Marriage is not without its challenges. Although designed by God to bring couples together as husband and wife, at times there are differences or difficulties that couples experience which they allow to drive them apart instead. We would do well to remember that the ultimate pleasure of Satan, who desires to destroy marriage relationships, is to see us divided from each other, separated, or even symbolically “at war” with each other.
The weapons of pain that a husband or wife may use in marriage are less often physical threats or abuses than they are other kinds of weapons. In any case, it is important for us to learn to deal with differences in ways that are caring and kind, rather than cutting or hurtful. How can we deal successfully with differences in marriage?
Understanding the Differences You Experience
Normally, when you talk about the differences that people experience in marriage the term that gets used is “conflict resolution.” I don’t like that term much. Why? Well, because it assumes that because people have differences then that automatically means they also have conflicts. Do conflicts occur between husbands and wives in marriage? Yes. But conflicts are not inevitable and they do not have to constantly recur.
It is not so much the differences we experience that are important, but the attitude we adopt toward those differences and how we approach one another in managing those differences. It is easy to make a laundry list of items that couples may tussle about or find fault with each other or exchange bitter words about in their relationship. We tend to see difficulties about:
Balancing couple time and work responsibilities
Sharing household work and child care
Activities with friends
Raising children and discipline
These and many other items may become points of conflict and eventually contention between husbands and wives. So, do we need a separate strategy for dealing with each of these potential areas of difficulty? Tips and tools for working on these areas of a relationship can be helpful, but again, thinking about how to deal with differences overall helps us to get to the root of the problem.
My friend, Wally Goddard, likes to cite research on marital differences done by Dr. John Gottman that suggests about 70% of couples’ problem-solving discussions were around perpetual issues that were not likely to solved. This pattern of recurrent discussions about the same issues over and over tends to result in gridlock. Couples make little or no progress toward understanding, mutual agreement or peace. Rather than trying new formulas to work out the differences that may take place on the same matters over and over again, he advocates that couples begin with a desire to understand each other and be accepting of differences. This he suggests occurs “not as mind reading, but as empathetic perspective-taking,” or taking the time to put yourself in the other person’s place and be respectful of their thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes we come from different backgrounds regarding how differences are handled in family relationships. These differing backgrounds may have a lot to do with how we ourselves think a challenge ought to be approached. Think of your own family background. Did your parents talk things over? Or did they separate until they could feel positive again and then just move on? Did things get discussed in front of the children? Was conflict obvious? Or did such discussions take place in quiet tones and behind closed doors so it seemed that there was always a unified front? Was there energy and strong opinions and raised voices at times? Or was there avoidance of contention and a focus on making peace?
When we are used to a particular style of handling differences, we may find that the person we marry has a completely different understanding of how to handle differences. Understanding each other’s backgrounds and patterns of thinking about how to resolve differences can be very helpful. Let me share an example.
When my wife and I married, we each came from strong Latter-day Saint families with very different ways of handling a discussion. In my family, we engaged each other with lots of debate and energy, trying to make our points but also attempting to be gracious as needed. We didn’t focus so much on soothing each other’s emotions as we did on saying what we wanted to say. We had a boisterous, engaging, but loving style of communication and interaction. In my wife’s family, they engaged each other with caution and sensitivity to feelings. They did not raise voices and they were careful to soothe feelings rather than say what they wanted at any given time. Her family had a quiet, careful, and also loving style of communication and interaction. The big question after we got married – which style was right?
The first few weeks after my wife and I married, at some point an issue came up that we had different feelings about and we proceeded to try and “solve the problem.” Each of us proceeded in our own way based on the family patterns that we knew and had adopted from our own families. I wanted to make my point about whatever the issue was, and so I tried to debate my wife’s opinion and focus on getting that point across. She saw my energy and emotion and figured that this was foreign territory, and so she focused on making me feel that whatever I said was fine and making peace between us. Did we achieve peace? Not really. I felt that the discussion was unresolved because no real discussion had occurred and she felt her feelings were bruised because I had focused on making my point rather than caring about her feelings. I thought she was too emotional and quiet. She thought that I was too argumentative and that we might get a divorce.
We don’t remember the issue at stake today.
But from that point on we began to learn the differences between us in how we approached our differences of opinion. We learned to not take it personally when the other person reacted somewhat differently than we might. We learned to state our thoughts clearly and to be sympathetic to each other’s feelings and points of view. We traded thoughts about how our parents did things and how we wanted to do things.
Differences Are Not Necessarily Deficiencies
Every couple has little thoughts or sayings that seem to mark important turning points in their understanding of each other and the love language they share. One that has been a prominent theme for us is a simple five words: Differences are not necessarily deficiencies.
We took a marriage enrichment class together and one night the graduate instructor, a woman, was talking about the difficulties that couples may experience and how to resolve conflict. Then she summarized her point by saying, “I think it’s important for us all to remember that differences are not necessarily deficiencies.”
What a great five words!
Differences are not necessarily deficiencies!
What happens when you see a difference in your marital companion’s views or habits or thoughts as a deficiency? You tend to make a judgment that whatever your husband or wife thinks or says is somehow:
- Not making sense
These and other adjectives are often the terms we use to describe a difference that we have decided is a deficiency. To look down at someone else’s view and describe it as wanting or mistaken or stubborn is closely associated with pride. To look sideways at someone else’s view and accept it as different, unique, creative, or just, well, different from your own is more closely associated with humility and understanding.
If we begin our approach to dealing with differences, as Wally Goddard suggests, with understanding and an empathetic, caring approach to the other person’s thoughts and feelings, we may well see that the deficiency is not in a spouse’s view but in our own tendency to be critical or dismissive or judgmental. We may find that we need to repent. We may find that we need to recognize differences are not necessarily deficiencies.
I taught a class in preparation for marriage a number of years ago at Brigham Young University, and in the class was a young, engaged couple. They were bright and fun and looking forward to their lives together. I made a point of emphasizing in that class the idea that “differences are not necessarily deficiencies.” As with any class, I had no idea whether any person who attended would take away some useful concepts or not. I still remember the day a couple of years later when Ben, the young student I had taught who was engaged, ran into me on the university campus and the first thing he said to me was: “Brother Brotherson, differences are not necessarily deficiencies! Differences are not deficiencies!“
Good job, Ben.
Bury Your Weapons of War
I was very enlightened recently by someone’s treatment of the war chapters in the Book of Mormon and their lessons for our lives. I was touched most by the account of the people of Ammon in the book of Alma, a group who converted to Christ and then covenanted to give up their weapons of war rather than bear them ever again against those they had fought previously. They came together and brought their swords, spears, shields, bucklers, any weapons of war they might have carried, and then committed to bury them away. Alma 24:17 recounts:
“And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.”
Think of this statement and then think of all the weapons that we might use against each other as husbands and wives. Sharp, cutting words. Insults. Angry gestures. Cruel comments. Withdrawal of affection. Emotional alienation. Apathy and unwillingness to respond. All of these and other chosen acts or words may become weapons of war, as it were, if we do not learn to accept and understand differences that may occur.
There is a gradual movement that takes place when an issue becomes conflictual that tends to follow this pattern:
Discussion — Differences — Disagreement – Divisiveness versus Acceptance
This article does not address how to deal carefully with differences that may require intervention or problems that consist of moral difficulties or even crimes. Yet most differences in marriage do not consist of one person committing a crime, such as robbing a bank, and the spouse disagreeing with that action. Most differences are much smaller differences in opinion, thought, judgment, habit, or activity, and yet in judging these differences we may, in a sense, commit crimes against each other. Crimes of insensitivity, rudeness, hurtfulness, anger, resentment, or cruel criticism.
We may allow differences to escalate to disagreement and then eventually to divisiveness, and thus separation and pain. We may take up weapons of war against each other. And in doing so, if we were to stop and listen, we would hear Satan’s laughter for he has led us astray.
But there is a mighty lesson in the teachings of the Book of Mormon regarding the people of Ammon and their willingness to bury their weapons of war. They saw that in making war they would hurt not only others, but that they would hurt themselves and their standing before the Lord. They saw that in inflicting pain on others they might also inflict pain on He who bears all pain, the Lord Jesus Christ, and they feared that “perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins” (Alma 24:13). And so they made a commitment to bury their weapons of war.
Alma 24:19 tells us:
“And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.
And thus we see . . . [that they] buried the weapons of war, for peace. For peace.
We ourselves ought to bury our weapons of war – our hurtful words, our careless insults, our angry demands. Do we criticize and condemn? Do we withhold love and affection? Do we give only our words or actions but not our hearts to our interactions with the one we have married?
I love the following statement and its wise application to dealing with differences in marriage:
“In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In all things, we should exercise charity.
The Four C’s of Dealing with Differences
Dr. Brent Barlow, a Brigham Young University professor, taught me in a class years ago about what he has called the ” Four C’s” of dealing with differences. They are simple and easy to remember, and if not, write them down and carry them on a card in your wallet or purse. When we find ourselves needing to deal with differences, we can ask if one of these strategies might apply to our efforts.
The First C – Coexist
This strategy refers to our decision simply to accommodate the other person’s desire or view and to simply coexist. In essence, we agree to disagree. Sometimes our desires will be different and the best solution is for each person to go their separate ways. For example, one spouse may want to spend the evening reading a favorite book while the other wants to go out and see a new movie. What do you do? At times, it is fine for the one who wants to read a book to stay home and read it while the other goes to see the movie. This is an example of simply accommodating each other’s desires and choosing to allow differences to coexist.
The Second C – Capitulate
Capitulate is a big words that basically means something simple, which is to give in or acquiesce to the other person’s wishes. If you decide to capitulate, you decide to handle a difference by agreeing to the other individual’s view or desire. How might this work? Imagine that you were shopping together at the store and you both had particular items you wanted to buy. He wants to splurge and buy steak this week while she figures it would be fun to try a new kind of delicious ice cream. But on a limited budget, you can’t afford both. What do you do? In this situation it may be effective for one person to capitulate, or simply to say, “Okay, if you want ice cream then let’s make it ice cream and be happy about it!” In other words, the husband would give in to the desire for ice cream. The curious thing about this strategy is that it is highly effective, it allows couples to give the gift of acceptance to each other . . . and few couples do it effectively. I am amazed at the number of husbands and wives, myself included, who fail to use this concept effectively. It does require balance, and no spouse should be required or coerced to capitulate or give in and couples should make sure that one spouse does not give in all the time while the other gets his or her way. But it is a way at times to give a gift of oneself; learn about someone else’s thoughts or desires than your own, and experience the adventure of being led by the one you love.
The Third C – Compromise
The art of compromise is the third “C” of dealing with differences. Compromise essentially refers to the effort to negotiate with each other about differences and create a “mutual way” that requires each person to give in to a degree. Compromise is another important but too often neglected practice that couples can employ in working through differences. My wife and I have found this to be effective in one of our perpetual areas of difference-doing the dishes. We do not mind doing the dishes at all, it is simply that we each do the dishes quite differently. And we each think that our way is the right way. My way is the slow, scrub-all-the-dishes, use-hot-water and take-your-time way. It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It works. My wife’s way is the quick, move-things-along, why-waste-your-time-on-dishes way. It’s efficient. It’s effective. It works. My way, of course, is better, which I can say since she is not writing this. But the point is, we have learned to compromise. When we are in the kitchen together, if I am doing the dishes then she gives in and lets me do them my way, and if she is doing them then I let her do them her way. But when we are doing them together, we each give a little and each allows the other to do some of it the way he or she prefers. And we get along and the dishes get done. Though my way is still right. Unless my wife reads this, then her way is right. Or, we’re just both right and that’s okay – we compromise.
The Fourth C – Collaborate
To collaborate in dealing with differences is to go beyond the differences and find a solution that allows both of your views or desires to be valued and realized and accomplished. It involves working together to create a win-win solution, or a solution that lets both of you feel validated. What does that mean? Well, if it’s date night and you both want to go out together, but one wants to go to dinner while the other wants to see a movie . . . what if the babysitter can only stay two hours? No movie and dinner in two hours. Only one activity can be done. What do you do? Well, this is where creativity and collaboration comes in. Maybe you breeze through a fast-food take-out stand and then see a drive-in movie (if you can find one) – eat and watch at the same time. Or order in a meal and watch a movie at home together on the couch – babysitter takes the kids to the park. Or save your money till next week when you have more time on an evening to do both dinner and a movie. Or so on and so on . . . be creative. I’m sure you all have a dozen good ideas about how you might collaborate so both husband and wife get what they desire in this situation-through collaboration.
In a world of too much pain and difficulty, we as husbands and wives need to bury the weapons we bear and seek peace with one another.
We can find peace only as we deal constructively with our differences, exchanging impatience or insensitivity with caring and compassion. We can recognize that:
- Dealing with differences ought to begin with acceptance;
- Differences are not necessarily deficiencies;
- Burying our weapons of war brings peace; and
- To coexist, capitulate, compromise, or collaborate can bring solutions to the challenges that we face together.
Let’s resolve, as President Hinckley has invited, to be more kind, patient, loving, and gentle with each other, to deal with our differences in love, and to follow the example of He who knows our differences and helps us to bridge them, Jesus Christ.