I remember our first argument after my husband deployed. It was bound to happen; we’d been together for almost four years… occasionally, we have a tiff. But a tiff feels infinitely more manageable face to face in the living room of our cozy home rather than over the phone from a distance of thousands of miles and several time zones. I think I was even driving when it happened.
As a counselor, I see a lot of clients who have trouble with conflict, particularly in their intimate relationships. I used to think I was good at conflict; until I had to start learning how to navigate transatlantic conflict. Suddenly, I felt as inept as my most clueless clients. Thankfully, the Lord is faithful, and is my perfect Counselor, consistently growing me in to a more honoring wife.
One of the most convicting things I’m learning how to practice is the eliminating of what relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: Criticism (a more global character assassination than a specific complaint), Contempt (the mean cousin of sarcasm), Defensiveness and Stonewalling (pretty straightforward). If marital conflict is consistently made up of these bad habits, the marriage is on a slow road to failure. Fortunately for me, I don’t see all of these horsemen in our marriage. I do, however, feel like I struggle with Defensiveness. For whatever reason, when conflict begins, I feel the need to defend myself; each complaint is a personal attack. I find that this distracts from the actual point of conflict, which is resolution. Getting defensive brings in an unnecessary level of emotionality, which then seems to send the conflict spiraling into other directions.
I’m also a big fan of the apology .A sincere apology can go a long way to extinguishing conflict. There’s a reason we teach our children to “say you’re sorry” as soon as they can speak. That said, something else I’ve learned is that tone matters. If someone says, “I’m sorry I hurt you” in a bored tone with a sense of obvious obligation, it grates. It hurts more. It doesn’t say, “I love you more than myself, and that’s why I’m sorry I hurt you.” It says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but since you won’t drop this until I apologize, I’m sorry.” Our wedding vows were a sort of re-write of Philippians 2:1-4, which says, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” On our wedding day, we committed to humbly treating each other as more important than ourselves, to loving each other as selflessly and sacrificially as Christ loves us. That means that when we do or say something to hurt each other, an apology should come naturally and willingly, because it is a truly awful thing to hurt the one you love.
Finally, I’m learning how to forgive the way Christ forgives me: unconditionally and completely. He sets our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NIV), and demonstrates the same mercy to us that He did to the Israelites when he promised to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Who am I to offer any less to the man to whom I’ve given my heart?
Deployments have the ability to suck the energy out of a vital marriage, and conflicts seem far worse than they would within the ease of a face-to-face relationship. So working through conflict during a deployment demands higher levels of patience, humility, mercy and sincere apologies than one might expect.
There’s nothing else to say… just, “I’m sorry, my love”.