Are you tired of the conflict and looking for more peace and joy in your marriage?
Deep down in your heart of hearts, you probably don’t love a mess. Even if you typically live with more mess than you’re naturally wired for. Perhaps like me, when you surface from whatever really captivates you, you don’t mind clearing some clutter. Maybe you resonate with this saying: “My home is clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy.”
Some messes, like the broken pickle jar in aisle 9, just need to be cleaned up. Period.
Others (of which there are many…), you celebrate for good reason.
Unless you embrace certain messes, you may be leaving a vital part of life on the table.
Some unsuspecting guests who’ve joined us for dinner have had this experience. They found themselves in a mess they didn’t sign up for. That is, by making their own pizza.
Here’s what happens. Someone spills the yeast, and it bounces everywhere – some is exposed, some hides in the cracks and crevices. A mushroom cloud of flour is inevitable. Just throw in some salt and water and our kitchen is ready to be baked. Scraps of dough eventually coat the bowl, the fork, our fingernails, but the best escapers find feet. Sauce bubbles and splatters as if it’s meant to be airborne. Most of the grated cheese makes it to a crust while the rest melts wherever it landed.
But as your hand-crafted pizza bakes, you breathe in the aroma and melt like the cheese.
Your (dismay, maybe?) at all that mess dissipates with your first swallow.
Anyone for pizza tonight?
A mess like this is one you embrace because it has a purpose. It leads you to joy.
The Messiness of Conflict Leads You to Joy
When you and I who are married approach conflict within our relationship, we often don’t view it as a pathway to joy. At least, not until we’ve made it through some grueling years. We see conflict as a necessary evil. We endure it, try to avoid it, escape it. Sometimes, we procrastinate until…who knows when. Or, we confuse conflict with conquest and try to ‘win’.
A relationship without conflict isn’t harmony – it’s apathy. It may result from one person’s controlling tendency and the other’s withdrawal. Or an unhealthy co-dependency. Or illness. A relationship without conflict isn’t nurturing the combined potential for this partnership. The mess of conflict might have been contained, but at high cost.
I’m not talking about conflict for conflict’s sake. Generating conflict out of habit or as a response to an afflicted upbringing isn’t what I’m talking about here. Conflict for conflict’s sake is a recipe for hurt feelings, strife and bitterness.
But, learning to cultivate peace in your relationship while using conflict to your mutual advantage requires you to tolerate some relational mess. By doing so you’ll find yourselves in new terrain. Learning to live at peace with conflict eventually places you squarely in the soil of joy.
How do you transform the messiness of conflict into joy in your marriage?
1. Ditch the idea that discord is dangerous.
There’s human connection power in discord, say relationship experts Drs. Ed Tronick and Dr. Claudia Gold. The process of mismatch – missing each other’s verbal and unspoken cues – and repairing that mismatch helps build healthy relationships. That breaking and repairing process builds trust and resilience.
Please note: what I’m writing about in this article applies to unhealthy, not harmful, relationships. If you’re not sure whether your marriage is unhealthy or harmful, read more here.
2. Embrace the truth that your spouse needs the freedom to make their own choices.
Have you ever tried to throw all the data you can muster at your spouse to make them see an issue your way? Research shows that the strategy of piling fact upon fact or reason upon reason isn’t an effective way to persuade. This approach causes people to resist drawing the desired conclusion. People generally resist being told what to believe.
3. Put your strongest foot forward.
When you’re airing your differences, only talk about your top 1 or 2 reasons for your opinion. Spend some time there and go deep instead of trotting out many (including weaker) reasons for your opinion.
4. Listen intently for your spouse’s strongest points.
When your husband or wife is explaining their reasons for what they believe, try to discern their strongest points. Ask them to go deeper by saying “tell me more about…”. Try to discover the beliefs, values or dreams beneath the surface.
5. Resist independently making up your mind.
If you do this routinely, you are not able to be influenced. That rigidity puts your marriage at risk says marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman. How can you ask your partner to change their mind if you’re dead set against changing yours?
6. Don’t confuse civility with respect.
Think of civility as politeness, and respect as sharing power. True respect involves being humble enough to listen, be influenced and give some ground. In a marriage, showing respect to each other entails sharing the power to make all kinds of decisions, big and small. Sharing power may feel threatening to leaders who hold positions of authority and are used to calling the shots.
7. Your kids benefit from RESPECTFUL conflict.
As a divorce attorney, I heard from many people who lay awake at night, worrying about the impacts of their dysfunctional relationship on their kids. Don’t worry if you have frequent disagreements, as long as your conflict is respectful, not unhealthy. That is, you listen to each other and stay focused on the issue. Don’t let it get personal. When you stray into unhealthy tactics, be the first to apologize. When your kids witness you start an argument, allow them to also witness how you resolve it and make up. (Well, maybe not all of your making up…)
8. If you’ve reached an impasse, ask yourselves: which solution leaves neither of your dreams behind?
Gottman maintains that if you two are dealing with a perpetual problem (an issue that seems to defy resolution), join the club! Even happily married couples still face perpetual problems, but they’ve learned to deal with them open-mindedly, with compassion and good humour. You have more creativity than you think when you face one of these. It may be possible to find a way forward that incorporates some version of both your dreams, even if that means creating a timeline and a savings plan.
Maybe you’re wondering, Okay, I see how following these suggestions might lead us into messier conversations, but what about your promise of joy?
Well, when you give each other the freedom to believe what you believe and value what you value, you become more accepting. When you flex your self-control muscles and truly listen to something challenging your partner has to say, you forge a deeper connection. When you combine civility and respect in your marriage, you grow closer.
Notice number 8 above. When you combine your potent minds to leave neither of your dreams behind, that’s when the real sparks fly.
 Grant A. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know. (New York: Viking, 2021) 80
 Tronick E, Gold C. The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience and Trust. (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020)
 Points 2-4 incorporate research on successful debating according to Adam Grant. Ibid at 102-106
 Gottman J. The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Harmony, 2015), 116
 Grant A. Ibid at 80
 Gottman J. Ibid at 236-259