26 Apr “Couples Resolving Conflicts” By Jim Ricci
What should couples do when the Bible seems relatively silent on their specific situation? How can they move forward if they are arguing about a matter of mere preference, instead of something that is in conflict with Scripture.
Here is a real counseling case that happened recently. The names have been changed to protect the counselees.
John and Ellen are in that kind of situation. John has just mentioned an upcoming sporting event to his wife, having forgotten that her mother’s birthday party is the same weekend. Ellen is appalled that he would even ask. She has mentioned the party to John multiple times and he knows how important birthdays are to her mom. Yet, John is unwilling to back down. He goes to his mother-in-law’s birthday bash every year. Is it really that big of a deal to miss out one time?
While this conflict may sound insurmountable, these are matters I face in the counseling room more often than I would like to count.
Other than general commands about loving one’s wife through sacrificial service, the Bible does not give any strict instructions for husbands regarding their mother-in-law’s birthday.
It would be difficult to argue that John’s sporting event is likely to lead him into temptation. And unless Ellen has some particular conviction about family parties, John’s absence that weekend would not truly wound her conscience. Having exhausted the other categories, this couple can conclude that they are arguing over a matter of preference, not an issue of right and wrong.
Recognizing the category, they must now work together to develop a biblical plan of action.
How do the Scriptures instruct believers to handle differences of preference?
A Christian is called to “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This command is grounded in the person of Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Therefore, both John and Ellen need to lay aside their own desires and seek to understand the interests of their spouse.
By labeling this issue as a mere preference, the couple protects the conversation from unhelpful emotions and unbiblical overreactions. They are simply two people wanting to do two different things. Perhaps John could attend part of the birthday party and then join his friends at the sporting event later. Or maybe he could pass on the event altogether and plan to go to another sporting event, the following weekend instead.
On the other hand, Ellen may decide she wants to honor her husband by giving him a guilt-free weekend with his friends. In this case, she could arrange a visit with her mom before or immediately after the event to make up for his absence at the party. Many solutions could resolve this dilemma. In one sense, it does not even matter how John and Ellen work it out.
What matters more is the manner in which they discuss their options.
A moral triage (something requiring immediate attention) helps them recognize that this problem is a preference and as such, they should seek to serve one another, following the example of their Savior.
1. Correctly labeling a conflict will not alone bring peace to a couple. Once the category is determined, the couple must commit to working in the power of the Holy Spirit to handle the conflict appropriately, as they look for other options and ways to compromise.
2. It must be noted that regardless of the category, sin is lurking in the midst of every conflict. Couples may disagree sinfully, even when the issue on the table is a mere preference. An improvement in terminology will not remove the selfishness hiding in the human heart.
3. A moral triage can be quite helpful in guiding couples through conflict. Recognizing and applying the unique aspects of each moral category protects spouses from reacting inappropriately and leads them toward addressing issues biblically. While determining the proper category will not solve the problem alone, this process is fruitful because it leads the couple to the Bible and toward one another.
4. Conflict in marriage is inevitable, but it does not have to be devastating. By applying the wisdom of an emergency room triage, couples can sort out their differences and address the key issues in the proper way.
The result—God-glorifying peace within the home. It is certainly worth the pursuit.
(Jim Ricci was the Associative Pastor and Care and Counseling Pastor at Cranston Christian Fellowship in Rhode Island from 1989 to 2017. He is now the Executive Director at Aletheia Counseling Ministries in Warwick, RI.)