One plus one never equaled one in our math classrooms, so why do we think it will in our living room? The “two shall become one” Bible passage from Ephesians 5 sounds romantic at the wedding, but when the tests come, it feels like a 50-page story problem waiting to flunk us from our first semester of calculus. Why is it so hard to learn the new math?

The sooner we realize that marriage is a cause of conflict (not just a part of it) the sooner we’ll be able to do the addition. Think about the last “discussion” you had with your spouse. Sure, it might have been caused by expectations or crushed character, but it might have been that the two of you are in the most poignant of all relationships. (The relation part of the word means the two of you. The ship part means you can experience a wreck at any moment!)

As you “discussed,” you pointed out options, arranged supporting materials, and finally decided the potential wreck wasn’t worth all the effort (after all, there was a slight possibility you could be wrong). That’s probably why humorist Don Fraser could write, “A happy home is one in which each spouse grants the possibility that the other may be right, though neither believes it.”

The next time you and your spouse find yourselves in a “discussion,” practice the following eight steps for resolving relational conflicts in marriage. They are based on two primary causes: control issues and the missing ingredients of respect and love.

Step 1: Understand the commitments of marriage

Our commitment to the person of Jesus Christ is what makes a Christian marriage different from any other. People become Christians by realizing they have sinned and can never meet God’s standard (Romans 3:23). By placing our faith in Him and His pardon of our sins, we have eternal life and can be called Christians.

A focused commitment. Christ’s forgiveness and His example move us to forgive and sacrifice in response to His love. There are times when I (Rich) take my attention off my wife, but as long as I don’t take my focus off Jesus, He will remind me to pay attention to my relationship with LouAnna.

An extreme commitment. It’s unlikely that the wounds associated with the lack of control, respect, and authentic love in a marriage can heal without intense devotion. The greatest love stories ever known (including the greatest—the love of Jesus) have demonstrated total devotion. Lovers don’t meet each other halfway. They give everything they have to give.

A growing commitment. Christian commitment is similar to WD-40, that all-purpose household lubricant. Once we spray it on, it starts eating away at the rusty areas of our lives, freeing us up to experience more of the wonder so tightly fastened on our Creator’s love.

One of the misconceptions of marriage is that when people get married, they lose their individual identities. The opposite is true. “The goal in marriage is not to think alike, but to think together,” says Robert C. Dodds.

When we marry, our new relationship becomes a catalyst promoting growth and frees us to reach our potential. For the first time we have someone who is permanently in our court, encouraging us to give our best.

Step 2: Check the current

Each summer the Rollinses and Trammells raft the Deschutes River. We put the Trammell boys in one raft and the adults in another. Even though the river is a slow, meandering current through the beautiful Oregon forest—and even through the boys are old enough to take care of themselves—we breathe less easy when they float out of sight.

Marriage is like being cast into a river. Our goal is to stay in touch. We never want to lose sight of each other. Because the river flows insanely over the landscape of our lives, we are never guaranteed that our marriages will flow the way most men hope or most women dream. Staying in touch is the essence of a successful marriage. Hold each other daily. Eat together whenever possible. Use these times to check the current.

Step 3: Couple your prayer

Prayer is a necessary step in resolving conflict. We need wisdom and direction in every conflict, and God promises to give it freely and without reservation. When we list prayer in this context, we are emphasizing praying as a couple. Praying together not only accomplishes the same goals as personal prayer, but it draws the couple together in ways that no other activity can.

Prayer is an intimate act before our Creator. When a couple shares with God and each other their deepest fears and thoughts about their marriage and the events surrounding them, they add glue which further cements their relationship. They gain heavenly support from the God who invented marriage. They gain a mutual understanding. Studies have indicated that in staying power, praying separates the marriages that last from those that do not.

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw writes in his bestselling book, Relationship Rescue:

… an interesting statistic shared by David McLaughlin in his wonderful series entitled The Role of the Man in the Family reflects that the divorce rate in America is at a minimum one out of two marriages. But the reported divorce rate among couples that pray together is about one in ten thousand. Pretty impressive statistic, even if you reduce it a thousandfold.

It is a pretty amazing statistic! We have discovered as we have opportunities to meet with couples that those who pray together have a greater strength and deeper intimacy.

Step 4: End the stalemate

One of the common mistakes we make as couples is waiting. We know what we want in a relationship. We also intuitively know what our partner wants. We could give them what they want, but usually don’t until they give us what we want. This stalemate produces more quarrels and dissatisfaction, which produces a greater sense of estrangement. Common sense should tell us that if we can’t control the other person and we can only control ourselves, we need to do something—something other than wait for them to give us what we want or need.

We see it all of the time as we meet with couples. The husband is waiting to be respected before he will love his wife. The wife is waiting to be loved before she will treat her husband with respect. The result is that no one gets much of anything from the marriage. Somebody has to give in. If that somebody is you and you are the wife, you should try reaching out to your husband. Treat him with special respect.

If you are the husband, you need to reach out in tenderness and start loving her in a way she can understand. Instead of acting like you are entitled, start deserving her respect. Become the lover. It is amazing what happens when our wives start “feeling” love. All of a sudden they begin to reciprocate.

Step 5: Realize you can only change yourself

We are also reminded that we can change no one but ourselves. The irony has always been that, as soon as we begin changing, those around us begin changing, too. Looking back, I (Rich) realize that I fell in love with my wife because of our differences as well as our similarities. I wanted a wife who was unique; I did not want another me. I wanted her to become all that she could be. I discovered that when I loved her, she began to feel free to become that person. We still have conflict, but we have stopped trying to change each other.

Step 6: Do it in love

Several years ago, Dr. Gary Chapman described five main love languages: “words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.” If your love language is “giving gifts,” you might assume that everyone is a gift-giver. But you may be married to a person who expresses his or her love with “words of affirmation.” They keep waiting for you to say something nice and you keep waiting for a gift. Until you discover your love language, you may be saying, “I love you,” but the other person isn’t hearing it. Dr. Chapman gives us three steps to discovering our love language.

1. What does your spouse do or fail to do that hurts you most deeply? The opposite of what hurts you most is probably your love language.

2. What have you most often requested of your spouse? The thing you have most often requested is likely the thing that would make you feel most loved.

3. In what way do you regularly express love to your spouse? Your method of expressing love may be an indication of what would make you feel loved.

The Apostle Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 moves love from the abstract to the quantifiable. Patience is measurable. Kindness is measurable. Paul’s description of love removes our excuses for saying “I love you,” but never showing it in what we do. Many of our conflicts would be readily resolved if love were added to the mixture.

Step 7: Stop remembering

At some point, we need to stop opening up the photo albums of each other’s failures and move on. We do that by forgiving. If all we do is stare at the negatives in the photo album of our relationship, very little positive will develop. We need to stop remembering what shouldn’t be dwelt on.

Step 8: Work on being friends

Mark Goulston said, “Take action when you fall out of love.” Being best friends with your spouse is an important facet of a rewarding relationship. The Apostle Paul exhorted his protégé, Titus, to instruct older women in the church to teach younger women how to love their husbands. The word he uses for “love” is the love of friendship. Paul wanted the women to be best friends with their husbands.

Our (Rich’s and Marty’s) best friends are our wives. Whenever we hear someone say that we should treat our family as friends and our friends as family, we think that’s easy—they’re the same people! Being friends means we have fun with each other, endure the truth from each other, and find our comfort in each other. That way, when the conflicts come, we can rest in the friendships created by years of working on them.

By practicing these eight steps, we believe that every couple can learn to add one plus one and come up with only one. We can use the new math. We can learn to share the kind of oneness that annotates our anniversaries with candlelight and whispers.

Adapted from Redeeming Relationships © 2007 Rich Rollins and Marty Trammell. Used by Permission of Faith Walk Publishing, Grand Haven, MI.