How to Fight Right

Series: Preacher: Date: May 13, 2007 Scripture Reference: Ephesians 4:25-27. 29-32


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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

If you’re as old as I am, then you know that in our culture, marriage isn’t what it used to be. In fact, statisticians tell us that these days this institution, that is so foundational to the health of our society, is going through extremely hard times. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau says that in the 1990’s:

$ Households headed by single mothers increased by 25%. Those headed by single fathers increased by 62%.

$ For the first time ever, nuclear families dropped below 25% of all households, which means that families like mine are a steadily shrinking minority in our nation.

$ 33% of all babies born were born to unmarried women, compared to only 3.8% in 1940.

$ Couples ignoring God’s loving law by living together without being married increased by close to one thousand percent between 1960 and 1998.

All these stats add up to one very depressing fact: Marriage is in deep trouble! I believe this is one reason our Heavenly Father has impressed on me the importance of focusing on the principles of a Godly marriage as part of our vision here at Redland this year. And I’m not alone in this because I am told that the pastors of three of the evangelical churches in our community are addressing the same issue in their own messages this month. The Holy Spirit has apparently been very busy!

I don’t know about the other pastors, but, if you were here three weeks ago, then you know that my sermon series is called, "Getting Marriage Right." On that first Sunday we talked about how to find the right person, and this morning I want us to learn how to fight right.

You know, most people blame the steady demise of marriage on adultery or alcoholism or some form of abuse. Others say the catalysts 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 married couples who 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. 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 conflict. To put it in plain English, they don’t know how to "fight right."

I’m reminded of the husband who after 50 years of marriage was asked the secret for the longevity of their relationship as husband and wife. He said they had only had one fight. When asked to elaborate he replied, "The fight started on our honeymoon and I’m still waiting for it to end." They obviously didn’t know how to resolve their differences!

Now, there are two myths about marital conflict that are prevalent these days.

(1) The first is that good marriages don’t have struggles.

Many people believe great marriages don’t have relational battles. And this is simply not true because every married couple, no matter how well matched or how spiritually mature, will have conflict. It’s a normal part of 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. Anyone who says their marriage has no difficulties is either lying or suffering from an extreme case of short-term memory loss! In many ways, wedlock is like two married porcupines who move closer together for warmth in the winter. No matter how much they love each other, they are going to "irritate" each other from time to time.

(2) A second myth is this: Conflict hurts good marriages.

This is also untrue. In fact, conflict is an important part of every healthy, growing marriage. Sure, 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, they can lead to even greater intimacy! 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 as to 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. In essence, 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 you and your spouse tend to respond to disagreements.

(1) 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." Eventually they "freeze" themselves into total withdrawal from one another.

This week I came across as story that appeared in a 1930’s edition of The Chicago Herald Examiner, a story about a husband who embraced this "Eskimo style" of behavior in a rather extreme way. The article was entitled, "Man Spites His Wife By Staying Blindfolded in Bed Seven Years." Here’s an excerpt from the article:

"The strange story of Harry Havens of Indiana-who went to bed-and stayed there-for seven years with a blindfold over his eyes because he was peeved at his wife, [this strange story] was revealed here today when he decided to get out of bed. Havens was the kind of husband who liked to help around the house-hang pictures, do the dishes, and such. His wife scolded him for the way he was performing one of these tasks, and he resented it. He is reported to have said, ‘All right. If that’s the way you feel, I’m going to bed. I’m going to stay there the rest of my life. And I don’t want to see you or anyone else again.’ His last remark explains the blindfold. He got up recently, he explained, because the bed started to feel uncomfortable after seven years."

Well, I guess he showed her! But that’s the Eskimo style, ignore the problem, give each other a cold shoulder.

(2) Next is the "Cowboy Style."

These are the couples who deal with conflict by letting the "bullets" fly! When they 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 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.

(3) Another popular 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. And-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.

(4) Finally there is the "Manhandler Method."

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 site!

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.’"

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

(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) 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 he got his diploma in the mail. 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.

In this verse Paul speaks of relational "pseudos" as if they were objects 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. Statistics 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.

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. R. W. 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, be truthful with each other.

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

Yes, you heard me right! Be angry! God’s Word actually gives us permission to feel this emotion. Verse 26 says, "In you anger do not sin" and the Greek word for "anger" here is a command. 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-simply shrugging off a serious offense by your closest, most trusted companion-your spouse-is a sure sign that he two of you are disconnected. If you can’t be honest enough to say, "I’m mad, I’m upset, I’m angry" to your husband and wife, 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. 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." As we said this weekend on our marriage enrichment retreat, 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."

So, 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. 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. 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. 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. And do this quickly. Don’t let it drag on for days or weeks.

(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 our 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, 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. "

U.S. News And World Report cites a 20-year study of 2,000 married couples, in which researchers have uncovered another predictive factor in determining which couples will stay married for the long haul. The study showed that if you want to have a marathon marriage, then you need to work at maintaining a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative comments. Kind, positive interactions like complimenting, smiling, and touching must outnumber negative comments like sarcasm or put-downs by a ration of 5-to-1. So for every negative, hurtful, discouraging thing you say to your spouse, you should say five loving, helpful, encouraging things. You must be kind far more than you are unkind.

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. Unfair criticism chips away at our spouse’s dignity-especially us husbands. It leaves us with less strength to love our spouses. It makes us defensive.

An elderly man lay in a hospital with his wife of 55 years sitting at his bedside. "Is that you, Ethel, at my side again?" he whispered. "Yes, dear," she answered. He softly said to her, "Remember years ago when I was in the Veteran’s Hospital? You were with me then. You were with me when we lost everything in the fire. And Ethel, when we were poor-you stuck with me then too." The man sighed and said, "I tell you Ethel, you are bad luck!"

Don’t be like this grumpy old man. Don’t say mean things to your spouse!

$ 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. Generalizing like this encourages the conflict to continue and even fan 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.

$ 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."


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, 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. 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. 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.

An elephant and a crocodile were swimming in the Amazon, when the elephant spotted a turtle sunning himself on a rock. The elephant went over to the turtle, picked him up in his trunk and hurled the turtle far into the jungle. The crocodile turned to the elephant and said, "What did you do that for?" The elephant answered, "That turtle bit me 50 years ago." The crocodile could hardly believe it and said, "And you remembered him after all these years? Boy you sure have a good memory." "Yep," said the elephant. "Turtle recall."

Well, too many of us as spouses have memories that are too good! We say we forgive-but what we really do is remember our spouse’s shortcomings and bring them up again when we want to. You won’t succeed in marriage with that kind of memory. No. To have the kind of relationship that God intends, both spouses must develop the ability to forgive, and forget. 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 first 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, their relationship is strengthened and their 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.

Come now, as God leads.

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