When Irritations Strike


When I meet with couples before they get married, during their last season of premarital counseling, I ask, “What do you fight about?” The couples I worry most about are those who say, “Oh, we never fight.”


You never disagree about anything? If you never fight, if neither of you ever says, “I don’t like what you did there” or “I don’t agree with that,” then somewhere someone isn’t being fully honest. Couples are going to clash. That’s just normal.

The frequency of conflict is no indicator of the happiness or success of a marriage. There are couples who fight only once a year, but their fighting is so destructive and painful that their relationship is extremely unhealthy. There are other couples who get into some sort of tiff pretty much every day, but they resolve those skirmishes in a healthy way so ultimately they are able to maintain a great relationship.

But remember, each bit of conflict is a withdrawal from our mate’s love bank, and the more serious our conflicts become, the more likely they are to threaten our marriage.

What We Fight About

Men and women see things differently. Here’s what the married people we surveyed told us about what they fought about with their spouses.


  1. Communication/failure to listen
  2. Money/finances
  3. Feeling unappreciated
  4. Sex
  5. Household responsibilities/inattentive to my needs



  1. Communication/failure to listen
  2. Money/finances
  3. Feeling unappreciated
  4. Household responsibilities
  5. Children

Normal people have conflicts over these things.

Most of us who are married will recognize at least something on these lists that we fight about with some regularity. If that’s true for you, I want you to hear this: You are normal. Normal people have conflicts over these things.

What Paul Tells Us

If conflicts are inevitable, if you’re pretty much guaranteed to irritate each other now and then, how do you live together? What do you do to make a marriage work?

The truth is that the question could be asked about any relationship. How do you make it work with your best friend? Friends aren’t perfect either. They’re going to hurt your feelings, you’re going to hurt theirs. The two of you will see the world differently.

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This is where the words of the apostle Paul come into play: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).

Make sure, says the apostle Paul, that the first things people notice when they come in contact with you are virtues. They should pick up on your kindness and compassion, your gentleness and humility and patience. These aren’t things we wear naturally. If they were, Paul wouldn’t need to remind us. These are attitudes we have to work at.

I often find it’s easier to practice these virtues with church members or friends than with my wife, and yet she is the one person with whom I’ve made a lifelong covenant to love! She is the one person with whom God is most counting on me to practice them.

How do we go about clothing ourselves in these virtues? The first step is to make a decision that it’s important to God and to you. You might even write these verses down and place them where you’ll see them every day — for instance, on the mirror where you brush your teeth. Whenever you see the verses, pray them. Say, “Lord, I’m grateful to be one of your chosen ones. I’m holy and beloved to you. Please help me to be more compassionate. Help me to demonstrate greater kindness to the people who are close to me. I want to walk with humility. Please help me to consider the needs of others before my own. Help me to be gentle and meek. And, Lord, please teach me patience!”

Victoria’s Secret offers clothing meant to spice up a relationship. Yet think how much more the clothing described by Paul can enrich your relationship. If you want your love to last, then check out the closetful of attributes listed in this passage. When two people are compassionate toward one another — kind and gentle, humble and patient — they form a love bond that can’t be broken. That’s what Paul offers us here.

Then, ever the realist, the apostle Paul goes on to say, “Bear with one another” (Colossians 3:13). In another translation he asks us to be “long-suffering” (v.12, NKJV). Why, after listing all the ways we can bless each other, does Paul have to write these words? Because he recognizes that sometimes we fall short. We’re going to irritate each other, so we’ll need to put up with each other.

My wife, LaVon, has learned to live with me, and I with her. She realizes that no matter how hard I try, some of the traits that have annoyed her since the beginning of our marriage aren’t likely to change. She wishes I worked out more, that I could dance without stepping on her feet, that I was more lighthearted. Sometimes she wishes I had a job that gave me weekends off and a bit more privacy. LaVon and I have both learned, and are still learning, to bear with one another.

John Gottman, the marriage expert who wrote The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work gives us another word for that attitude: acceptance. According to Gottman, accepting your partner’s personality is an important key to conflict resolution, which means it’s essential to make marriage work. At some point you say to yourself, You know what? I love her even though she’s not perfect. I know all her negatives, but I still choose to love her because the positives compensate for them.

Of course, there are some things people can’t put up with; adultery, abuse, and addiction issues are so painful they can be deal breakers. In addition, there are smaller issues that cause real pain and require a measure of grace. If we are to move beyond them, there are six words that may be as important as any spoken in a marriage, perhaps even more important than “I love you.” The six words are: “I am sorry” and “I forgive you.” If you’re unable to say those words, you have no chance of making a friendship, a family relationship, or a marriage last.

The Grace of God

Repentance and forgiveness set two people free: the one who has been hurt and the one who has done the hurting. These two actions heal relationships in ways we can hardly fathom. God’s grace, when coupled with the power of repentance and forgiveness, has a profound ability to heal. Every one of us has hurt someone close to us. We’ve said things we shouldn’t have said. We’ve done things we shouldn’t have done. Are there things you’ve done for which you need to be forgiven? Are you carrying around bitterness because you haven’t forgiven someone else? In either case, approach God. You might ask, “Lord, give me the strength to ask forgiveness” or “Lord, help me to forgive.” In earnestly repenting and in extending grace, you will find the healing power of God at work in your life.

God knows the wounds we have inflicted on each other. He knows the bitterness and resentment that can build up in any marriage. He offers us the tools to overcome those feelings, along with the grace to heal us so we may enjoy marriage as the blessing it was designed to be.

Adapted excerpt from Love to Stay: Sex, Grace, and Commitment, by Adam Hamilton (Abingdon Press).

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