Conflict and Conversations

Do you know that unwinnable “Whack a Mole” game at your local kids’ pizza place — the one where the machine pops up plastic moles and your mission is to beat them back down as fast as they pop up? Conflicts in marriage are like that game; they keep popping up even when you don’t want to play anymore.

A week ago, my husband and I were in another unwanted skirmish in our marriage. Same topic, same emotions, round gazillion!

I’ve been disappointed many times that our issues are not resolved cleanly. They aren’t black and white.

Over the decades of our marriage, our repeated disagreements have settled into several categories: parenting values, decision making, money, sex, and travel. Victory, a conditional one, was declared in only one of these: parenting… and that was simply because time ran out. The others demand ongoing engagement.

Your own recurring marital battles may be over finances, in-laws, jobs or other situations. No two marriages battle the same combination of issues. Yet there are similar patterns.

The “we’re traveling too much” conflict was the one that caught us once again last week.

My husband’s mother affectionately called her son a “road runner” after the cute cartoon character that was off in a flash everywhere he went. I thought it was sweet. I should have paid attention to the truth she was speaking.

Not that it would have changed my decision to marry him. But his road-runner enthusiasm for travel, adventure, discovery, and conquering enemy territory has caused more ongoing stress and conflict in our marriage than any of the other areas I mentioned earlier. (By the way, I love to be home.)

Our recent conflict began when I realized we were over-committed. Again. Somehow the schedule monster had eaten up more days than we realized and suddenly we were facing the enemy of miscommunication with no escape. Feelings of mistrust, lack of protection, lack of support, and anxiety resurfaced as we confronted the fact that I need more time at home than he does, but he needs me to go with him, and support him, and do life with him. Neither is wrong. It’s what we do with the clash of those colossal differences that matters.

Like peeling an onion
At the core of this conflict, and at the core of any other recurring conflict, is fear. For me it’s fear that I am not really valued for what is important to me. If I perceive that Dennis is constantly scheduling us to the brink, pushing me to my limits, then I come to believe he hasn’t heard me, that he doesn’t get it, and therefore that he doesn’t love me. At the same time, if I refuse to adapt, to grow, to risk the stress of following him, then he perceives that I haven’t heard what he needs, that I don’t get it, and therefore I don’t really care about him as a person.

the good fight
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It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, rather than declaring victory. Each time we clash over this issue, and others, we are in different circumstances in our lives. I needed margins for different reasons twenty years ago when I was parenting full time. He needed my partnership for different reasons, too. Each conversation can peel another layer off our individual coverings so that we can see ourselves and our spouse more clearly than we did before. Our perceptions of ourselves and of each other are vastly flawed. We forget that most of the time.

So while I don’t believe we declared victory this time, that we’ll never argue or disagree over travel ever again, I do believe we peeled away another layer. I see more clearly that I need to work on my attitude about following my husband, that I need to rejoice that my husband wants me with him, and that I should trust God with this situation that He has given me for my good.

During a recent snow storm, our office building closed for the day. Dennis and I decided to enjoy every minute of the glittering snow-covered day, so we donned our winter gear and went hiking in the woods. On the way back, which was all uphill, I paused to catch my breath. As we stood there panting, my husband said to me, “I’m not going to push you anymore.” It had nothing to do with the travel issues, but I realized in that promise that he heard my words to him. He allowed me to be who I was in that moment — needing a pause in the action when he didn’t.

Next time you are chopping an onion, remember that those layers represent more than a pungent cooking ingredient. To the one who perseveres in marriage, each layer pulled back takes you closer to the heart. Though often accompanied by tears, as happens with onions, the progress made is satisfying.

Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Rainey. Used with permission, Read more from Barbara & Dennis Rainey at


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