If my husband is upset, he cannot eat. But he can always, always sleep.
If I am upset, I can always eat. But I cannot sleep.
Therein lies the challenge for us in conflict resolution.
Before we got married we were required to attend Engaged Encounter. One of the resource couples that weekend laid out some “rules for fighting.” They included things like “hold hands” and “stick to the subject” (a tricky one, because human beings are notoriously inconsistent in the standards we hold for ourselves versus others, and I routinely get called down by my husband when I point out what I perceive as such) and, of course, the practical application of Ephesians 4:26: Don’t go to bed angry.
I think that rule is a stroke of brilliance. Except it doesn’t work. At least not for us.
The way I look at it, every marital disagreement takes the shape of a mountain. The climb gets steeper and more treacherous until you reach the summit, but once you get there it’s all downhill.
I would rather stay up until three in the morning and work over a disagreement from every angle until it’s resolved. But Christian is not built that way. As conflict escalates, he retreats. Shuts down. I’m more like the Energizer bunny. I just keep going…and going…and going. The harder I push, the worse we both feel.
I have yet to master the art of going to sleep angry, but even I can see how smoothly and quickly our conflicts are resolved at 5:35 a.m., compared to trying to do it at 10:30 at night. I’ve only managed to make myself postpone the argument until morning once or twice. Those were not restful nights.
But then, neither is it a restful night when I try to force conflict resolution on my own terms. Even when we do try to haggle it out before bed, real resolution still doesn’t come until 5:35 a.m.
The only real solution is to avoid getting into fights in the first place. That means a full-on, intentional commitment to communication–no easy thing. By the time we get to the end of the day, with work commitments done and lessons taught and Down syndrome or NFP conference calls finished and four kids to bed–well, by then we’re shot. We can’t even think what we ought to be talking about, much less summon the energy to do it. We’d rather just veg in front of the TV. Besides, there are all those red-sleeved DVDs coming in the mail. If we’re going to fork over all that dough on a monthly basis, by golly, we’re going to get our money’s worth.
But when we are taking time to talk to each other regularly–over lunch hour by phone, around the heads of the kids while preparing dinner, or on the couch after bedtime–we rarely fight. We still have conflicts, but we can resolve them calmly, like rational people who love each other and are willing to compromise for the good of the other.
It’s living parallel lives in the same house for weeks on end that leads to trouble. It’s far easier to slip into that habit than it is to establish a routine of making time for each other. But the payoff is worth it.
It reminds me of a paradoxical lesson I learned in grad school about playing the flute: if it’s hard to get a good sound, you’re doing something wrong–but in order to achieve that ease, you have to work harder.