Rob Parsons on dealing with conflict

I wonder if, like Dianne and I, you were given these words of advice when you got married: “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath”.

Or, as somebody has paraphrased it: “Resolve the flack before you hit the sack!” It means we shouldn’t go to bed not talking, with hurts still festering.

I think that generally in our marriage we have striven to do that, although Dianne confesses she is much worse than me about making up quickly when we’ve had a row. We go to bed not talking and she simply will not give in. We lie there, back to back, huffing and puffing and pulling at the duvet, convinced that the other one has got more than their fair share of it. We always say a short prayer before we go to sleep, but it’s hard to talk to God when you’re not talking to each other. In fact, I can practically feel Dianne trying desperately to resist the temptation to say, “God, please help Rob to be more gracious when he’s in the wrong!”

Saying “I’m sorry”

But we’re still not speaking, and the disagreement is still nowhere near being resolved, until, after what seems like hours, one of us will make the first move and mumble, “I’m sorry”. After that we’ll begin to talk and we normally find that the whole argument has got out of proportion. Poor communication was partly to blame, plus a dose of selfishness and a touch of pride, and before we knew it – conflict!

Even if it takes us until the early hours of the morning, we’ve learnt that it’s best to try to sort things out straight away. The incredible thing about rows in marriage is that if you resolve them quickly, two days later you can’t even remember what the fuss was about. But if you don’t sort them out, the bitterness can stay with you down the years.

It’s not unusual to find marriages with absolutely no mechanism to resolve even the simplest conflict. These couples go through twenty plus years of married life sleeping back to back, huffing and puffing and pulling at the duvet thinking: “I won’t give in on this”, “It’s up to him/her to make the first move”, “I’m not going to be the one to lose face.”

Openness is crucial

We’ve all heard the reasons people give for separating. Often the causes can be summarised by phrases such as: “We just can’t live together” or “We don’t love each other anymore.” But Dianne and I can’t help feeling that behind those big, weighty, issues there are, in fact, hundreds of small areas of conflict that were never resolved and have been left to fester down the years.

Resolving conflict means letting the other person know that they’ve hurt us or that what they are doing is driving us bananas! It’s a misconception that we should always take hurt on the chin and never let anybody know about it. Reconciliation and forgiveness demand openness.

I remember so well, when the kids were young, asking Dianne a question: “Darling, if you could change anything about me, what would it be?” She didn’t even hesitate. “When you finish shaving, I would like you to wipe the stubble from the sink.” Then she added, “I don”t know how you do it, but you manage to get the shaving foam up the wall, above head height. I’d like you to wipe it off. And finally, instead of rolling the wet towel in a ball and throwing it in the bath, I’d be grateful if you would fold it and put it over the radiator.” “Is that it?” I said. She smiled. “Rob, it will do for starters!”

Don’t let things fester

It was a revelation to me. Then Di explained: “I’m a home-maker. That’s my job right now. And when you and the kids leave the place as if Hurricane Katrina had hit us, the message you give me is that the job I do doesn’t matter – and that hurts.”

You may be reading this and thinking, “I wish the only problem we had in our marriage was a bit of stubble around the sink!” Well, we’ve had bigger issues too, but we are convinced that the way to learn to resolve the serious areas of disagreement is to deal with the simple things that can irritate, dissatisfy or disappoint us. Conflicts like these love to remain unresolved and cluster together in our minds until frustration turns to dislike, and, perhaps, dislike, even to hate. We need to sort them out – now.

  • Don’t be too proud to be the first to ‘give in’.
  • Tell each other how you feel.
  • Winning isn’t everything – particularly if you’re the one who is always good with words – because the other person will still be bitter. Back off a little and hear what the other is saying.
  • “Resolve the flack before you hit the sack” – agree between you to try hard never to go to bed still feeling angry with each other.
Rob Parsons

About the author

Rob Parsons, OBE, is the founder and chairman of Care for the Family. He is a bestselling author of over 25 books including Loving Against The Odds, The Sixty Minute Marriage and The Heart of Communication.  

If you found this article helpful, you might like to try Rob’s book ‘Loving Against the Odds’ for only £7.99.

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