife's need for praise, the marriage is usually on its way downhill. So how can we grow in this area of encouragement and praise toward our wives? Make praise a practice!

First, praise the Lord! Praise Him for your wife, the one He's given you. Remember, the only thing that was "not good" about God's creation was that Adam was alone! Psalm 92: 1-2 — "It is good to praise the Lord and make music to Your name, O Most High, to proclaim Your love in the morning and Your faithfulness at night."

Second, praise your wife! When you think about your wife, dwell on those things in her that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Certainly the "excellent wife" in Proverbs 31 was very "together" and successful largely because her husband believed in her, and his love overflowed in praise! "Her children arise and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praises her. Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all" (Proverbs 31:28-29, italics added). Wow! Any woman would respond positively to that kind of statement!


"Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam, so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out." — Proverbs 17:14

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Ask the Lord to remind you to do this. Although it may not come easily, He has commanded it. Therefore, He will help you as you draw on His strength.

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