As a single man, I was cool, calm, and collected. Then I got married.
Before I was married, I had never hit an innocent wall just because I was angry. But you’d be surprised (or, maybe you’re married and you wouldn’t be surprised) at the radical impact close proximity to a person you love can have on you.
My wife is my favorite person on earth.
Marrying her is definitely one of the few intelligent decisions I’ve made in life. But after the bliss of our first year of marriage, things (you know, “things”) hit the fan. Neither of us had ever let anyone so close to the good, the bad and the ugly of our lives. And the discomfort of this newfound intimacy certainly had a way of creating challenging and ‘impassioned’ conversations.
As a result, we would often resort to our popular nightcap, which looked like this:
I would walk out, slamming the door behind me (for dramatic effect). She would crawl under the covers, in tears—but not before setting up her wall of pillows down the middle of the bed, just to remind me, when I do come to sleep, that things are not OK.
Conflict is unavoidable and necessary to any healthy relationship. But anyone who has braved it also knows there’s a difference between unproductive fighting and a healthy resolution of conflict. While the latter is necessary and unavoidable, the former doesn’t help a relationship’s progress—and can take its toll on a marriage.
If you’re a human and married—chances are, you know what I’m talking about. Here are four helpful ideas that have helped me move toward healthy conflict resolution.
And have also saved me from more than a couple nights on the couch.
1. A Spouse is a Mirror.
Early in my marriage, it often felt like the more I gave to marriage, the more it asked of me and the less I received in return. My wife felt consistently unloved. I felt perpetually exhausted, which led me to the quick and easy conclusion that my wife had a bottomless love tank—or at least a leaky one.
It took me an inappropriate amount of time (and an absurd number of yelling matches) to see my wife’s “leaky-tank-problem” was actually just a reflection of a much deeper brokenness in me. I’ll save the details for a pseudo-depressing conversation over a cup of coffee, but as it turns out, I have deep trust issues that tend to keep me emotionally unavailable—regardless of how much I try to love my wife.
If you’re anything like me, you’re not immediately buying the idea. The suggestion that my wife—with her free choice, separate past and unique set of issues—was a mirror for me to see and deal with my own dysfunction—felt far-reaching. Yet the more I’ve tested the idea, the more obvious it has become that I wake up every morning next to a mirror—conveniently there to reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The implications of this mirror phenomenon stretch far beyond the next three ideas, but they’re certainly a good place to start.
2. Blaming a Mirror is Useless.
I spent the first few years of marriage pointing the finger at my wife’s “bottomless love tank.” When my wife tried to emotionally connect with me, I would default to thinking she was needy, which gave me just enough reason to keep her at arms’ length. Yet, as I experimented with the mirror phenomenon, I began considering the possibility of her perpetual drive for connection to be an effect of my trust issues and emotional unavailability.
If we look in a mirror and see that our shirt is wrinkled, we don’t iron the mirror. We iron our shirt. It’s the same with our spouse.
This phenomenon removes all grounds for a critic in marriage. It turns our attention in any given issue away from our spouse and puts it on us. It replaces the natural act of critique with the unnatural act of internalizing.
This business of internalizing is all about taking inventory of common critiques we have of our spouse and asking, “How might their behavior or attitude be a reflection of my own issue or the way I treat them?”
The goal of this question is to transmute the critique of our spouses into a self-evaluation that inevitably identifies broken thought and character patterns. Then, all thats left to do, as we’ll see next, is to take responsibility.
3. Fixing the Mirror isn’t the Point.
If the mirror phenomenon is in fact true, our spouse’s issues are not our responsibility to fix. Once we resist critiquing and make the correlation between their actions and the things that need to change in us, our business is simply to own the issue and work on fixing ourselves (and ask God to work in us). In essence, we’re taking 100 percent responsibility of the relationship.
Marriage is not a fair deal. Though a popular sentiment, you don’t simply take 50 percent of the responsibility for a relationship and expect your spouse to meet you halfway.
My favorite Jewish rabbi, Shalom Arush, puts the idea in perfect layman’s terms when he says, “Every married individual should feel that he or she alone bears the responsibility for peace in the home. Neither should police the other because a person that’s occupied with finding fault in someone else fails to see his or her own faults.”
Yes, my wife was being needy. But trying to fix her neediness would have only perpetuated the real issue and left my wife more unloved.
4. As the Reflection Changes, So Does the Mirror.
A popular psychiatrist Marina Benjamen reflects on the best part of the mirror phenomenon when she says:
A fundamental law of relational theory is that when any part of a system changes, the entire system—meaning all other parts—will be forced to change in response. What this means in a marriage is that if I create a change in my own attitude and behavior, my spouse and the marriage itself will automatically be forced to change. This is a powerful truth to embrace but, unfortunately, most of us are so busy blaming our partners for their shortcomings that we neglect to assert our power to create the very changes we want.
We all want change in our relationships to some degree. But are we going about it in a way that actually changes things?
Perhaps the best part about this mirror phenomenon is that, according to relational research, the more we fix ourselves, the more our spouses change.
So let’s do our marriage a favor. Next time things hit the fan, try taking a look at the plank in your own eye first. Nine out of 10 times, the speck in your spouse’s eye is long gone by the time you’re done.
Tyler Ward recently released Marriage Rebranded, where he debunks modern myths about marriage, tells real-life stories and offers unorthodox best practices that are sure to help anyone write a better marital narrative for themselves. Get more info here.