I remember the first serious fight my wife and I ever had. It was about pizza.
This was back when Christina and I were dating. We couldn’t agree on whether to go out to eat or order in, we were getting hungrier with each passing minute, and I eventually threw my hands up in frustration and said “I’m just going to go get something – I’ll be back.” I stormed out and went to pick up pizza. When I got back things were … much, much worse. In that moment I learned Christina was not okay with me walking away mid-fight. For one thing, it’s just not nice. Beyond that though, me leaving in a moment of tension triggered deep-seated wounds from her past. She felt abandoned. Unfortunately it was another hour of fighting before I realized how I’d made her feel.
Christina and I have repeated this pattern dozens (hundreds?) of times. We have an emotionally-heated argument only to realize at the end what we were arguing about wasn’t really the point. Underneath our disagreement were wounds from our past (both of us), unmet expectations (usually her), or just plain old pig-headed pride (me … always me. A thousand times me).
While we are both very much still figuring out how to identify the fight behind the fight, Christina and I have gotten better at it. Here’s four questions we’re learning to ask during conflict that might be helpful for you in your marriage:
1. Where do I feel disrespected or unloved?
Behind almost every fight is one (or both) spouses feeling one (or both!) these things. It’s not about the trash getting taken out before you go to sleep – it’s about your spouse feeling like you understand why that’s important and love them enough to care. And oftentimes the reason your spouse feels so annoyed you’re hassling them about the trash is because it feels like you don’t see all the things they are doing, which makes them feel disrespected.
One way to resolve fights quickly is to figure out where you’re feeling disrespected or unloved and own it. Rather than saying “you always do ____” say “when this happens it makes me feel disrespected/unloved.”
2. Is anything from my past triggering my emotions?
This … is not a fun one. Just reading it may have made you feel defensive, but even that defensiveness proves the point! Our pasts never stay in the past, as much as we might want them to. Christina grew up without a dad. I was molested in 6th grade. And as much as we both hate to admit it, both these things play deeply into most of our fights. We are operating out of a fear of being abandoned, a fear that intimacy isn’t safe, we are operating out of fear. And fear and perfect love can’t coexist.
So in every fight it’s worth asking yourself “is anything from my past triggering my emotions?” It could be your relationship with your mom, a scarring instance of abuse, a family pattern of avoiding conflict, a fear of abandonment, a belief you have to “earn” the other person’s love. Behind almost every heated marital fight is pain from the past. The more you can admit this to yourself and to your spouse the more you’ll stop seeing each other as the enemy and view them instead with grace.
3. How much of this can I own?
This one is easy to understand but hard to do. In almost every fight there’s at least a little bit of blame on both sides. Maybe it was just a sarcastic comment or unhelpful accusation, but the quicker you can own your end and admit fault, the quicker your spouse can reciprocate. Otherwise you end up in World War 1 style trench warfare with both sides dug in and firing blindly.
4. What can I surrender to God?
Ultimately the thing that can really make a marriage between two selfish people (and we are all selfish people) thrive is God helping us let go of our “right to be right,” our past hurts, or even our need to feel loved or respected in the moment. When we surrender our pride, our spouse’s irritability, our need to feel vindicated, or whatever else to God we find we’re freed to love our spouse first, and then find resolution second.
If God truly is the God of love we believe He is, then the way for us to find our way back to loving behavior in our fights is to surrender to Him and say “help me be loving right now.”