If you have disagreements in your marriage, you’re not alone. Conflict is a part of every marriage, and it can be a major source of anger, discouragement, and regret—but it doesn’t have to be. When couples learn to handle conflict correctly, they are able to put their disagreements behind them. But when couples fail to resolve their disagreements constructively, their attitude toward conflict tends to evolve through four distinct stages over the course of the marriage.
When we’re first married our attitude is “Have it your way.” Couples who are newly married settle conflicts quickly by simply giving in. But after two or three years, our attitude shifts to “Have it my way.” Here we swing to the other extreme and begin to assert our own needs and wants. When we begin to tire of constantly butting heads, we move to the third stage, “Have it our way.” In this stage we do our best to compromise and work through all our differences—until we realize it’s an endless and exhausting process, and then we move to the final stage, “Have it any way you want.” This final stage is a period of resignation where we begin to dread and avoid all conflict.
The Seven Conflicts
The truth is, almost 70 percent of our conflicts are perpetual. These disagreements return to visit us again and again in different forms because we fail to recognize the underlying issues that fuel them. All of us have fundamental convictions about how life and love and marriage ought to work, and these convictions are so instinctive to us that we’re no more aware of them than we are the color of our own eyes. These basic differences in worldview fall into seven categories, and they’re behind most of our disagreements in daily life. We call these seven fundamental issues the Seven Conflicts of marriage.
The simplest conflicts are the disagreements where one of you is just plain wrong. The more difficult arguments—the ones that make up the Seven Conflicts—are the ones where you’re both right. At its worst, conflict is when you demonstrate your selfishness, arrogance, and sheer muleheadedness. But at its best, conflict is when you fight for what you really believe in.
We often disagreed about raising our children. At times it seemed that we disagreed about everything, but then we began to realize that our disagreements all stemmed from a single difference in worldview. When it came to the children, Joy instinctively placed their security above all else, and Tim instinctively valued their autonomy. What could possibly be wrong with valuing a child’s security? What could be wrong with wanting to raise a child in such a way that she actually survives childhood?
And what could be wrong with valuing a child’s autonomy? What could be wrong with preparing a child for the time when he’ll be making decisions on his own?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with either perspective. The problem is that each of us instinctively approached all child-rearing decisions from our own perspective—the right perspective. Neither of us could explain exactly why our perspective was right—but then, why should we have to? Isn’t it obvious?
We call these deeply held perspectives dreams, and dreams die hard. We could have easily resolved our disagreements; one of us could have just given in. But which one? The problem is, we were both right.
Believing in Dreams Together
Once we understood the underlying cause of our disagreements about the children, we began to search for more. Was it possible that our other disagreements could be traced to underlying issues? Sure enough, other issues began to emerge.
We began to discuss our conclusions with other couples and to ask if they had observed a similar phenomenon in their own marriages. To our surprise, we found that other couples had recurring disagreements over the very same concerns. Over the next two years, as we traveled and spoke at marriage conferences across the nation, we began to take a survey with our audiences. We asked more than a thousand couples a series of questions about their own experience with conflict. By the time we were finished, we had identified seven common underlying issues that are the root cause of most of the conflicts in married life: Security, Loyalty, Responsibility, Caring, Order, Openness, and Connection.
What’s the point in discussing these issues if they won’t go away? We discovered five benefits. Understanding the Seven Conflicts helped us to identify our dreams, put our differences in perspective, understand each other’s true motives, anticipate areas of conflict, and work together as partners instead of battling as foes.
The presence of conflict in your marriage is not a condemnation. It simply means that you have dreams—that you are human beings and that there are things you long for, things you truly believe in. The question is, how will you believe in them together? How will you honor each other’s dreams, even when they sometimes conflict? You know what to do when one of you is wrong; what will you do when you both think you’re right? How will you deal with the Seven Conflicts of marriage?
Adapted from The Seven Conflicts. By Tim and Joy Downs. Published by Moody Publishers. Copyright © 2003 by Tim and Joy Downs. Used with permission.