Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A reflection on marital conflict

To state it with an artless but useful clarity, I want to draw an analogy between marriage and the church. Last fall, Katie and I turned up at a pre-engagement-to-newlyweds class at our church. The ideas of John Gottman – an acclaimed marital therapist (pictured here in his hat) – provided most of the fodder that constituted our experience. One of his findings received a laugh that reflected both shock and a resonance with those who had stared its truth in the eye: In unhappy marriages, 70 percent of conflicts go unresolved, while in happy marriages 70 percent of conflicts go unresolved. That’s right. Marriages good and bad have exactly the same number of unresolved conflicts. The difference is two fold. First, good marriages achieve a coveted five – to – one ratio of good interaction to bad. The second item that makes for good marriages is effectively handled conflict. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and the cold shoulder are the hallmarks of poorly handled conflict, while calm(er), non-defensive, validating and effortful conflict characterizes the model conflict. The latter is doubtless idyllic, but instructive nonetheless and Katie and myself have been helped loads by some simple instruction on how to fight better.
The only thing, it seems, that has more unresolved conflict than a married couple, is the Church. Richard Hays wrote that what made the Sermon on the Mount seem like an ideal that could not be reached – rather than an ethical instruction for daily life – is that the Church has been so massively faithless to it. And I would add, especially with internal conflict. The primary observation that I want to offer here is that I don’t think the Church will ever agree on everything - not politics, not homosexuality, not home schooling, not alcohol, and definitely not the merits of short-term missions – but we still need to love each other.
Now this type of sentiment gets tossed around quite a bit, but the reality is that the acerbic ways of handling conflict inhabit much of my life when it comes to Christians with whom I disagree. For example, when I scope some Obama-hating on Facebook, I think ‘Oh, this person must be an asshole.’ Similarly, the (Christian) Obama-hating on FB often reflects a notional ‘If you voted for Obama, you must be unthinkable stupid.’ This type of thinking about the other party typifies the ‘contempt’ category, but it is the cold shoulder that really tears the sheets off of our love of broken conflict. When was the last time I sat down with someone I truly disagreed with and looked them in the eye? Bad conflict is the norm in the Church, and I’m a part of it.
Finally, having lived in an intentional community focused around shared meals for almost four years, I have come to a new understanding as to why the Christian religion is centered around a meal. The special shared moment over a meal endears us to one another. It is human. It is Divine. A meal-style Eucharist affords us the opportunity to eat with those with whom we disagree, which gives us a shot at having a five-to-one ratio inside the walls of our church.
Have you been in a church in conflict? Do you have a story of some conflict handled well? Did you change your entire life after reading this post?


  1. are parentheticals still weiner jokes (here he is in his hat) ?

  2. In our pre-marriage class, we read a book stating that women who pray with their husbands have more intense orgasms than women who don't pray with their husbands. After seven consecutive weeks in the class, this tidbit is the only thing I can remember.

  3. I've involved in marital classes through my church - very insightful. Church conflict has been traditionalism vs. social justice and communal. Unfortunately few can find a balance. In my town, the suburbs have the communal churches, the inner city has the social justice churches, and traditional churches are in the older nieghborhoods.