How to manage conflict during the coronavirusWritten by Dr. Greg Smalley
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The coronavirus has changed our daily lives. The pandemic has caused job losses and isolation. We’re working from home, teaching our kids at home, attending church at home. When we make the rare trip to the store, we find empty shelves. The changes have disrupted our daily routine and have changed the way our marriages function. All this change leads to conflict. How do you manage conflict when everything around you is changing?
Change is never easy. Familiarity is seductive. Familiar things like surroundings, activities, food, music and clothes make us feel comfortable – safe even. Our brains are hardwired to steer us toward familiar things. As the old saying goes, “A known devil is better than an unknown angel.”
When life is crazy and chaotic, we turn to someone familiar, someone who can help us manage conflict – our spouse. It’s comforting to think we know everything about our spouse and how they’ll react in tough times, but predictability is unrealistic. Change is certain. And because so much is changing, our families – our marriages – are feeling the friction. So, it’s important to understand what’s causing so much conflict during this unprecedented time and learn how to make your marriage work despite the conflict.
Identify the challenges
Now that home has become the hub for work, school, church and play, you and your spouse are together all the time. Spending time with your spouse is good for your marriage but being together 24 hours a day creates conflict. Why?
You and your spouse will annoy each other because of the amount of time you’re together and the lack of space. It’s called cabin fever, and it’s the claustrophobic feeling you get when you are stuck in an isolated location or confined for an extended time. Married or not, everyone struggles with cabin fever.
Constant interruptions. Can you relate to this? “Daddy, I can’t get my homework to download.” “Greg, the garbage disposal isn’t working.” “Can you help me carry this out to my car?” “The exercise bike’s pedal just fell off – can you fix it?” “What should we cook for dinner?” “Someone take the dog outside.” “I need a clock up in my room.” I didn’t make these lines up. Since I’ve started writing this article, these are the word-for-word interruptions I’ve heard. Since I’m not a multitasker, these constant interruptions keep me on edge and keep me from getting my work done. I’m feeling like I’m failing at my job and becoming irritable and impatient with my family. It’s hard to manage conflict when dealing with so many interruptions.
Differences. Most of the time, couples don’t exist together 24/7. The old chestnut is true: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It’s good for couples to be apart – even when it’s only for eight hours during the workday. Under normal circumstances – when we have a healthy time away from our spouses – we don’t have to work constantly to manage our differences. However, being “sheltered in place” can magnify our differences and lead to conflict. Differences are a gift from God, and I’m so thankful for the ways that Erin and I are different. It’s just that managing these differences – managing conflict – can be challenging. For example, I’m an introvert. Erin is an extrovert. I recharge by spending some alone. Erin gets energy from connecting and talking. During this extended time at home, I’ve learned that I have moments when I don’t want to talk or connect. I want to be alone. So, it’s easy for Erin to misinterpret my actions and feel rejected or disconnected. If we don’t recognize our differences and deal with them in a healthy way, conflict can easily follow.
Multitaskers are frustrated with compartmentalizers. In many marriages, one spouse (often the husband) separates work life from home life. But because of the current work-at-home situation, these two worlds have collided. And two personalities – the multitasker and the compartmentalizer – have collided with each other. The multitasker becomes frustrated that the compartmentalizer seems to block everyone and everything off and isn’t helping more.
Bickering and bored children. After several weeks of physical distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve heard my kids complain “I’m so bored” about a million times. Managing my kids’ conflict often makes me feel like I’m a referee. It’s hard to remain patient when my kids are bored and at odds with each other. And all this frustration can overlap into my relationship with Erin, and I feel impatient with her.
Space invaders. Many times, one spouse manages the home and the kids more than the other (even if both people work full-time outside of the home). Now that you’re together 24/7, one spouse may do something contrary to the way they normally do things. This unintentional invasion causes arguments and frustrations for the spouse who normally makes these decisions. As a result, the other spouse feels marginalized, excluded or controlled.
Grief issues. Some losses are tangible: the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, a job loss, divorce or losing a treasured object. But loss can also be intangible: the loss of innocence, identity, control or independence. Whenever we experience loss, we suffer a “blow” and are thrown off balance. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.
Fear, panic, stress and anxiety. Some spouses may feel fear or anxiety about losing their job or income. Others may feel stressed about health issues or physical distancing. These fears and worries can lead to hypervigilance, grief, helplessness and the feeling of losing control.
Expectations. Both spouses have expectations about how this season will work; when expectations go unfulfilled, it leads to confrontations or resentment.
Exhaustion. Couples are worn out from managing kids 24/7, home-schooling and working longer hours at home.
Inability to do things that recharge and bring life. Couples no longer have the option to go to a fitness centre, grab coffee with friends, go on date nights or take part in favourite hobbies.
Relational disconnection. Spouses can’t manage conflict when they aren’t connected. From kids sleeping in parents’ beds to working odd hours from home, spouses find it difficult to connect. The more disconnected they feel, the more conflict they face.
Conflict causes people to feel unsafe. When people feel unsafe their hearts close. A closed heart causes people to react (say or do things that compromise their integrity and hurt their spouse and marriage) and to create emotional distance in the marriage. So, it’s extremely important – despite the changes caused by the coronavirus – to create a home that feels like the safest place on earth. A heart will open when it feels safe.
So, let’s look at how to create safety so that hearts remain open to each other. You need two open hearts to manage conflict and deal with the coronavirus.
Create a safe place to manage conflict
Joel 2:12-13 says “ ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart . . . rend your heart and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God.” The prophet Joel is telling the tribe of Judah to open their hearts to God. But Joel explains that they can open their hearts to God because he is safe: “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and he relents over disaster.”
I love these characteristics of God: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. These aren’t just behaviours; they’re traits that define who God is – his way of living. These qualities will make your marriage feel like the safest place on earth and help you better manage conflict. Let’s look at how we can imitate God’s character and create a safe place for your spouse’s heart.
Gracious. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious.”Grace has a way of recalibrating our relationships. It’s not that you’re ignoring or minimizing serious problems; instead, you’re deciding how you want to show up in your marriage. Grace is unearned kindness and the giving of blessings.
So, how can we emulate God’s grace to us and apply this amazing gift within our marriage? Grace means giving our spouse permission to be human and make mistakes. When I practice grace, I look past the things Erin does that frustrate me and see what’s true about her – who she is on the inside – not how she’s irritating me at the moment. Grace means living out 1 Samuel 16:7, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Grace believes the best about your spouse. It fights through the messiness of the moment and remembers that your spouse is a son or daughter of the Most High King. He or she is made in God’s image and is valuable – this is always true!
Slow to anger. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is . . . slow to anger.” The phrase “slow to anger” appears 14 times in Scripture. Being slow to anger means exercising patience, even with difficult people. After 27 years of marriage, I understand the importance of patience. It’s easy to feel hurt, become annoyed or get frustrated by your spouse – especially now that you are confined to your house. Patience accepts and tolerates irritations, delays, problems and suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Think of the many irritations you both face during this unique season. Patience is giving your spouse the freedom to be human but also knowing when to pick a battle or when to let something go. It may help to ask yourself if your spouse’s behaviour is a “big deal” or a “little deal.” Address the big stuff that comes up so it doesn’t build up into resentment while ignoring the little things that won’t matter in the long run.
Compassionate. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is . . . compassionate.” In Ecclesiastes 10:12, King Solomon wrote, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious.” The word “gracious,” as used here, can also mean “compassionate.” So, this verse could also read “words from a wise man’s mouth are compassionate.” What is compassion? It’s the “profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others,”1 and a desire “to alleviate . . . the other’s suffering.”2
Remember, you and your spouse are experiencing many losses as the result of the coronavirus. These losses cause grief. So, grieve together and offer loads of compassion. Compassion is caring about our spouse’s feelings. Compassion communicates that your spouse’s heart matters to you. Whatever is going on in their heart – the disappointment, hurt, fear, pain or frustration – all of it is important to you. When Erin is hurting, she doesn’t want me to ignore her and pretend as if nothing is going on. She doesn’t want to hear me say, “Calm down!” She doesn’t want me to compare her situation to someone less fortunate. Instead, Erin wants me to hurt with her, experience her emotions, feel her pain, put myself in her shoes and to see things from her perspective. Walt Whitman wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”3 A heart will open when it feels safe. Compassion creates safety.
When you open your heart to your spouse’s feelings, you’ll get a kinder response in return. I love The Message paraphrase of Proverbs 25:15, “Patient persistence pierces through indifference; gentle speech breaks down rigid defenses.” Care and compassion break down the opposition and create two open hearts.
Abounding in love. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is . . . abounding in steadfast love.” Other translations say, “filled with unfailing love” or “abounding in loving devotion.” God’s heart is overflowing with a steadfast love for you. He is committed to you forever. He makes clear in Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” During these uncertain times, remind your spouse you are committed to him or her for life. A great way to put your commitment into action is to rediscover what your spouse needs from you to feel loved. Any time your spouse experiences change, the thing that helps him or her feel loved often changes. So, take time to listen to your spouse’s needs and be open about yours. Manage conflict by learning what your spouse needs.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.
1 Parvesh Singla, The Manual of Life: Understanding Character, Parvesh Singla
2 Sherlyn Jimenez, “Compassion,” The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology, Shane J. Lopez, editor, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
3 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, Norton, 1973
© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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