At different times during marital conflict, most couples will experience emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, mistrust and hostility. As a result, a major job for couples is to handle these feelings constructively, whereby allowing them to move towards solving the problem. The real tasks during marital conflict are if sensitive issues can be brought up, and then, how each person will respond. After hearing the problem, will there be listening and communication, or will anger and withdrawal be present? These are extremely important issues because the real problem can become clouded if the couple is unable to respond in a constructive manner.

The most helpful way that I have found to deal with the real problem without getting trapped in escalation or withdrawal, is by developing a set of conflict rules. These rules are agreed-upon strategies that allow couples to deal with the issues and not get distracted by the emotions of the argument. Rules do not remove the emotions or solve the problem; instead, they make the disagreement manageable and set the stage for constructive communication. In other words, they provide agreed-upon guidelines for what is in bounds and what is out, who can speak when and in what way, and how both will listen to the other.


“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). Above all, strive to reflect honor in all of your words or actions during a conflict. A great way to show honor is by initiating some type of loving behavior toward your spouse during the conflict if possible (e.g., holding hands, taking a walk, etc.). On the other hand, it’s important to limit dishonor. Never threaten to withdraw love, use the silent treatment, sarcasm or physical violence because nothing gets solved this way.


Try not to make a scene, deliberately embarrass or frighten each other by excessively arguing in public or in front of the children. In addition, don’t drag in outsiders unless the person is either part of the problem or the solution.


Agree to use a time-out when things get out of control or escalate. It clouds the real issues when you confront while angry or stressed out. Learn to identify your body’s own natural signs when you’re getting angry, stressed out, overloaded, or about to shut down. Furthermore, never walk away without agreeing to take a break. It’s great to stop temporarily when a solution is unclear. However, agree to resume the discussion when your emotions have cooled off.


The best way to communicate during a conflict is found in James 1:19. “…But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” Begin your communication with the mind set of listening and understanding one another. As you attempt to clarify the conflict, repeat, using your own words, your mate’s position. Actively listen and understand what your mate is saying. In turn, this slows down the process and allows each person to feel heard and understood.

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Once your emotions have settled and constructive communication exists, try to find a “win-win” solution. This doesn’t necessarily mean compromising. Sometimes compromising creates a quick-fix solution where no one is pleased with the outcome. In a “win-win” situation, needs are met on both sides. Win-win solutions can be created in a variety of different ways. Techniques like “brainstorming” and “pros vs. cons” lists work great.


When you’re wrong admit it. Accept any blame for part in the conflict and then seek forgiveness. “…put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:12-13).


Protect times of fun, friendship and sensuality from conflict. Agree to deal with the conflict at a later time.


After reviewing some of the above rules, you may be thinking that this sounds too strict or complicated, but as you’ll see, it’s not. Rules or strategies can be very helpful in preventing poorly handled conflict from harming the wonderful things in your marriage. For most of us, fighting wrong comes naturally. And rarely are we given instructions in how to fight right. By creating your own personalized set of conflict rules you can greatly facilitate your ability as a couple to handle conflict in a manner that protects intimacy and promotes growth in your relationship.

By Dr. Greg Smalley. Used with Permission.

Read more from Dr. Smalley at Smalley Online.