Question: My spouse and I have a lot of unresolved conflicts. At this point we’re practically living separate lives, and the problem is only getting worse. What can we do to reverse this trend? At what point should we simply agree to disagree about our differences?

Answer: It’s hard to guess how many arguments could be averted if couples would simply pray about their differences and let them go. This is hard to do, since most of us want to be "right" and justify our behaviour.

Differences are usually what attract partners to one another. Agreeing to disagree, when it’s appropriate, is realistic. It can also help each of you appreciate the other’s uniqueness.

Knowing when not to agree to disagree

"When it’s appropriate" is, of course, the controlling phrase here. It’s silly and pointless to stay divided from one another over issues that really don’t matter. But how do you tell the difference between a petty disagreement and a serious discrepancy in perspective and philosophy? How do you know when you should "agree to disagree" and when you should "stick to your guns"?

The answers to those questions will depend on the importance you attach to each issue. There are certain decisions, such as having children, setting life goals and choosing where to live, that may require outside help to negotiate if you can’t agree. Other problems – for instance, whether to have pets, where to go on vacation, how much to spend on dining out, who cleans the bathrooms – may be easier to work out on your own. In every instance, the key is your willingness to bend and flex. Defensiveness and an insistence on "winning" the battle are always destructive and counterproductive.

Six steps to resolving conflict

So what can you do if the same issues keep popping up unresolved? Here are some steps you can take to deal with the more formidable conflicts in your marriage:

  1. First, realize that you learn to work through conflict by confronting the issue – not by avoiding it.
  2. Remember the purpose of confronting the conflict: resolution. Your ultimate goal is to reconcile and make your relationship even stronger. If you’re aiming simply to spout hurt and anger, you’ll damage the relationship. If that’s the case, you’re better off just letting the matter go. Winning the battle isn’t important. What matters is continuing to strengthen your bond.
  3. Don’t procrastinate. Conflict resolution should be undertaken as soon as either party recognizes that he or she is feeling upset.
  4. Take turns expressing your feelings about the conflict at hand. Listen to your mate carefully. Use "I" statements instead of attacking the other person – for instance, "I feel hurt when you don’t follow through," rather than, "You’re so irresponsible."
  5. Specifically express your need to your spouse. Then come up with a mutually satisfactory plan of action. For example, say something like, "It would help me if you’d take out the trash as soon as you agree to do it." Once you’ve established this, write out a schedule specifying that the trash is to be taken out every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. That way, both of you will have the same expectation.
  6. Find another couple, a pastor or a counsellor to whom both of you will be accountable. Share the plan of action you’ve agreed upon. Knowing that someone is holding you accountable can help you follow through.

If, after trying to implement these measures, you find that your chronic conflicts continue to drag on, never reaching resolution, it may be time to seek professional help. If you need referrals to counsellors who are qualified to assist you in this area, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department can provide you with a list of professionals in your locality who specialize in communication issues and marital dysfunction. Our staff would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. PDT at 1.800 661.9800.


© 2006 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Excerpted from The Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers.

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