It’s been said that only two things in life are certain—death and taxes. If you’re living with your spouse in isolation during this COVID-19 crisis, I’d add one more: marriage conflict.
Times are stressful. Uncertainty abounds. The uncharted waters of the coronavirus pandemic are requiring collaborative co-navigation with your spouse, but you’re driving each other nuts as you steer the family boat. You’re quibbling and quarreling. You’re correcting and criticizing. You’re disagreeing, debating, and potentially devouring each other with your words. You need help.
Allow me to provide 10 principles that will help you tackle marriage conflict in a way that draws you closer—not further apart—during this tumultuous season.
1. Take off your tool belt.
When your spouse’s sins and shortcomings inevitably surface, you will be tempted to enter fix-it mode in an effort to conform your spouse into God’s image (at best) or your image (at worst).
But fixing your spouse isn’t your job. Only God can truly fix us. Only he can remove our dead hearts of stone, replace them with living hearts of flesh, and mold us into people of Christlike thoughts, words, and actions (Ezek. 36:26–27). You aren’t your spouse’s heart engineer. God is.
2. Play catch.
When conflict arises, many couples instinctively play “conversation ping-pong.” They rapidly and aggressively swat words back and forth at each other without pausing to consider them.
Instead, play a different game. Put your paddle down and play catch. When your spouse speaks, catch the conversation ball (listen). Hold the ball for a little while (think about what your spouse just said). Toss it back gently (speak in a loving manner). Listen. Think. Speak. In that order. It will take practice. It will take patience. And will produce peaceful conversations.
Listen. Think. Speak. It’ll take practice. It’ll take patience. And it’ll produce peaceful conversations.
3. Put on high heels (or Air Jordans).
Work hard to empathize with your spouse. Walk in their shoes. See the world through their eyes. Outwardly express their emotions back in a way that says, “I get you.” Why is empathy such a blessing to your spouse? It sends the message that your spouse’s emotions are real, valid, and important. It tells your spouse they’re not a problem to be solved but a person to be known and loved.
Most importantly, it emulates the empathetic love of Christ—the one who chose to leave heaven, enter our world, walk in our shoes, feel our pain, and ultimately die on our behalf.
4. Ask why.
If you’re responding to your spouse in an unholy manner, ask yourself why. What in your heart is at the root of your ungodly behavior? Are you worshiping some idol? Are you believing some lie about God, your spouse, yourself, or the world around you?
Dig to the root of your response—the heart-level cause of your irreverent words or actions. After all, if the roots don’t change, the fruit won’t change (Luke 6:43–45).
5. Avoid exaggeration.
Exaggeration has no place in godly marriage conflict for at least two reasons. First, it’s a form of lying—a breach of the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16). It takes something that’s true, stretches it, and turns it into something untrue. Second, exaggeration can easily come across as a character assassination—an assault on who your spouse is, not what your spouse did.
Barring exceptional circumstances, eliminate the following words from your vocabulary when critiquing your spouse: always, never, all, none, everything, nothing, everybody, nobody, constantly, completely, entirely, and thoroughly. There are others, but you get the gist.
6. Celebrate criticism.
According to Proverbs, the number-one way to become wise is to hear, internalize, and apply constructive feedback (Prov. 1:7; 8:33; 12:1; 13:1, 10; 15:5, 31; 19:20; 29:15). If this is the case, then you have a remarkable opportunity to grow in wisdom during this pandemic. After all, you’re receiving a healthy dose of criticism from your spouse.
But there’s a problem: criticism is painful. How do you move past the pain and rejoice when you’re criticized? You must fall in love with the prize. The more you love wisdom—and specifically Jesus Christ, “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24)—the more you will be willing to endure painful criticism to get it.
Criticism is painful. How do you move past the pain and rejoice when criticized? You must fall in love with the prize.
7. Refuse to revile.
As stress increases and tension escalates, chances are your spouse will falsely accuse you of wrongdoing, verbally inflate your sins, or assume unholy motives when your motives are (relatively) pure.
What do you do when you face injustice like this? Emulate Christ. When the sinless, selfless Savior was unjustly reviled, he didn’t revile in return (1 Pet. 2:23). When the one who never should have suffered was taken to the cross, he didn’t fight back with threats, but focused on his Father who would one day justify him. Jesus willfully bore injustice because he knew that God would eventually vindicate him. Will you do the same?
8. Take an adult time-out.
When the relational temperature in the room is scalding, sometimes it’s best to step away and take a time-out. This will help you in at least two ways. First, it will allow you to reach a state of emotional equilibrium—a place where adrenaline is no longer rushing through your veins and tempting you to say things that you will regret.
Second, it will provide spiritual clarity. As you spend time with God (the key to a successful time-out), your heart will change, the Spirit will convict you of sin, and your thoughts will start to align with God’s. You’ll be a new person when you re-enter the conversation.
9. Call in the reserves.
I know that this is a time when we’re supposed to isolate. But we’re never supposed to isolate relationally as Christians. During this pandemic, you will need the body of Christ to support and guide you through marriage challenges.
When times are especially tough, I suggest that the two of you reach out to your pastor, a trusted elder, a spiritually mature married couple in your church, or, if necessary, a Christ-centered marriage counselor. Don’t be too proud or afraid to call for help. Your marriage may need it now more than ever before.
10. Hydrate frequently.
I saved the most important for last: stay hydrated. Drink Christ’s living water with your spouse regularly during this crisis.
Read and discuss the Bible together. Pray daily. Spend Christ-focused time with other Christians (virtually, of course). Worship on your couch together on Sundays. Find ways to serve the less-fortunate from a distance. Talk about Jesus with those who don’t share your beliefs. Give generously. The more living water you consume, the healthier your heart’s roots will be, and the holier your communication will be when conflict arises.
In the end, the key to successfully making it through the COVID crisis alongside your spouse boils down to the simplest, but most difficult command that Jesus gave us: love. Lay down your life for your spouse out of love. Even when you’re in conflict. Especially when you’re in conflict.
This article is based on Steve Hoppe’s new book, Marriage Conflict: Talking as Teammates (P&R), a 31-day devotional to help apply God’s Word to everyday life.