If you are dating someone, married, or have been either of those things at some point, you know that arguments with your significant other happen. Any time we share our hearts, bodies, and souls with another person, it’s inevitable that some sort of friction will rise up. Even the best happily ever after’s have a solid argument every once in a while, and anyone who tells you differently is either lying or hasn’t been married long enough to get down to the nitty-gritty (it only took us maybe…hmm….3 days into marriage to get to this point. We’re over-achievers, you know?)
The first 1.5 years of marriage were especially hard. We reached a point last year where it felt like we were constantly having hard conversations that ended with Jordan frustrated and me crying. It felt like all of our fights were just the same thing over and over, but we didn’t know how to break the cycle. I was already wrestling with depression in some ways, and this cycle made me feel hopeless that God could heal the broken and hurting parts in our marriage or in our hearts.
Identifying Our Marriage conflict cycle
When we went to counseling last fall to start to work through some of my depression and these issues in our marriage, our counselor had us talk through what our arguments typically looked like. She slowly drew out a diagram on a piece of paper as we talked, and as we looked at her diagram, we started to realize that many of our arguments stemmed from the same issues in our hearts and pasts. Even when the topics of the conversations were different, our heart reactions and responses to each other were very similar.
Our conflict cycle usually looked something like this:
- Hurt or Disappointment: I feel hurt, rejected, or disappointed by something, and push it down for a few days trying to avoid actually talking about it with Jordan. Jordan notices, and things between us get weird. I know now that a lot of this hurt or disappointment came from needs and emptiness in my own heart, not Jordan, but at the time I blamed him.
- Confrontation: I bring up my hurt or disappointment to Jordan, usually with tears.
- Frustration: Jordan feels attacked and gets defensive, trying to explain why my feelings aren’t justified or how his intentions were good in whatever happened.
- Shame: I feel ashamed of how my emotions have impacted my husband and feel like I am too emotional, too sensitive, just too MUCH. I start crying and trying to somehow take back everything I said.
- Shut Down: Jordan feels frustrated and overwhelmed by the conversation and I feel sad and ashamed. We both start to shut down.
Sometimes these conversations would end with real, honest sharing and reconciliation that drew us closer to each other and closer to God’s heart and purpose in our marriage. But many times, these conversations left us exhausted, hurt, and confused. This hurt and confusion would build for a while until something set it off, and then the cycle would start again.
Understanding our Marriage Conflict Cycle
Once we had a general cycle drawn out, our counselor challenged us to dive deeper. What was really going on in each of these parts of the cycle? What emotions and desires were underneath the hurt, frustration, and sadness? When we looked more deeply at this cycle and how we felt during it, we realized that underneath the surface were the more painful emotions you see below:
- Hurt or Disappointment: I deeply desire to feel chosen and loved by Jordan, and when I felt like he chose something else over me or rejected me in some way, I felt hurt and unchosen.
- Confrontation: Jordan’s approval means everything to me, so I tried to bring it up and regain his approval of me.
- Frustration: Where I desperately want Jordan’s approval, Jordan wants to feel like he is leading and loving me well. He wants to feel like he is meeting my needs and being the man I want him to be. When I expressed a disappointment with him, he feels like he is failing me, and tries to defend himself as a result.
- Shame: When Jordan defends himself, I feel like he is invalidating my feelings. In my mind, not only does he not approve of me, he is frustrated and annoyed by my emotions and neediness. I wrestle with deep feelings of shame that I will never be the wife or woman I long to be.
- Shut-down: I am so overwhelmed by shame and insecurity that I shut down. Jordan feels overwhelmed by my emotions and like he’ll never be enough for me, and starts to feel hopeless.
Whew. Doesn’t all that sound like SO much fun?
Breaking our Marriage Conflict Cycle
At first, it was pretty hard to wrap our minds around all this. All of these crazy emotions were underneath those arguments about who did the dishes? But friends, starting to understand this cycle was what finally helped us to break free of it.
Working through the cycle of our marital conflict revealed how much we both held up each other and our marriage as idols. I looked to Jordan’s approval to give me worth and meaning, and Jordan looked to the success of our marriage to give him worth and meaning (this is a simplified version of it…but you get the picture!). As such, all of these conversations had an eternal weight to them. And because we felt like our value as people was at stake, every argument had the power to completely devastate us.
If my eternal value as a woman rests on how Jordan responds to me in an argument, then I will respond with desperation and shame when he says something hurtful. If Jordan’s eternal value as a man rests on my always being content and satisfied with him, then he will feel like a failure every time my emotions change or I’m hurt by him.
When we let our worth rest on our spouse’s shoulders, our marriages will buckle beneath the weight.
This cycle of looking to each other to fill all of our needs (and getting frustrated and sad when it didn’t work out), was absolutely exhausting. We knew that if we wanted to break the cycle, we had to start understanding the root issues beneath our frustration and addressing those.
For me, a big step in breaking the cycle was bringing my needs and disappointments to God before I brought them to Jordan. I poured these things out in a journal and let God show me when my hurt was a result of my looking to Jordan to fill all my needs versus something that we needed to talk about, apologize, and ask forgiveness for. This time with Jesus made me more confident when I did bring something up with Jordan, and I was able to take captive the thoughts of shame and replace them with God’s truths that I am loved and my emotions are worth expressing and exploring. This confidence also helped me to respond to Jordan’s frustration with grace and compassion instead of just sadness and tears.
Jordan started to see that my bringing up some sort of hurt or disappointment was not a reflection of his value as a man, but rather an opportunity for us to express our needs, apologize and ask for forgiveness, and move closer to each other and closer to God. He was more able to listen to my hurts without taking on all the responsibility for them, and gently point me back to the only One who could actually fill all of my needs.
By working through and understanding the root issues in our conflict cycle, we were able to break it and stop having the same fights over and over again. We still wrestle with all of these things and when the hard conversations arise, it is a moment-by-moment battle to choose truth and fight for each other’s hearts instead of against them. But we are learning that in the safety of God’s arms, surrounded by the truths that we are known, loved, and ENOUGH, we can work through these hard conversations.
A challenge to all you married (or dating) folks
Jordan and I have found such hope in these last six months through understanding our conflict cycle and taking steps to break free of it. If you and your spouse (or significant other) find yourself stuck in this kind of rut, I hope you’ll try to follow these steps below:
- Identify your cycle of conflict: Look at your arguments from an outsiders’ perspective and analyze them. Who usually initiates and why? What kind of emotions do you feel when you argue and how do you behave as a result of those emotions? How do the conflicts usually end? Write or draw these things out and try to identify any patterns.
- Dive deeper into the cycle: What is going on beneath each of those emotions and behaviors? What are you hoping for in your spouse or your marriage? What needs, desires, expectations, and hopes are not being met? What past hurts or experiences are affecting how you respond to your spouse? Look for the heart issues beneath your responses to your spouse instead of what your spouse did to “make” you feel that way.
- Figure out how to break the cycle: I’ll be honest…there’s no step-by-step way to go about this. It’ll take a lot of prayer and lots of real, vulnerable, and maybe even painful conversations to figure out what it looks like to move forward. But as you talk through your desires and start to identify where you are looking to each other to fill needs you weren’t meant to fill, you will start to find freedom. When arguments arise, you’ll start to see yourself and your spouse with a more curious, compassionate heart, and seek to understand the WHY behind their responses and behavior instead of just focusing on your own emotions. And if you’re like us, you’ll find incredible hope in knowing that ultimately, the only one who knows your Hearts completely and can fill your needs is the One who created you.
Jordan and I are no means masters of conflict, and we still wrestle with these things every time we feel hurt or tempers flare up. But every day, we are choosing to dive deeper into the conflicts of our marriage instead of avoiding them and choosing temporary “comfort.”
It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day realities of work, family, and raising littles. We see so many of our friends putting off working on their marriage until things aren’t so busy or until things get easier, which I completely understand. But friends…will things ever get easier or less busy? Or will the busyness just shift and take different forms?
The time to work on our marriages is NOW, because we never know how much time we have with the ones we love. I would hate to look back on these years as years we lost, instead of as years we spent fighting the good fight for real, transforming intimacy and a marriage that wrecks us, transforms us, and points us to the Father.
Conflict in marriage can feel overwhelming at times, and it is tempting to push the hurt feelings and hard hearts aside to temporarily avoid discomfort and protect ourselves. But there is freedom to be found in digging in our heels and looking inside our hearts to the roots of our conflict cycles.
May we always look for that freedom and fight for our marriages with our whole hearts.
I’m linking back to this post at Imparting Grace, Embracing His Will, A Life In Balance, Purposeful Faith, A Fresh Start On A Budget, What Joy Is Mine, The Beauty In His Grip, Strangers And Pilgrims On Earth, Soul Survival, Me Coffee and Jesus, Women With Intention, A Little R & R, A Wise Woman Builds Her Home, Coffee For Your Heart,Serving Joyfully, 3D Lessons 4 Life, The Deliberate Mom, Dance With Jesus,Missional Women, Busy Being Blessed, Live Free Thursdays, Whole Hearted Wednesdays, Thriving Thursdays, Christian Mommy Bloggers, Still Saturdays, and Modest Mondays.