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When Conflict Keeps Popping Up

Some issues in a marriage demand ongoing engagement.
By Barbara Rainey

You know that “Whack a Mole” game at your local kids’ pizza place—the one where the machine pops up plastic moles and your mission is to beat them back down as fast as they pop up?  Conflicts in marriage are like that game: They keep popping up even after you think you've knocked them down.

Recently my husband and I were in another unwanted skirmish in our marriage.  Same topic, same emotions, round gazillion!   

I’ve been disappointed many times that our issues are not resolved cleanly.  They aren’t black and white.

Over the decades of our marriage, our repeated disagreements have settled into several categories: parenting values, decision making, money, sex, and travel.  Victory, a conditional one, was declared in only one of these: parenting, and that was simply because time ran out.  The others demand ongoing engagement. 

Your own recurring marital battles may be over finances, in-laws, jobs, or other situations.  No two marriages battle the same combination of issues.  Yet there are similar patterns.

The “we’re traveling too much” conflict was the one that caught us once again last week.

My husband’s mother affectionately called her son a “road runner” after the cute cartoon character that was off in a flash everywhere he went.  I thought it was sweet.  I should have paid attention to the truth she was speaking.

Not that it would have changed my decision to marry him.  But his road-runner enthusiasm for travel, adventure, discovery, and conquering enemy territory has caused more ongoing stress and conflict in our marriage than any of the other areas I mentioned earlier.  (By the way, I love to be home.)

Our recent conflict began when I realized we were over-committed.  Again.  Somehow the schedule monster had eaten up more days than we realized and suddenly we were facing the enemy of miscommunication with no escape.  Feelings of mistrust, lack of protection, lack of support, and anxiety resurfaced as we confronted the fact that I need more time at home than he does, and he needs me to go with him, support him, and do life with him.  Neither is wrong.  It’s what we do with the clash of these colossal differences that matters.

Like peeling an onion

At the core of this conflict, and at the core of any other recurring conflict, is fear.  For me it’s fear that I am not really valued for what is important to me. If I perceive that Dennis is constantly scheduling us to the brink, pushing me to my limits, then I come to believe he hasn’t heard me, that he doesn’t get it, and therefore that he doesn’t love me. At the same time, if I refuse to adapt, to grow, to risk the stress of following him, then he perceives that I haven’t heard what he needs, that I don’t get it, and therefore I don’t really care about him as a person.

Rather than declaring victory, it’s like peeling the layers of an onion.  Each time we clash over this issue, and others, we are in different circumstances in our lives. I needed margins for different reasons 20 years ago when I was parenting full time.  He needed my partnership for different reasons, too.  Each conversation can peel another layer off our individual coverings so that we can see ourselves and our spouses more clearly than we did before.  Our perceptions of ourselves and of each other are vastly flawed.  We forget that most of the time.

So while I don’t believe we declared victory this time, that we’ll never argue or disagree over travel ever again, I do believe we peeled away another layer.  I see more clearly that I need to work on my attitude about following my husband, that I need to rejoice that my husband wants me with him, and that I should trust God with this situation that He has given me for my good.

During a recent snow storm, our office building closed for the day.  Dennis and I decided to enjoy every minute of the glittering, snow-covered day, so we donned our winter gear and went hiking in the woods.  On the way back, which was all uphill, I paused to catch my breath.  As we stood there panting, my husband said to me, “I’m not going to push you anymore.”  It had nothing to do with the travel issues, but I realized in that promise that he had heard my words to him.  He allowed me to be who I was in that moment—needing a pause in the action when he didn’t.

Next time you are chopping an onion, remember that those layers represent more than a pungent cooking ingredient.  To the one who perseveres in marriage, each layer pulled back takes you closer to the heart.  Though often accompanied by tears, as happens with onions, the progress made is satisfying.


Copyright © 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.

Next Steps 

1. Read “6 Steps for Resolving Conflict in Marriage,” by Dennis Rainey.

2. Listen to a FamilyLife Today® series featuring Dr. Dan Allender on “Hope in the Midst of Marriage Conflict.”

3. Learn more about God’s plan for marriage at a Weekend to Remember® getaway or The Art of Marriage® video event.

4. Did you know that millions of people each year discover through web searches? Your financial support allows us to continue offering free resources, like this article, to people who are actively seeking help for today, and hope for tomorrow.

Meet the Author: Barbara Rainey

Barbara Rainey is a wife, mother of six adult children (plus three sons-in-law and two daughters-in-law), and "Mimi" to nineteen grandchildren.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, Barbara joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ in 1971. She and her husband, Dennis, whom she married in 1972, are co-founders of FamilyLife, a ministry of Cru that is headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Barbara has published articles on family-related topics and is the author of Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember and When Christmas Came.  She speaks at FamilyLife's Weekend to Remember® marriage conferences and is a frequent guest on FamilyLife Today®, a nationally syndicated, daily radio program.  She and Dennis are the coauthors of several books, including Growing a Spiritually Strong Family, Starting Your Marriage Right, Moments Together for Couples, The New Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem, Parenting Today's Adolescent, Rekindling the Romance, and Moments with You. She co-authored A Mother's Legacy with her daughter, Ashley Rainey Escue and joined Dennis and their children Rebecca and Samuel on the book So You're About To Be A Teenager. Barbara has also co-authored Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest, with close friend Susan Yates, and A Symphony in the Dark, written with her daughter, Rebecca Rainey Mutz. And Barbara has written a series focusing on character traits for families, including the titles Growing Together in Gratitude, Growing Together in Courage, Growing Together in Forgiveness, and Growing Together in Truth.

Having faithfully served alongside Dennis for more than 30 years, both in ministry and at home, Barbara has recently launched a new endeavor called Ever Thine Home™.  This new line of products, including Christ centered ornaments for Christmas, teaching tools for Lent and Easter, and beautiful additions for your home for thanksgiving and year round makes it easy to express faith at home in a way that is both biblical and beautiful.  Her heart for Ever Thine Home is based on the familiar Old Testament instruction:

"And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:9, ESV)

You can read more about Barbara's work at

Find Barbara online on:
Twitter @BarbaraRainey and Facebook



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