Conflict versus Contention in Mixed-Faith Marriages

I want to start off by talking about conflict. We all experience it – just about every day in some part of our lives. And if you’re in an unanticipated mixed-faith marriage, I imagine that if in no other area, you’ve experienced deep conflict in your marriage over religious views. Is that a bad thing? Is frequent conflict over a variety of issues, or even just one deep one a sign that your marriage is in deep trouble or doomed? If you are someone with a conflict-adverse personality, it can certainly feel like it. Even those who don’t feel the need to avoid conflict rarely feel great about it afterward. The work of renowned marriage researchers, John and Julie Gottman, has shown that how we deal with conflict is far more telling than the frequency with which it comes up.

I once attended a seminar where John Gottman showed short video clips of couples interacting and asked us to assess whether the couple was more or less likely to stay together based on their conflict style. I distinctly remember one older Jewish couple who did nothing but incessantly kvetch at each other. I remember laughing several times at how humorous it was to see them go at each other. They seemed unable to agree on anything. To my surprise, they were one of the couples whose relationship got high marks for longevity and satisfaction. It seems that despite their constant conflict, they were avoiding a few major pitfalls that turn conflict into satisfaction-killing contention.

So how do you know if you are dealing with conflict or contention? Here are some questions to help discern:

1- Do you hold judgment about your spouse when he/she disagrees with you?

2- Are you a right-fighter? How open are you to the possibility that you are wrong?

3- Do you feel that your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are superior to those of your spouse? Under what circumstances?

4- Are you critical of your spouse or hold contempt for the way he/she sees the world?

5- Are you pretty sure that your marriage would be greatly improved if your spouse just came over to your way of seeing things?

6- Do you often feel the need to justify your own positions to your spouse?

7- Do you often get overwhelmed in conflict and just shut down to your spouse?

If you answered yes to these questions, one or more of the 4 big relationship-killing behaviors identified by the Gottmans is likely creeping into your relationship: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, or Stonewalling. (For more info on these behaviors, google “Gottman 4 horsemen” for a plethora of in-depth articles.) When these behaviors are present with regular frequency, and without repair efforts, it is very difficult to feel emotionally connected to another person. In my experience, contempt is the one that tends to creep in for both partners when one spouse experiences a faith transition. This new dynamic then can ramp up the frequency of the other 3 problems.

I believe that conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is that which refines us, teaches us compassion, wears off our sharp edges, and ultimately can bring us closer to others to the degree that we are willing to show up with love for the imperfect in our spouse and in ourselves. How willing are you to be truly seen and to get curious enough to truly see your spouse?

Those of you who know me know that I have a soft spot for wisdom teachers. You may or may not be subjected to snippets of ancient wisdom this month….

This is a favorite poem of mine. Please read it and consider how conflict can bless your life and your relationship. I would love to have a lively discussion about conflict in the comments. What is your relationship with conflict? How do you deal with it? What causes you the most grief? What do you not know how to get past? What gifts do you see in it? What questions do you have?

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~

Jana Spangler, IAC is a life coach who specializes in supporting and mentoring others who are experiencing pain in their spiritual life and relationships. She is currently attending the prestigious Living School through the Center for Action and Contemplation of Richard Rohr.

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