How To Fight Right

Bible Book: Ephesians  4
Subject: Marriage; Home; Husbands; Wives; Family Conflict

Ephesians 4

25 – Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

26 – “In your anger do not sin:” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,

27 – and do not give the devil a foothold.

29 – Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

30 – And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

31 – Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

32 – Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

There was once a couple who had been married for 60 years. Throughout their lives they had shared everything. They loved each other deeply. They had not kept any secrets from one another, except for a small shoe box that the wife kept in the top shelf of her closet. When they got married, she put the box there and asked her husband never to look inside of it and never to ask questions about its contents. For 60 years the man honored his wife’s request. In fact, he forgot about the box until a day when his wife grew gravely ill, and the doctors were sure she had no way of recovering. So the man, sadly putting his wife’s affairs into order, remembered that box in the top of her closet, got it down, and brought it to her at the hospital. He asked her if perhaps now they might be able to open it. She agreed. They opened the box, and inside were two crocheted dolls and a roll of money that totaled $95,000. The man was astonished! The woman told her husband that the day before they were married, her grandmother told her that if she and her husband were ever to get into an argument with one another - they should work hard to reconcile, and if they were unable to reconcile, she should simply keep her mouth shut and crochet a doll. The man was touched by this, because there were only two crocheted dolls in the box. He was amazed that over 60 years of marriage, they apparently had had only two conversations that they were unable to reconcile. Tears came to his eyes, and he grew even more deeply in love with this woman. Then, looking at the roll of money, he asked, “What’s with this?” His wife replied, “Well, every time I crocheted a doll, I sold it to a local craft fair for five dollars.”

This husband’s initial response makes me wonder about the authenticity of their relationship! I mean, how could he go through 60 years of marriage and think they only had two disagreements!

The fact is, conflict is a part of EVERY marriage. All husbands and wives - no matter how well-matched or how spiritually mature - all spouses WILL have conflict. It’s a normal part of every marriage. Two sinners living together under the same roof are going to have disagreements. They are going to get on each other’s nerves and argue from time to time. Let me put it this way. Anyone who says their marriage has no difficulties is either lying or suffering from an extreme case of short-term memory loss! I mean, in many ways, wedlock is like two married porcupines who move closer together for warmth in the winter. No matter how deep their love - they are going to “irritate” each other from time to time.

Now - I’m sure you are all familiar with the rising divorce rate in our nation. Well - most people blame our culture’s steady demise of marriage on adultery or alcoholism or some form of abuse. Others say the catalyst for divorces are personality clashes or irreconcilable differences. But these things alone aren’t enough to kill a marriage. I say this because I’ve known of marriages that have SURVIVED these kinds of things and have even gone on to FLOURISH. And - on the other hand - there are couples who encountered only SLIGHT forms of difficulty and their marriage ended up in the relational GRAVEYARD. So - I, for one, think the MAIN factor in the demise of many marriages is not the TYPICAL excuses we hear these days - but rather the fact that spouses don’t know how to resolve the inevitable conflict that comes to all spouses.

As I put it in the title of this message, they don’t know HOW to “fight right.” You see - if the inevitable conflicts of marital life are handled POORLY - the relationship will be damaged - sometimes beyond repair - but if the difficulties of marriage are handled WISELY, LOVINGLY - well, they can lead to even greater intimacy! I mean, conflict can IMPROVE a marriage or DESTROY it. It all depends on how spouses choose to respond when tough times come. As Ed Young puts it, “Sometimes marriage is like a DUEL. But, when we learn how to successfully handle conflict, it becomes a DUET and the harmony produced is almost divine. Spouses must DECIDE whether their marriage is going to be a duel or a duet.”

John Gottman, a marriage researcher at the University of Washington, has studied conflict in marriage for years. In fact, his research team has learned to predict with a 91% rate of accuracy whether couples will divorce - and they make this determination by looking at the way they FIGHT - the way spouses choose to respond to their disputes. Unfortunately, many spouses make the wrong choice. They “fight wrong.”

Bill Hybels has classified their improper response to the inevitable conflicts of marriage in four ways. See if you can recognize the way - OR WAYS - that you and your spouse tend to respond to disagreements - but no raised hands please!

a. First, is what he calls “The ESKIMO Style” of dealing with marital disagreements.

This is the “cold shoulder” method where a husband and wife know there is a dispute, but no one says anything about it. Instead, everyone backs off and mutters under their breath. No matter how large the problem looms, it is never dealt with openly. Spouses negotiate around it, or avoid it, or hope that time will thaw things out - but the chill never leaves the air. In fact, with each new unresolved conflict, they add another layer of “ice” and eventually they “freeze” themselves into total withdrawal from one another.

This week I came across a story about a married couple who embraced this “Eskimo style” by giving each other the silent treatment. Well, a week into their mute argument, the man realized he needed his wife’s help. In order to catch a flight to Chicago for a business meeting, he had to get up at 5 a.m. But - not wanting to be the first to break the silence - he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5 a.m.” The next morning the man woke up only to discover his wife was already out of bed, it was 9 a.m., and his flight had long since departed. He was about to find his wife and demand an answer for her failings when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. It said, “It’s 5 a.m. Wake up.”

That’s the ESKIMO style. Ignore the problem. Refuse to deal with it.

b. Next is what Hybels calls the “COWBOY Style.”

These are the couples who deal with conflict by letting the “bullets” fly! When the disagree they both “draw their six-shooters” and start firing off “verbal bullets” at one another. In this style, feelings are vented. Anger is released. There is action and drama - but a lot of damage is done along the way - because by swapping shots at each other both spouses are usually wounded deeply. PLUS, children often hear things they should never have to hear. And if that weren’t bad enough - the issues that drove husbands and wives apart remain unsolved, because instead of attacking the problem - spouses attack each other. And that NEVER works.

c. Another method of dealing with conflict is the “ESCAPE style.”

In couples who embrace this method, when an argument starts, they literally run from it. Many spouses go out and get drunk or go on a shopping spree or just storm out of the house. Some might even go to live with their mother for two or three days. Another “out” - another way to “escape” conflict for these couples is through workaholism. They LIVE on the job as a way of not having to deal with the argument.

Now - like the Cowboy style - in escapist families there is plenty of action: doors are slamming and people are coming and going but it is “conflict AVOIDANCE at best.” Issues are never faced and problems are never solved.

d. Finally there is the “MANHANDLER method.”

You see, sadly, SOME spouses react to conflict by allowing verbal assaults to escalate into actual physical violence inflicted on each other. Ironically in this way they create more pain and distance than the original issue could possibly have caused. It’s like the WWF because they lose control and plates, or glasses fly through the air as projectiles. Feet kick holes in sheet rock. Spouses lash out at each other with fists and fingernails. It’s not a pretty sight!

This week, I read a true story of an example of this conflict style that happened in Waukesha, Wisconsin to newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Snider. The problems started when their wedding was over and they were trying to decide where they should go to celebrate. They couldn’t agree and, since they had been drinking since early afternoon, the bride got mad and swung at her husband - gashing his head open with her wedding ring. The police were eventually called because someone in the bar thought the groom had been stabbed. When the bride met the police, she was belligerent and was arrested for disorderly conduct. They later found the groom wandering along a nearby street in search of a hospital. The police took him to see his wife at the jail. But, shortly after being released, the lovebirds began arguing again and this time he hit HER in the face. He was arrested for domestic battery and, since she started kicking the police officers for interrupting their “honeymoon,” - she was arrested a second time for disorderly conduct. They spent their wedding night in separate cells and were released the next morning. I wonder how long their marriage lasted!

Referring to these flawed methods of dealing with conflict, Hybels writes, “Too many relationships that begin with PROMISE end with PAIN. In the daily rounds of reality, disagreements surface and personalities clash. Harsh words lead to broken trust and hurt feelings. Hidden hostilities choke romance. And a cloud of relational sorrow hangs menacingly overhead. If the pattern continues, the marriage dissolves and another ‘plot’ is purchased in the ‘relational cemetery.’”

Well, this morning I want to give you five conflict resolution skills - five ground rules that will keep you out of jail - and I believe will actually improve your relationship as husband and wife - as you face the inevitable disputes that come in every marriage by FIGHTING RIGHT.

(1) First - Be HONEST.

As Paul says in our text for this morning, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully…for we are members of one body.” (Ephesians 4:25)

Now, the word for “falsehood” comes from the Greek word, “pseudos”  - a word from which we get the prefix, “pseudo.” To remind you of its meaning, here’s an example. A person who is a pseudo-intellectual APPEARS to be a complex thinker when, in truth, he or she may or may not be very bright at all. He may call himself “Dr.” He may smoke a pipe and grow a distinguished looking beard - but there is no wisdom to back it up. I mean, the pseudo-intellectual MASKS his or her real intelligence, or rather the lack of it, with DECEPTION. So basically, a pseudo-something is a false-something. It’s a front - a mask - a fake. It’s not real.

Well, in this verse Paul speaks of relational “pseudos" as if they were OBJECTS - relational masks - that we should put down or lay aside - something we should discard or throw away. This is understandable because a marriage that is based on deceit is not a marriage. You can’t build a relationship on deception. There’s no such thing as “pseudo-intimacy.”

But, unfortunately in marriage this kind of falsehood is widespread. Statisticians tell us that 70% of spouses lie to each other - and they do so in many ways, ranging from mild to extreme deception. Their dishonesty includes diplomatic hedging, stretching the facts, not telling the whole story, staying silent when we should speak, whitewashing motives, flattery - twisting the truth by adding false details, contriving stories, embracing fiction as truth and so on. Well the more spouses practice these kinds of deceit, the weaker their relationship becomes.

You see, when conflict comes, if in the interest of preserving harmony, we lie to each other or submerge our true feelings, we undermine the integrity of our relationship. The fact is you can’t have a marriage of oneness if you and your spouse don’t value authenticity. The more falsehood - the less REAL your relationship is in the first place.

I like the way John Stott puts it. He says, “Fellowship is built on trust and trust is built on truth. So falsehood undermines fellowship, while truth strengthens it.” Change the word “fellowship” to “marriage” because marriage is a “fellowship” that is built on trust, and trust is built on truth.

As Jesus said, the truth sets us free, so no marriage is more in bondage than a marriage that’s wrapped in pseudos, deception, untruth, and lies - so stop it. Put that kind of behavior aside. When conflict comes, fight right by being truthful with each other.

(2) Here’s the second tip for conflict resolution: Be ANGRY.

And, yes - you heard me right! Be angry! God’s Word actually gives us permission to feel this emotion. Verse 26 says, “In your anger, do not sin” and the Greek word for “anger” here is a COMMAND. In other words, we’re ordered to be angry - you see, not all anger is sinful. Not all anger is bad. For example, we SHOULD be mad when we see the innocent cheated or someone mistreated for embracing Godly values. We should tremble with rage when we see or hear of a child beaten and abused. And - similarly - simply shrugging off a serious offense by your closest, most trusted companion - your spouse - is a sure sign that the two of you are disconnected.

I mean, if you can’t be honest enough to say, “I’m mad! I’m upset! I’m angry” to your husband or wife for some hurtful thing they have done - then you are a long way from experiencing Biblical one-ness. So, not only is it OK to be angry, the Bible says, “Go ahead - be mad” and then it says, “BUT when you’re ticked, remember - sinning is off limits.”

You see, our problem is not ANGER - it’s the sinful way we tend to respond to it. I mean, most of the time we express anger in immature, selfish, hurtful ways. For example, some spouses are what you might call, “BOTTLERS.” They bury their anger deep inside. These are the “Eskimo stylers” and the “escapists.” I mentioned earlier. These kinds of people respond to their anger by STUFFING it. The problem with burying anger like this is that, like toxic waste that is hidden in a mountain cave, buried anger will eventually leak out - poisoning relationships - or even lead the angry person himself into the pits of depression.

Others deal with their anger in the opposite way. Instead of “bottlers,” they are “SPEWERS.” They just let it fly. They say whatever comes to mind, no matter how much pain it causes - like a volcano that blows its top spreading molten lava everywhere, vaporizing everything in its path. These are the “Cowboy stylers” and the “man-handlers.”

Well, the best way to handle anger is to not bottle it or spew it but to EXPRESS it appropriately. Charles Swindoll writes, “Appropriate expressions of anger never cause fear, never belittle or intimidate, and never shut another person down. On the other hand, we can’t become suddenly fragile, distant, or condescending to our partners when they begin to vent. A marriage characterized by mutual respect will allow each partner enough room to express angry feelings in appropriate ways - and remember, the quickest way to calm an angry mate is to simply, respectfully listen.”

Two German entrepreneurs have found a creative way to help passive-aggressive people deal with their anger. For the small fee of 1.49 euros per minute (about $2), callers can vent their frustration to a paid operator. The swearing hotline, known as “Schimpf-los” (German for “swear away”), is available seven days a week. Callers can jeer, taunt, and curse at the paid operators. But don’t expect the operators to put up with uncreative, milquetoast swearing. At times they’ll provoke lackluster callers with rude comments like, “That’s the third time I’ve heard that today. Is that the best you’ve got?” Ralf Schulte, one of the creators of Schimpf-los, says, “We don’t judge people who are angry.” Schulte contends that his service is doing people a favor. “If you’re stressed at work,” he argues, “you go home and your partner gets an earful. Even though it’s not her fault.” Instead, Schulte says, “[Anger] happens. It’s natural. With us you can blow off steam no strings attached …. For getting everything off your chest, [our service] is a bargain.” Now - I have to say - I kind of doubt this works. In fact, I think it would increase your anger not release it.

But, in any case, be angry - but don’t sin - let your love prompt you to LISTEN to each other. In fact, when problems come, plan a peace talk. I think it’s good to take a few minutes to COOL OFF first - but then commit to come back together and deal with the problem. One elderly pastor advised a newly married couple, “Don’t both of you get angry at the same time. But, if you do, start a three-minute egg timer before you say anything. Chances are if both of you hold your tongue until the sand runs out, you will not say that hurtful word that would be so hard for your spouse to forget.”

That’s good advice. Cool off and then talk about the issue. But, as verse 26 says, do it SOON - before the sun goes down! Remember, going to bed angry makes your anger behave like cement in that it HARDENS during the night! The longer you wait the HARDER it is to resolve the issue. I mean, some angry couples spend more time on the couch than they do in the same bed. They spend more time in a cold-war that lasts days or even weeks than they do enjoying life together. Friends listen! The devil wants us to hold on to our anger. He wants us to let it build resentments. He wants us to embrace our rage long enough for him to use it to destroy our marriages with hurtful angry words.  So, as someone once put it, “Do not erect a shrine to your anger in your heart. If you do, the devil will appoint himself its priest.”

Be angry - but do not sin. Express your anger in appropriate ways which means lovingly, honestly talking to your spouse in a way that attacks the problem - not her or him.

(3) Third: Be PRAYERFUL.

While you’re cooling off, get on your knees and pray about the problem because as Hybels says, “It is amazing how many seemingly insurmountable conflicts get whittled down to a manageable size in the woodshed of prayer.” You see, while our human tendency is to cast blame on others and to deny personal guilt, the Holy Spirit has an amazing way of bringing a more balanced perspective.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged us to point our fingers at ourselves before we point them at others. Do you remember His words? “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” (Matthew 7:3)

Spouses, every time you feel slighted, offended, taken advantage of, or hurt - before you take out the guns and start shooting, or run away, or strap on the blindfold and freeze someone out - you need to get alone with God and ask some probing questions - questions like this: “God, am I being unreasonable or selfish or insensitive here? Am I aggravating the situation? Am I yielding to sin?” Pray as King David did and say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

I will confess that there have been tons of times in my own marital disagreements, when I have thought FOR SURE that I was the innocent party - completely blameless - times when I was convinced that finally the evidence was all on MY side - but when I took the time to ask God for His opinion, He opened my eyes and helped me to see how wrong I was! He showed me my false assumptions and judgmental attitudes. He showed me my impatience and insensitivity. He showed me that I was the one who needed straightening out. Hybels writes, “Tension in most marriages could be cut in half if spouses would pray every day about their marriages. God does miracles when people pray. Lives are changed and hearts are softened when people pray. Pointing fingers change direction when people pray. Problems shrink when people pray. Sometimes, conflicts even DISAPPEAR when people pray.” So when conflicts come, before you do anything else, pray. Ask for God’s help and insight.

Okay - to review, when disagreements come - be honest, be angry, be prayerful -

(4) …and then fourth, to fight right, be KIND.

Look at verse 29 where it says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.” Verse 32 adds to this, saying, “Be KIND and compassionate to one another.”

Now, let me break this down for you and give you a few examples of what I mean when I say, BE KIND.

  • First, DON’T YELL. Remember, the louder your words are, the less your mate will hear.

  • Second, DON’T SAY MEAN THINGS. The uglier our words, the less we will communicate.

In January of 2006, Australian scientists discovered the cause of a mysterious disease that had killed thousands of Tasmanian Devils on the island state of Tasmania. The scientists initially believed the deaths were caused by a virus; however, their research ultimately uncovered a rare, fatal cancer. They named it Devil Facial Tumor Disease, or DFTD. What is strange, according to cytogeneticist Anne-Marie Pearse, is that the abnormalities in the chromosomes of the cancer cells were the same in every tumor. That means the disease began in the mouth of a single, sick devil. That individual facilitated the spread of DFTD by biting its neighbors when squabbling for food - which, according to Pearse, is a natural devil behavior:

“Devils jaw-wrestle and bite each other a lot, usually in the face and around the mouth, and bits of tumor break off one devil and stick in the wounds of another.”

Over the course of several years, infected devils continued to inflict deadly wounds with their mouths. Consequently, DFTD spread at an alarming rate, ultimately wiping out over 40 percent of the devil population. I share this because a similar fate threatens any marriage where spouses wound each other with the hateful, unkind words that come out of their mouths. So BE KIND.

Watch what you say. WORDS DO HURT. They cause deep wounds that, like a cancer will kill a relationship.

  • Third, DO LITTLE THINGS to express your love. Now, we men love to do big grandiose things - but what most wives love best is consistent little things - being nice in little ways day after day.
  • Fourth, DON’T USE WORDS like “always” and “never.” “You NEVER take out the garbage.” “You ALWAYS forget to pick up the kids.” I say this because statements like this are ALWAYS false - NEVER true.

The fact is, generalizing encourages the conflict to continue and even fans it up to the next level. Plus these words are anything but kind.

  • Fifth, EXPRESS HURT, NOT HOSTILITY. And the best way to do this is to use “I messages” instead of “you messages.”

When you say, “I feel such and such a way”  - well you are being less inflammatory. You’re not judging or accusing. You’re owning your own feelings. Plus, you are opening the door for further discussion and practical problem solving. For example, “I feel overwhelmed by household responsibilities” is much better than saying “You never help me around the house.” So, express hurt not blame.

This week I read about a study reported in Psychological Science that discovered the “best” arguers are those who don’t point their fingers. According to the study, the person who says “we” the most during an argument suggests the best solutions. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used statistical analysis to study 59 couples. Spouses who used second-person pronouns (you) tended toward negativity in interactions. Those making use of first-person plural pronouns (we) provided positive solutions to problems. The study concluded: “’We’ users may have a sense of shared interest that sparks compromise and other ideas pleasing to both partners. ‘You’-sayers, on the contrary, tend to criticize - disagree, justify, and otherwise team with negativity.”

So - own your own feelings. Express hurt not hostility.

  • Sixth, KEEP YOUR DISPUTES TO YOURSELVES. Verse 31 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away…”

In other words, don’t fight in front of other people. Think of it like this. You don’t bring your dirty laundry to church to wash it out do you? You don’t bring it to social gatherings do you? No of course not. You put your dirty laundry where it belongs. You deal with it in YOUR laundry room. Well, the same principle applies to marital conflict. Keep it to yourself!

I don’t want to sound too much like a parent but the fact is, it’s RUDE to fight in public! Plus, with this kind of childish behavior you humiliate each other - a very UNKIND thing to do - and you make reconciliation next to impossible. And if that weren’t enough, you divide the church as people who witness your disputes take sides. So don’t fight in public! Unless it is a case of abuse, keep your disagreements to yourselves.

All these tips sum up to a very important skill for dealing with conflict - BE NICE - because, as the anonymous poet put it:

“A careless word may kindle strife;

A cruel word may wreck a life;

A bitter word may hate instill;

A brutal word may smite and kill;

A gracious word may smooth the way;

A joyous word may light the day;

A timely word may lessen stress;

A loving word may heal and bless.”

So, be nice in the way you speak to each other and treat each other. Remember, we transform our spouses by simply loving them enough to treat them with respect and courtesy.

Scottish Pastor Alexander Whyte was this way with his church. It was said of him, ‘All Whyte’s geese are swans.” His parishioners became swans because that’s the way he treated them. He loved his people and treated them in loving ways - and they became more loving in the process. So, if your spouse is not kind…ask yourself, could it be due to the fact that you aren’t treating him or her that way? Could your marital disharmony stem from your poor ratio when it came to positive vs. negative?

So…be honest, be angry, be prayerful, be kind…

(5) …and finally, be FORGIVING.

As Paul says in verse 32, “…forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” When spouses find themselves embroiled in a fight they must both remember that the goal is not to see who wins - but to be reconciled. We’re not trying to win ARGUMENTS; we’re trying to win HEARTS! So spouses must be COMMITTED to resolving the issue and restoring harmony.  In a growing marriage, you say “I’m sorry” over and over and over again. You say, “I forgive you.” over and over and over again. Now, remember, forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. It’s saying, “I love you - and I value our marriage. Our relationship is important to me. I draw strength from it so I want it to be healthy. I want it to glorify God, so I choose to forgive you!” Forgiveness is not easy. It goes against our sinful nature. I mean, LOVE is a lot of work! In the immortal words of Franky Vally, “True love takes a lot of trying.” Well, spouses must try! They must learn to do the hard work of forgiving and FORGETTING. Remember, in 1 Corinthians 13, it says that Godly love “…keeps no record of wrongs.”

This morning, as we come to our time of invitation - I want you to know, I don’t expect husbands and wives to come down the aisle publicly committing to learn to fight right! But I do expect - I do pray - that spouses will make a private commitment to God - to pledge to do all they can to learn to resolve conflict in the right way. I pray that we will commit to be honest…to express our anger appropriately…and that we’ll be prayerful and kind and forgiving - so that when the inevitable disputes of marital life come - our relationships are strengthened and our intimacy is deepened. Try these five steps and if you’re still at an impasse of some sort, call me and the three of us will talk and pray together.  And - if you’re here and you need a good church home, then I invite you to prayerfully consider Redland. I’m convinced that one of the most important contributing factors to marital health is a church family like ours where we can be exposed to healthy Godly marriages - and in that way learn from each other. So, come and join our church family today. And if you’re here and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you to invite Him into your heart and life. Accept His gracious offer of forgiveness and come share that decision with me. But come now…as God leads.

“How to Have a Good Fight” – Sermon by Brian Bill, Pastor Pontiac Bible Church, Pontiac, ILL
Charles Swindoll Strike the Original Match, chapter 7 “How to Have Good Fight”
Chip Ingram, Love, Sex, and Lasting Relationships
Ed Young, The 10 Commandments of Marriage
Charles Swindoll, Marriage: From Surviving to Thriving
Bill Hybels, Fit to be Tied Chapter 7 “Preparing for Conflict”
Bill Hybels, Honest to God, chapter 5 “Truth-telling: Pathway to Authentic Relationships”