Caveat: This blog post is for those in relatively healthy, perhaps difficult, but not abusive relationships.
I was five thousand miles away, in a foreign country, without a phone in my hand, and I was arguing with Lisa. No, she couldn’t hear me. In fact, she was probably sleeping. Just because you’re not with your spouse doesn’t mean you’re not arguing with your spouse. For the passive amongst us (I’m a card-carrying member of this pathetic tribe), some of our biggest marital arguments happen when our spouse isn’t even there—and these fantasy arguments almost always do more harm than good (unless you’re humbly bringing God into the mix, inviting his correction and discernment).
Ann and Dave Wilson talk about the need to ardently pursue reconciliation in their fine book, Vertical Marriage: The One Secret that Will Change Your Marriage. The chapter “Tear Down that Wall” particularly spoke to me, as it points out an area I can be weak in—how to actively and even ruthlessly (in a good way), pursue reconciliation instead of just burying the disagreement with silence like a “good martyr.”
Ann (the chapter is in her voice) stresses that for a healthy marriage, both parties need to pursue reconciliation in a “proactive” way “at all costs.” “When resolution is no longer pursued by both parties, relationships are left to die.” A “stalemate” between “soulmates” is the death knell of marriage: “No matter who is most to blame here, I will take the initiative and move us toward resolution.”
This isn’t just about our marriage; it’s about our discipleship before God. Ruthlessly pursuing reconciliation is a command from Jesus: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
If we fail to forgive our spouse or pursue reconciliation (we’re not talking about physical abuse or a situation where reconciliation keeps you in a dangerous place) we actually can respond to a one-time sin (on the part of our spouse) with an ongoing sin (on the part of us!): “The offense is an act, but to stay offended is a choice. We must choose to move toward a resolution to this offense.”
Ann warns that “ignoring conflict is akin to turning up your car radio so you won’t hear that annoying grinding noise coming from your engine. Give it a few miles, and the noise will be the least of your problems.” She exposes me here; I’m a master at just turning up the radio.
I love the way Ann brings conviction to people like me: “When it comes to conflict [in marriage], nothing is worse than doing nothing.”
When I got married at 22, I hated and feared conflict. I thought the “holy response” was to “grin and bear it.” The lie behind that was that I could keep grinning and bearing without doing the hard work of honesty, confession, and forgiveness, all of which take courage I lacked. My silence set my marriage back rather than help move it forward. I was responsible for keeping our marriage somewhat immature.
Being married is being committed to pursue reconciliation at all costs. I love how practical Ann gets in this chapter, pointing out that the verse about “not letting the sun go down” shouldn’t be taken too literally. The principle is to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, but it’s often wise to get a good night’s sleep and reflect on it prayerfully rather than continue an argument past 3:00 a.m. when you’re both tired and on the verge of saying things that shouldn’t be said and can’t be unsaid. Dave is a pastor (who once shared my avoidance tendencies) and has a good take on this. When he and Ann started arguing one evening, he pointed out, “This ‘resolve it before the sun goes down’ deal can’t be literal—the sun went down hours ago, and we just started fighting. We’re good! We have until tomorrow night to resolve this thing!”
Ann also acknowledges the need to let your spouse pursue reconciliation in a way that honors who they are—including their own relational limitations. She confesses, “It would drive me crazy when [Dave] would respond with something like, ‘I honestly don’t know.’ I thought he was just trying to avoid conflict yet again. But the next morning, he would come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had some time to think, and now I know what I’m feeling about our conflict last night.’ I’ve learned over the years that Dave just needs some time to process.”
World marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge doesn’t fault his spouse for not being able to run a marathon in under two hours, even though he can; it’s just as unfair to ask a spouse whose brain doesn’t work like yours to immediately work through their feelings if that’s not their neurological makeup.
Another practical tip offered by Ann is the biblical admonition to use “soft words” (Proverbs 15:1). Ann recalls a time when she had to leave on a speaking trip in a month’s time. She asked Dave to change a headlight that was out because she’d be driving in the dark. She reminded him at three weeks, two weeks, one week, and even the day before. You can guess what happened: Dave still “forgot.” Ann wasn’t just angry, she was hurt. She had left Dave and the boys a refrigerator full of meals and even put Scripture notes around the house to encourage them, and she had asked Dave a month ago to do just one thing: change the stupid headlight.
I can understand Ann’s hurt, anger, and frustration. As Dave sprinted into a Kmart to get the headlight (now making Ann potentially late for her five-hour trip), Ann had to surrender what she was really feeling to God: “Help me to be the wife I need to be because right now, I just want to hurt him.”
After Dave got the headlight and put it in, he was repentant, and the time he spent in that parking lot under the hood gave Ann time to respond in a way she could be proud of. Dave came up to her window and said, “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” They’ve been married for decades; Ann could read Dave’s face and knew “he was waiting to get blasted, and rightfully so.” To Dave and Ann’s surprise, Ann, by surrendering to God, just replied, “Honey, I’m okay.” Ann writes, “With those three soft words, a conflict that could have risen to epic proportions was instead defused.”
As I read this story, I thought of another “soft” way Ann possibly could have responded to this situation. The day before, she could have gone into an auto shop and had them replace it for her. When Dave found out, she could say, “I know you’re busy.” As a husband, this would have hurt me (in a good way) even more. It’s not manipulative—it’s actually honoring. And it would make me double down on not wanting to let that happen again. But maybe that’s because anything more than filling up Lisa’s gas tank (which I try to do religiously) is beyond my skill level as a mechanic (but I excel at getting that gas in there!).
Using soft words also means the removal of ever uttering the harshest word: divorce. You’re pursuing reconciliation, not war, and certainly not separation. You don’t want a one-time event to seriously set-back a lifelong, ongoing relationship. Ann writes, “Remind yourself now to tell yourself then that the beautiful, two-eyed person you married is still in there somewhere, even though the good traits may be eclipsed by the anger and conflict you are experiencing at the moment. If you stop believing in who they are, you will stop treating them like who they are.”
A Right Heart
Near the end of the chapter, Ann brings us to the right place: being the people of God before we’re husband and wife (which is the point of their book, and why I love it so much). This calls us to surrender to God in every situation and to pursue the attitudes and actions that every child of God is called to. She quotes one of my favorite passages, the glorious Ephesians 4:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” If we would just be this kind of people, our marriages would flourish and we could pursue reconciliation with joy.
Vertical Marriage would be a wonderful investment of time and money. (This isn’t a “sponsored” post—I’m not getting any money or benefits for making this recommendation)