Most of us start our marriages in that blissful, love-filled state we had while dating. But all too often that close relationship we had with our mate before marriage deteriorates into a series of unresolved conflicts and unhealed hurts.
Couples trapped in the pattern of unresolved offense-hurt-anger with no idea of how to resolve their differences are caught in what we call an “open loop of conflict.”
The pattern of offense-hurt-anger is just the beginning of a cycle of conflict that has two possible endings. The first outcome—an open loop—happens when conflict goes unaddressed and unresolved. Or a couple can choose to work through the process of closing the loop of conflict through forgiveness.
We want to coach you on five biblical steps for sharing forgiving love with your spouse and closing the loop of offense and hurt.
Step 1: Prepare Your Heart
Healing begins only when one or both partners choose to engage in the necessary heart work that clears the way for closing the loop of conflict. Here are several elements in the process of heart preparation:
Humble yourself and pray. Prayer softens our hearts. Prayer helps us reprioritize. While you’re talking to God, tell him that you are committed to loving your spouse, to humility, and to obedience.
Look for the underlying cause of the loop of conflict. Sort through the surface stuff and look for the real source of the hurt. Is your anger really about the offense, or did something else set you off?
Commit to making your relationship the top priority. One of the greatest saboteurs of healthy relationships is the tendency to put them on the back burner. Your relationship will become a safe place to resolve conflicts as you commit to God and to each other to keep the relationship alive no matter what.
Involve a trusted accountability partner. The more deeply rooted the conflict and hurt, the more important it is to involve a trustworthy third party who will hold you accountable for closing the loop. It should be someone who loves and respects both you and your spouse equally and who will guard your relationship with the utmost confidentiality.
Step 2: Communicate Your Feelings
Communication in the context of closing the loop of conflict involves honestly describing your thoughts and feelings about the offense you suffered. To effectively communicating your feelings to your spouse:
Think ahead about what you want to say. Make a list or write a paragraph on each issue so you will be able to state your grievances simply and clearly.
Recognize gender differences in communication. Men sometimes zoom straight to the point, omitting details. Women sometimes meander through every detail, clouding the bottom line. Men want to hear the bottom line; women want to have a context for the bottom line.
Get a referee. When the issues are too big or too painful to deal with on your own, find an objective, trustworthy third party to help you talk them out.
Deliver your whole message. Speak kindly and calmly, but say all that you have come to say. A whole message consists of thoughts, feelings, and needs.
Commit to listening. As you listen to your spouse describe the offense and hurt, resist the urge to defend yourself or prove him or her wrong. Listen first and then ask questions that lead to clarification and understanding.
Focus on the positive. Affirm positive traits or habits. Say things such as, “I appreciate . . .” or “I am so grateful that . . .” or “You are so good at . . .”
Avoid the silent treatment. Sometimes spouses give each other the silent treatment, thinking that the silence will communicate their perspective. Don’t mistake silence for communication.
Say what you mean. Don’t say, “I hate football” if what you really mean is, “I wish we could spend some quality time together on Saturday afternoons.” Before you speak, think carefully about what really upsets you.
Don’t use generalizations. Avoid saying “You never…” or “You always…” They are usually exaggerations, and they are not helpful.
Use I-messages. “I sometimes feel ignored and lonely” goes down a lot easier than, “You never pay any attention to me.” Focus on your thoughts and feelings rather than harp on your spouse’s failures.
Agree on a plan for handling conflicts. Answer this question with your spouse: How do we want to talk to each other when a conflict arises?