Our marriage was just over a year old. After another demanding week at work, neither of us wanted to get into it. And with changes going on in our families, we were both emotionally and mentally distracted. There was a high probability we would say things we didn’t mean and make matters worse.
What was it about? I don’t even remember, to tell you the truth. But I do remember that we exchanged complaints, barely restraining the passion over the injustice we each believed we had suffered from each other.
Both angry, both hurt, we walked into separate rooms and stewed on the facts of what felt like a derailed relationship. Our tendency in the conflict was to isolate because it was easier than trying to resolve it.
We thought we wouldn’t have the marriage troubles others had. How naive of us to assume we had all the answers when we had barely even begun to understand the questions.
What Really Poisons a Marriage?
In that and many other times we walked away from conflict instead of talking through it, my wife and I fell prey to the secret enemy that hides in every marriage.
No, it’s not you or your spouse: it’s unexpressed conflict.
You can disagree on what color to paint the kitchen, the best school for your kids, and even about which church denomination or political party is best. Those disagreements may cause friction and some heated debates from time to time, but they won’t destroy your relationship if you don’t let them.
Those unresolved conflicts can last as long as you’re both alive. You can agree to disagree and move on. But unexpressed conflict is a poison that slowly, secretly infiltrates every part of your relationship.
Left untouched, unexpressed conflict will turn assumptions into accusations and accusations into evidence. It’s like rendering a verdict when the other person didn’t even know court was in session.
Unexpressed conflict gets really practical, really personal, really fast.
Tension built up day after day from unvoiced irritations will sour the good experiences your family wants to have. Failures to apologize and bury the hatchet will kill the mood; say goodbye to laughter and sex when one or both of you feel wronged or uncared for.
When you allow your guilt about a mistake to grow into shame, you won’t even want to try to be a better spouse. Shame keeps spouses apart by telling the lie that you are bad, not just what you did was bad.
That shame perpetuates itself because it operates like a prison. You don’t know the way out, and your spouse doesn’t help you find a way out, so you start to believe you really do deserve punishment because you’re a bad person.
After You Recognize the Conflict
It’s one thing to see conflict and know it’s there. Usually, it looks like stomping into another room, or seemingly eternal car rides home after blowing up at each other in front of friends. Almost everyone can see those social cues of conflict.
What matters is how spouses express it to each other. The very act of expressing a misunderstanding, feeling or frustration with your spouse can actually create a stronger sense of togetherness that will help resolve the issue.
As Brené Brown writes, “Giving and soliciting feedback is about learning and growth, and understanding who we are and how we respond to the people around us is the foundation in this process.”
Once you recognize that there is unexpressed tension in your relationship, here are five practical ways to deal with it:
1. Go First
It takes bravery, maturity and a healthy dose of humility to speak up about the conflict before your spouse does. Yes, those among us who are non-confrontational will struggle with this, but it’s essential to confront in goodwill, for the good of the relationship. The sooner you address the conflict, the sooner you can cut off its power to harm the relationship (Proverbs 17:14).
2. Admit Your Mistakes
This is risky, but it’s one of the most powerful ways to disarm conflict in your marriage. No matter how embarrassing, admitting your mistakes is the beginning of relieving that tension.
3. Speak Honestly
In the words of the great modern relationship counselor, John Mayer, “Say what you need to say.” Don’t belittle or reason away what you sense is wrong. Unless both spouses kill assumptions and express what they’re really feeling or thinking, the conflict will continue to be a pain point in the relationship.
4. Attack the Issue, Not Each Other
Honest confessions and authentic apologies aren’t weapons to keep in your back pocket for a time when you’ll need to whip him back into shape, or keep her quiet about one of your weaknesses. An attack against one of you is a threat to both of you. Marriage isn’t about winning, but moving forward together.
5. Cultivate Trust
Don’t say you’ll change some habit and then make no effort to fix it. If you promise to do better next time, keep your word (and lean on God to help you change and grow).
Without the oxygen of trust, the relationship will suffocate. Both of you can step toward each other in the security of your relationship if it’s built over time, through good times and bad. That trust is the scaffolding on which your relationship depends, especially in times of conflict.
Working together, you can identify and defeat the secret enemy in your marriage.
**This article originally appeared on RelevantMagazine.com and johnweirick.com. Republished with permission. Find more in John’s new book, The Variable Life: Finding Clarity and Confidence in a World of Choices. Start reading for free at thevariablelife.com.