In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, we encounter the first example of marital conflict. In the story, we are given perhaps a window into the most fundamental source for unresolved marital conflict. Although it is primarily an account of the fall of man, I believe it is of central importance to understanding why marriages dissolve into irreconcilable conflicts. Most of us are familiar with how Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit God had instructed them not to eat. Consequently, they felt separated from God, and for the first time, they experienced shame.
This led to God’s curse on humanity including pain, suffering, and eventually death. The primary issue I would like to focus on though is the relational effects shame has had on our lives since the fall. In particular, I want to discuss the destructive role it plays within irreconcilable marital conflict. I then want to suggest some ways to overcome shame using the means God has given us through his grace in Christ. Here are 3 steps to resolving conflict in marriage.
The Critical Defense Cycle
One of the most common issues that a marriage and family therapist encounters is known as the critical defense cycle. This cycle is a relational one. It is usually presented as a communication issue. As you might expect, communication issues tend to be the common cold of marital problems. Many times though, communication issues are a smokescreen for underlying unresolved conflict. As couples begin to open up, one spouse will typically begin to unfold this critical defense pattern. It starts when one spouse makes a request that the other spouse changes something about themselves. This may be a behavior, an attitude, or the way in which they speak. This is most commonly met with resistance. This defensive posture can take many forms. Usually, the recipient responds with a counter-criticism which is then met with a similar defensive response. This exchange sets the tone for a never-ending cycle.
Feeding the Conflict
Because conflicts can become so heated, we might typically think that anger and volatility are the main culprits feeding the conflict. While they are certainly enemies to any thriving marriage, I do not believe they do near the amount of damage as shame does. Let’s take a closer look at what I mean by shame.
I think shame can best be described as the feeling of wrongness. It usually comes out in marriage as avoidance of being wrong. When a person feels shame, they not only feel like they have done something wrong, they feel like their whole being is wrong. This is how sin affects our entire personhood. It is not only the behaviors, attitudes, and mannerisms, we dislike about ourselves, it is ourselves we dislike.
When a spouse brings up an issue that legitimately needs to be confronted, a person loaded down with shame will respond in at least the following three ways.
The first is rubber banding. This is where a person responds to perceived criticism by attaching the other person with similar criticism. It is the equivalent of an eye for an eye. So if one spouse says, “let’s try to be on time for church this morning”, the defensive spouse responds, “well, you’re late to important events too you know”.
The second is justification or excusing it away. This is where the defensive spouse avoids the feelings of shame by justifying themselves. They typically respond to criticism by rationalizing their behavior and speech. The exchange resembles a courtroom at this point. A reasonable excuse is usually offered and if that is not enough, another one follows. This effort ends in futility.
Lastly is the response of stonewalling. This is where the defensive spouse shuts down automatically. The criticism is met like a concrete wall. With this response, it’s typical to hear things like, “I’m not going to sit here and listen to you tell me how horrible I am”. The conversation is dead before it gets started.
What’s the Solution?
So what’s the antidote? How can a person become less defensive? I think the answer lies in the story of the fall as well. God makes provision for our shame in advance by sending a sacrifice for our wrongdoings. He covers our shame with a sacrificial covering of his grace. That sacrifice ultimately takes the form of Jesus Christ. As a recipient of God’s mercy and justification for our forgiveness, it is no longer necessary to hang on to old feelings of worthlessness and self-condemnation. But this is an area that many of us struggle against. But unless we receive forgiveness and mercy from God, we will not have the strength to receive criticism from others in the graceful way God instructs us.
3 Steps to Resolving Conflict in Marriage
Some practical steps you can take in practicing a shameless love begins with getting into the habit of confessing personal wrongdoings openly to God. If we’re not honest about our shortcomings with God, we will find it impossible to be open with others. Receiving God’s grace makes it so much easier to hear the tough things we sometimes need to hear. The next few maneuvers can be practiced within your marriage.
1. Accept what your spouse confronting you about.
This sometimes takes some editing to get to the positive request being made. Most of the time, there is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed underneath our spouses’ complaints.
2. Anticipate that changes need to be made in healthy marriages.
If we never invested or worked for the betterment of our relationships they would become stagnant and eventually decay. It is wise to assume that personal change is necessary.
3. Accept that character development and growth are fundamental for vibrant marriages.
That means we are responsible for our relationships. These changes are slow to develop as character-related issues tend to be. But with the right spirit of grace, God will allow us to hear and receive what shame would have otherwise shut out. As the Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast,” and I am convinced it is by this same grace that our marriages will be saved.
Nathan Thompson is marriage and family pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.