We all have disagreements from time to time with our spouses. We get irritated about silly things and hurt over important things. We injure each other by accident and sometimes from carelessness. How we handle these hurts, injuries and wounds has a great deal to do with whether they become well-healed abrasions, so to speak, or scars that mar our happiness. What if we could learn to use our disagreements as opportunities to learn about each other’s inner person and how to improve our relationship? What if the days of yelling at one another were gone? What if the word “argue” was left out of our marital vocabulary? What if rather than tearing down our marriages with harsh words, we built them up with soft answers? (Proverbs 14:1, 15:1) Here are a few guidelines for doing just that.
Pick the right time: H.A.L.T.
Picking the right time for a disagreement is the first step in having a productive discussion instead of a hurtful war of words. This, of course, involves self control (1 Corinthians 9:25). Don’t fly off the handle the minute a wrong occurs. Give yourself time to deicide if what you’re upset about is even worth being bothered over. And while you’re taking the time, don’t hash and rehash what happened that has you agitated; TRY to let it go. If it really is something that needs to be discussed, do so, but pick a good time when your discussion has the best chance of being profitable rather than harmful. These guidelines will help you pick that time By the way, these are good guidelines for timing the discussion of anything sensitive, not just disagreements. (I’m not sure who the originator of this acronym is; we heard it from Ray Wallace, a preacher and well-respected counselor in Colorado.)
HALT! Never discuss sensitive issues when you’re…
Hungry— No one is at their best when they’re running low on fuel. We all get snappish and more easily jump to rudeness instead of kindness. This is not the time to talk about anything where emotions and tensions are already running high.
Angry— This is kind of a no-brainer when we think about it, but the problem is that we don’t always think about it! When you’re angry, it’s very difficult to listen. Discussions cannot be balanced or fair until both parties’ anger has subsided. Remember Ephesians 4:26, 27: “Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger , and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Is it wrong to be angry? No… but it IS wrong to take that anger out in an un-Christ-like manner. This scripture teaches us about the timing of dealing with our anger as well as the manner. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” is not a literal injunction to get all the issues settled before sun down; rather, it is meant for us to deal with the situation as soon as we can rather than letting the wound fester, get worse and give the devil a foothold to do all kinds of mischief in our lives.
Lonely— Sometimes we get to feeling a bit blue or unloved or… just plain lonely. Once again, this is not a time to try solving marital dilemmas. Emotions are running high and it can be difficult to see things as they truly are. Everything looks darker, worse off and more difficult when we’re sitting in the middle of loneliness.
Tired— Just like when we’re running low on food, when we’re running low on energy, we get snappish and see evil intentions where there well may be none. Don’t delay talking issues out for days on end, but remember that a good night’s rest will often resolve much of the problem all on its own.
Set some ground rules.
Okay… now that you’ve selected the timing for your discussion, how will you help ensure the discussion will remain civil and the necessary issues will be discussed? First set down some ground rules. Some marriage counselors will go so far as to write the rules out and have each party sign them. If your marriage is suffering from lots of arguing, it’s a good practice. It makes your commitment to keeping the rules more solid in your own mind. Here are our ground rules (yours may vary, but this can be a starting point for you).
- No yelling.
- Only wholesome talk (i.e. no cussing, name calling, etc.)
- No “you” statements.
- Hold hands (hard to be mad when your husband is tenderly holding your hand).
- Sit down together, preferably with a nice hot drink to sip.
- Avoid “buts” (when you use “but,” you’re often essentially saying “forget everything I just said” and trying to excuse yourself. Ex. “I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you BUT…”)
- No veiled accusations (more on this in a moment)
You have the timing, you have the ground rules and really, you’re 2/3 of the way to a helpful, healing discussion. If you do only those two steps, you’ve already greatly increased the likelihood that you will come out of the disagreement much better than just yelling it out. The C.E.A.S.E. method was developed by Bob Whiddon and is a great way to make your discussions a stepping stone toward marital bliss instead of the usual bump in the road (for a full write-up of the C.E.A.S.E. method, click here). For each step in the method, the husband goes first, then the wife (he is, after all, the head of the household).
Confession— This is your chance to own up to what you wish you’d done better. Were you as understanding as you’d like others to be for you? Did you fail to act as you should’ve? Sometimes, it takes some thought and true consideration, but there’s more than likely something you need to own in the problem. Now, be careful here because this is where those “veiled accusations” come in. A veiled accusation sounds like, “I’m sorry you didn’t understand me.” Well, that’s not owning up to anything is it? It’s just accusing your spouse of not understanding you. Instead, we’re looking for something like, “I know I didn’t communicate well.”
Explain— Note that this is “explain,” not “excuse.” This is the step where you can explain how you felt, NOT where you get to excuse away the things you just apologized for. It’s helpful to use word pictures to really aid your spouse in understanding what you mean. For example, you can say, “When I was alone at the party, I felt abandoned, like a dog who’s been left out in the rain on a dark night and no one to hear its howls.” Or, “When I was being yelled at, I felt like a raft in the middle of an ocean being battered by a hurricane.” The goal here is to help your spouse understand how you felt at the time whatever they owned in the “C” step was occurring.
Apologize, Ask— In this step, you officially apologize for what you did or didn’t do to contribute to the conflict. Again, beware of veiled accusations. After apologizing, you ask what your spouse would like you to do differently next time an issue like this arises. By this point in the process, you have probably made more progress toward understanding than in 10 shouted arguments. This is, in many regards, the trickiest part of the method, but it is critical. Keep in mind all the progress you’ve already made and strive to keep tensions low and your ears ready to listen. Remember that the point here is not to prove one of you right and the other wrong; the point is to work the problems out for a happier, healthier marriage. When it is your turn to tell your spouse what you want him to do differently, make sure you are not taking advantage and loading a heavy burden on him. Ask what you need, but do not be selfish or overbearing. Remember, it’s your turn next!
Stand up— This is not a step in the process, rather it is the method for enforcing the ground rules. If one of the rules is broken, the one listening is to stand up and quietly wait. The person who was talking (i.e. the one who broke a rule) is to be quiet and think about what rule was broken. When he/she has apologized for breaking the rule, the listener takes their seat again and the discussion can resume. Once again, take caution. Don’t jump to your feet at the slightest hint of an infraction. If you’re finding yourself repeatedly tempted to attack your spouse through standing up for what is really nothing or through veiled accusations, etc., it may be an indicator that the time you’ve chosen isn’t good after all. Perhaps you’re too angry still.
Enjoy— This step is, to me, the most brilliant piece of the whole thing. It seems that so often, even after a conflict is resolved, there is an awkwardness that no one quite knows how to overcome. That is what this step takes care of. When you’ve completed all the steps to yours and your husband’s satisfaction, take some time to just enjoy each other. This can take many forms. The first time we went through C.E.A.S.E., we went out to dinner afterward. Most times, once a discussion is concluded, we watch a favorite TV show while cuddling on the couch or share a dessert. You can go to a movie, go for a walk, take a drive, play a game… the options are endless.
Arguing is really just a habit; it’s not a necessary part of married life. It’s not helpful, healthy or fun, so why not cut it out? Learn new habits and new ways of dealing with life’s frustrations. Honor your spouse, your marriage and the example you give your children by choosing a better way to handle the challenges and difficulties married life presents. When you do so, your marriage will be better for it. You will understand your spouse better and you will find yourself growing rather than simply overcoming.