Conflicts in Marriage

By Caroline Inazu

The root of conflict in our marriages is the idolatrous desires of our heart.   Trust must be earned, forgiveness must be given.

Some of you know that we moved from North Carolina to St. Louis in July. Much like a Cardinals World series is a big deal here in St. Louis, the Duke-Carolina basketball game is a BIG deal in North Carolina. I mean, a big deal. In case you missed it this past Wednesday, Duke pulled out the win in an amazing last second shot by their freshman player Austin Rivers, and you can watch the replay on YouTube when you get home this afternoon.

Anyway, since John and I are both loyal Duke fans and raising our girls to be the same, (John says he will consider it a parenting success if they both leave high school loving Jesus and Duke), you might think there would be no room for conflict surrounding the game in our house. Unless, of course, you were wondering whether the game was being broadcast regionally or nationally, in which case conflict would abound. Seriously, we almost had a huge fight on Wednesday night about how the game would be aired that night and, even more ridiculously, how it had been aired in the past. Seriously?!? I wanted to know how it would be broadcast that night so I could watch it online while John was out with some of his students, but how it aired in the past? Why does that matter? Who cares?

It mattered to me, and it mattered to him, for one simple reason – we both wanted to be right. And in an even more immature display of stubbornness, we turned to our laptop and iPad to quickly defend our points, find information to back up our position, and not once did either one of us stop to think – hey, this isn’t even important. Because in that moment, the only thing that mattered to each of us was that I WAS RIGHT.

It’s a silly example, and thankfully we were both able to realize it and move on before we ruined what would turn out to be an amazing night of basketball, but many times we aren’t able to do that. Things escalate; we speak without thinking, and my temper flares while John seethes quietly. Some of our biggest arguments have been over ridiculous issues – how much I talk or don’t talk on long car rides, whether John walks too fast in airports, and whether cleaning the house means dusting or organizing clutter.

Certainly we have also had our share of bigger issues to work through in our marriage, not the least of which was HOW we went about working through things – but the root of the problems seems to be the same, at least for me: I would prefer that things go my way, are under my control, and basically that life revolves around me and my desires. Well, as I am constantly telling my four-year-old: Life is not all about you, kid.

Which brings us to our key point for today: The root of conflict in marriage is the idolatrous desires of our hearts. Or, to rephrase the key point from last week: your spouse is just as much of a sinner as you are!

Our sinful natures make it hard to put someone else first and to see things from someone else’s point of view. Since the Garden of Eden, we’ve been looking for someone else to blame for our sin. My first response in a conflict is to push any fault back on John – if only he had used a nicer tone of voice, if only he had come home five minutes earlier, he knows it annoys me when he moves my clutter! But the truth is – my response is because of my own idolatrous desires. Something John says or does may trigger a response within me that leads to conflict, but my action always comes from the desires and thoughts of my heart. The cause is ALWAYS my own sin.

Our sin also disguises our desires to make it hard for us to see the idolatry in them. It’s easy for many aspects of marriage to become idols – like many idols, they aren’t bad things. Our desires for love, appreciation, thoughtfulness, understanding, justice, pleasure, peace, adoration, respect, and fun are not BAD things. In fact, they are good things and it’s normal to WANT them. The problem comes when we our desires for these good things become bigger than our desires for God. To want respect and affection from our spouse is a good desire – if a lack of that makes me bitter, however, I’ve become so consumed with that desire that I’m unable to be content with God’s control and provision in my life.

Before we move on, I need to interject that what I’ve just said holds truth in a “typical marriage”, absent abuse or other extenuating circumstances.

So, what do we do? Repeatedly, we must turn back to God and the truths that we know about Him.

  • God is great and powerful – we don’t have to be in control.
  • God is glorious – our worth comes simply from being created and loved by Him.
  • God is good – He is the source of true joy.
  • God is gracious – we don’t have to prove ourselves.

These truths, and our failure to believe them, are the underlying source of most of our sinful behaviors and desires. Focusing on them will help us avoid conflict.

Because our sinful desires are often hidden deep within us, we need to take steps to figure out what they are.

  1. When do you respond to your spouse? What are triggers? If a pattern exists, or an issue arises repeatedly, what might you actually want in that situation?
  2. How do you respond badly? I’m a yeller – when I get mad I get loud. John has an amazing ability to remain calm, but often becomes aloof or withdrawn. A sinful response doesn’t have to be rage – the attitude within your heart reveals itself in your comments and indifference.
  3. What happens when you act badly? What harmful fruit are your actions producing in your life and your marriage?
  4. Why do you act badly? Instead of blaming others, we need to recognize that we choose how to respond in these situations. We tend to blame the other person for their actions AND our actions – but our actions are not inevitable. What desire is controlling you?

How should we be acting? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Ask God to show you the idolatrous desires of your heart.
  2. Humble yourself before God. We need to stop exalting ourselves and recognize our position as a sinner in need of mercy.
  3. Repent of your desires and behavior. Repentance sets us free – blaming others does nothing to change the behavior. Repentance also paves the way for reconciliation.

You might be thinking, “This sounds all well and good, but I’m still sinful and my spouse is still annoying sometimes, so what happens once a conflict arises?” The stuff we’ve just discussed helps us learn what CAUSES conflicts, but what do we do once we’re in the middle.

In small groups today, you’ll do part of the discussion with your spouse. We’ll look at James together to learn how to work through the conflicts that do arise.


Rules of Engagement

Evil is convincingly hell-bent to destroy, if not defeat, God’s good gift of marriage.  The schemes of the Devil become obvious when we see them from a distance, but are perilously invisible up close and personal.  As Pastor George reminded us while preaching through Ephesians, the Devil schemes:

  • to deceive us, so that we believe lies instead of God’s good truth, especially lies about God, but also lies about ourselves and our spouses.  These lies very often find roots in our families of origin.   Such deception spawns much of the following schemes.
  • to defile us with sins, especially sins that we have grown so comfortable with that they feel like part of who we are, so we are blind to them (such as anger or defensiveness or self-centeredness)
  • to deform the church with an unhealthy acceptance of such sins, such that our divorce rates and other moral failings are hardly distinguishable from unbelievers
  • to divert us from God’s mission for our lives by requiring extra energies to deal with broken/strained relationships (such as our marriages)
  • to discourage us in our growth as His children by bringing obstacles, adversities, setbacks and trials (such as the chaplaincy delay)
  • to deter us from trusting God by afflicting us and drawing attention away from His good provision
  • to disarm us in our battle against spiritual evil through disbelief and forgetfulness of His Word
  • to divide us by tricking us to see each other as our enemy, instead of him (so often in our fights)
  • to destroy us by his powerful persistence in all of the above.

Can’t you see some of these schemes at work in your lives and relationship?  I point this out not to add to any sense of defeat, but just the opposite — to help direct your anger and energy against the one who is at work behind the scenes of your lives and to direct your trust continually to the One who has already written the script.  The Lord’s power is mighty and more than enough for you to rely on Him and not your own strength.   You are no match for the Liar, who has an IQ of 10,000 and can snuff out our lives in a heartbeat.  But one little word can fell him.

On a practical note, Janet and I have shared with some a method to help break unhealthy patterns of relational behavior, especially when you have fights.  It seems fitting to refer to these as Rules of Engagement.  But we do NOT wish to imply that spouses are enemies of each other, so the metaphor breaks down there.  In times of conflict, Rules of Engagement establish a mutual honor and trust.  (Soldiers of war abide by them, but terrorists do not.)  The Enemy of your marriage despises such rules, much preferring the chaos of the Crazy Cycle of offense, withdrawal, anger, and more offense.

In fact, for some people, the crazy cycle, especially anger, is perpetuated by biochemical releases that have a net (if weird) positive effect.  The fight/flight hormones induce a sense of power and control that can protect us from the pain of the hurt that underlies nearly every angry moment.  If it were not for anger, the only alternative for some people would be pain, rejection, abandonment and withdrawal, leading to emotional distance.

The Rules of Engagement are simple, but you must both agree to them, and, more importantly, to help each other in your agreement.  The foundation of these sorts of rules is the respect, trust, and honor that communicates something like, “our marriage is worth fighting for together.”   So we urge you to discuss these steps and agree on them explicitly together.  By explicit, we mean to describe to each other what these steps will actually look like, so if you follow them, you’ll both recognize that’s what is happening.

  1. Do not argue when angry.  Instead, separate physically for a time to cool off and, if possibly, to pray.  Avoid the deception, in this case, that such separation means a lack of care or love.  For some, that means not pushing to “understand” why she or he is angry.  It’s not always easy to put that into words in the heat of the moment.  Which brings us to the next point…
  2. Do not say something that you will regret or need to take back or apologize for later.  Giving in to such temptation will only magnify the difficulty and prolong the resolution.
  3. Do not neglect to come back together for a resolution when you are both ready, and not a minute later.  So that means checking to see if you are ready, and it also means not to assume that the passage of time means everything is all right.
  4. Do not believe the tempting lie that your partner is an enemy.  Encourage each other to “put on your spiritual glasses” to see the spiritual realities in the room — the true enemy.   Learn to recognize those schemes we mentioned above — you will see one or more in every argument.
  5. If, when you come back together, your discussion leads to anger again, then start over with #1.

Your goal in this is always win-win.  You must crucify any notion of win-lose, because in marriage that situation will always be lose-lose in reality.  Because we are one in our marriage, there can be no win-lose option.

One reason to expressly avoid looking for a “winning” position is that it’s not about you.  Your life is not about you.  Your marriage is not about you.  Remember, in Christ, that “you” died and you now live in him.  Even if you are the offended party, you have your own guilt, and the bigger issue is reconciliation.

And not just reconciliation between spouses, but you have a role to play in bringing reconciliation between your spouse and God – God is the main offended party in any conflict between spouses.

We’ll be focusing more on forgiveness in a later lesson, but we close today by reminding us to look to the cross whenever we are in or recovering from a conflict or in need of reconciliation and forgiveness.    Because at the cross we come face-to-face with our own sin.  Our past sins.  Our future sins.  Our present sins.  Even if I believe I am the innocent or aggrieved party in the present conflict, I am not innocent.  I am still only a rebellious idolator saved by grace.

Looking to the cross reminds me that I cannot demand payment or recompense or other punishment.  It’s already been punished – borne by Christ on the cross.  So I have no right to exact double payment.  Our forgiveness is not optional.  It is walking by faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

Lesson 6: The root of conflict in our marriages is the idolatrous desires of our heart.

If you would like the mindmap of today’s lesson, please let Dick know.

Download Lesson notes via facilitator guide for this lesson.

Download the Letters to Spouses forms for this lesson.

Quote to consider this week.  Please take a few minutes to discuss with your spouse.

It often happens that when couples get their relationship to God straightened out, their relationships with one another begin to straighten out as well.  — Wayne A. Mack


When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. — C.S. Lewis

Weaker Vessel?

Guest post by Jonathan Reibsamen

In a recent article, Eric Pazdziora, a Moody Bible Institute grad and worship leader at Holy Trinity Church North in Chicago, challenges the way 1 Peter 3:7 is often used, i.e., as a proof-text that women are weaker than men. He argues that using the text this way is both counter to the spirit of the passage, and is actually a misinterpretation of the verse. If he is right about the correct interpretation of the verse, then the NIV and (updated) NASB are misleading. So I am interested in hearing what people think, both about his exegesis (I am no Greek scholar, but some in our class probably are) and about his overall message in the article. Does the Bible say that women (or wives) are weaker than men (or husbands)? If so, in what way? Physically? Or in other ways? If not, how has this verse been misused in your experience?

See the article on his blog at

Comments welcome!

Lesson 5 – Grace means we can always begin again and again…

If you would like the mindmap of today’s lesson, please let Dick know.

Download Lesson notes via facilitator guide for this lesson.

Download the Letters to Spouses forms for this lesson.

Link to  the article, “You never marry the right person” by Timothy Keller.

Link to the “Prayer for Marriages” by Scotty Smith

Quote to consider this week.  Please take a few minutes to discuss with your spouse.

Lord Melbourne apparently advised the young Queen Victoria: “In marriage, disagreements are not nearly as dangerous as secrets.  Secrets breed mistrust.”

Lesson 4 – As Christ loves the Church, each husband put his wife’s interests before his own.

If you would like the mindmap of today’s lesson, please let Dick know.

Download Lesson notes via facilitator guide.

Download the Letters to Spouses forms for this lesson.

Quote to consider this week.  Please take a few minutes to discuss with your spouse.

Marriage is a call to die (to self)… Christian marriage vows are the inception of a lifelong practice of death, of giving over not only all you have, but all you are. Is this a grim gallows call? Not at all! It is no more grim than dying to self and following Christ. In fact, those who lovingly die for their (spouses) are those who know the most joy, have the most fulfilling marriages, and experience the most love.  — R. Kent Hughes

A Marriage Prayer

Prayer for Marriages—Ours and Friend’s

by Scotty Smith, Pastor for Preaching, Christ Community Church

“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Eph. 5:29–32

Lord Jesus, we come before your throne of grace today bringing marriages with us—our own and those of our friend’s. Everywhere we look, there seems to be a growing number of friends who are discouraged, disconnected, despairing—even dying in their marriages. This makes us sad, but it doesn’t really shock us, for a couple of reasons.

It makes complete sense that the powers of darkness would assault the one relationship meant to tell the story of your great love for your bride. Of course marriage is going to be a war zone—the front lines of spiritual warfare until the day you return. Satan hates you, he hates the gospel, and therefore he hates your bride and he hates marriage.

Of course marriage is going to be difficult—for there is no other relationship on the face of the earth which has more power to expose us and make us vulnerable, and arouse our longings and desires. Of course marriage is going to require your daily mercies and your steadfast love. Like so many of us, I came into marriage with a little gospel and big naïveté. I had no clue about the depths of my brokenness, the degree of my selfishness, or the devices of my sinfulness. I had no clue about what a “normal” marriage was supposed to look like, much less a healthy one. I had no clue about what it would take to love one person well the rest of my life (or even in the next hour)—a person who needs the gospel just as much as I do.

And I certainly had no clue that only your love is better than life; that only your love can slake the deepest thirst of my heart; that only your love can offer the intimacy we crave and for which we’ve been made. Jesus, only your love can free us to love another sinful spouse the way you love us as your spouse—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. Only your love, only your love is enough.

Lord Jesus, we pray for our friends, and we pray for ourselves. Protect us from the evil one and rescue us from ourselves. Show us how to care for one another in ways that bring your glory. Bring hope to the hopeless, conviction to the foolish, nourishment to the famished, grace to the betrayed, and repentance to the betrayers. When we want to “bolt,” may we bolt to you, quickly and surely. During this Advent season, prove yourself, yet again, to be Immanuel—the God who is for us and with us.

So very Amen we pray, sobered and expectant, in your loving and powerful name.

Why are you here?

If you’re attending the Gospel-centered Marriage class, we have a question for you.  Why are you?

This may be answered on several levels.

  • First, you may have personal reasons — a desire to strengthen your marriage, fellowship and community with like-minded couples, or perhaps looking for some helps to resolve some difficulties in your relationship.  These are good and are commended.
  • On a larger scale, you are here within the means of Providence for a simple purpose — and it’s the same purpose behind all other events in your life — to make you more like Christ.  This is always the will of the Father in every circumstance.
  • On yet another scale, beyond even the known cosmos, your participation is designed to bring glory to God.  This also is a great mystery of the Gospel that works in and through us and brings us into spiritual blessings.

This week, we turn our attention to the husband’s role in the marriage – living out the purpose of Christ in loving authority and service to his wife by putting her interests above his own.  What a privilege!

Our culture has hijacked the Creator’s gender distinctives in at least two important ways.  One is by confusing the idea of equality with sameness and the second is by confusing the biblical idea of submission with a demeaning lower status.   Conversely, the world subverts the notion of biblical authority or headship into a a caricature of self-centered, permanent adolescence.

One way for us to think rightly about the value of God’s design and functions for husband and wife is to see how these reflect God’s glory in the Trinity.  We understand the equality inherent in the Triune Godhead and instinctively reject any One as more important.  But we readily accept separate functional authority within the Trinity.  This is analogous to the marriage relationship, as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Cor 11:3.  “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

God’s ordained order for oneness in the Church and in marriage is revealed in this headship/submission design.  Husbands are accountable directly to Christ for their role in the marriage.  Abdication is not an option.  Lesson 4 helps us to learn more about how to fulfill this role well.

For additional reading on this topic, I recommend Susan Hunt’s article in the December 2010 issue of Tabletalk, available online here.



Submitted by Janet.

When Dick and I got married, we wrote our own wedding vows.  I promised to submit to his authority as my husband and the leader of our home.  Less than an hour later, at our wedding reception, one of my cousins asked if we were going to open our wedding gifts there.  I said no,I didn’t think so.  Immediately, one of my aunts taunted me with, oh wait, Janet, you can’t make that decision!  What does Dick want to do?  You promised to obey him!

Submission is a loaded word in our culture, and it produces conflict and tension like that.  So how do I reconcile these tensions as a believer?

First of all, I understand what the scriptures say, in context, not how the culture interprets it.  How can I object to submitting to someone who loves me as Christ loves the church, has my best interests at heart, and is willing to die for me?

Secondly, I understand that biblical submission does not mean:

  • Wife is inferior,
  • Wife is a doormat,
  • Wife never uses her brains,
  • Husbands have better judgment, etc.

And thirdly, I believe God’s word is truth, and I trust God that He chose this position for my best good, and He will be my security and strength when Dick fails.  It boils down to obedience to God.

There is one time I remember very clearly when DIck “made me” do something I didn’t want to do.  I was chair of the CE committee in our church, and in the course of planning something, I made a negative comment–I don’t even remember now exactly what it was—except that it was insensitive and came across as judgmental of another mom.

Dick pointed this out to me, said that I had hurt her feelings, and told me I needed to confess it and ask her forgiveness.

I did not want to do that.  But he kept on my case about it.  Now, he couldn’t really have “made me” do it if I had rebelled and refused.  It wouldn’t have been genuine in that case anyway.  In my head I knew Dick was right.  It was hard to submit, yes, but it was the right thing to do, and God used Dick’s spiritual leadership to help me do that.

We’ve been married 33 years, and we tried to come up with other times when Dick exercised his authority and I submitted, and we couldn’t think of any.

 Because that’s not the way it usually works.

Because Dick loves me, and because I respect him, when we disagree on something, we process it through until we reach a consensus.  Not that we’re perfect.  We have stumbled over seemingly simple things such as choosing a place to go out to eat:

Dick would say “which restaurant do you want to go to?”

“I don’t care; wherever you want to go”

“No, you pick”

“No, no I’ll go where ever you want”

So then Dick picks a restaurant and I react with: “I don’t want to go there!”

Have any of you been through that scenario?  That’s a minor thing but it does show us how easy it is for conflict to arise.

Despite the fact that each one of us is married to a sinner, generally, when two people are committed, the husband to loving his wife and the wife to respecting her husband, we can process disagreements and conflicts far more wisely.  We can agree on a course of action that makes sense to both of us.  Two good-willed people who feel loved and respected almost always discover a creative alternative that resolves the conflict and allows for agreement.  So wives:  be active in decision-making with your husband.  Search out the best courses of action; present arguments for what you think is best; be persuasive and helpful.

However, If a decision must be made without consensus, the husband is responsible before God to call the shot, and  God calls upon the wife to submit to her husband.

We must not forget the second part of God’s command to us:  wives must respect their husbands (verse 33).  This concept has been greatly overlooked in the church, as we’ve gotten hung up on the concept of submission.

Why does God’s word command us to respect our husbands?  Dr. Eggerich believes it is because respect is a man’s primary need., and women don’t naturally express respect.  It doesn’t seem as important as love to us.  But it is vital to our husbands.

What if a wife doesn’t feel respect for husband?  Or doesn’t think he has earned her respect.  Scripture doesn’t say “respect him if he’s earned it”.  We are called to show respect (act and speak respectfully), as an act of obedience to God.   Disrespect can break a husband’s spirit, and can damage a marriage.

Ultimately, refusing to submit to or respect your husband is a refusal to trust and obey God.

You may say, if I weren’t married to a sinner, I’d do that, but I don’t trust my husband to love me the way Christ loved the church.  The problem is not trusting your husband, its not trusting God.

Yes, your husband will make wrong decisions—unwise (poor judgment) and insensitive (selfish).  Dick would be the first to admit he’s made mistakes.

Is Christ great enough to take care of me then?  Of course he is!  That is why we do not need to fear submitting to an imperfect husband.  We do it “out of reverence for Christ.”  I submit to and respect my imperfect husband as a step of faith in Christ.

Lesson 3 – As the church submits to Christ, so wives put their husband’s will before their own.

Link to this lesson’s Mindmap.

Download Lesson notes via facilitator guide.

Download the Letters to Spouses forms.

Quote to consider this week.  Please take a few minutes to discuss with your spouse.  For discussion, consider:

  • What do you agree/disagree with?
  • What inspires you about the quote?
  • What truth of the gospel is found there?
  • How can the statement inform your praying?

Marriage is a call to die (to self)… Christian marriage vows are the inception of a lifelong practice of death, of giving over not only all you have, but all you are. Is this a grim gallows call? Not at all! It is no more grim than dying to self and following Christ. In fact, those who lovingly die for their (spouses) are those who know the most joy, have the most fulfilling marriages, and experience the most love.

R. Kent Hughes