David and Meg Robbins: How to Handle Conflict without Tearing Your Hair Out
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David and Meg RobbinsAs 17-year veterans of Cru, David and Meg Robbins have served in a variety of capacities, beginning as ﬁeld staff at their Alma Mater, the University of Mississippi. In 2003, they moved to Pisa, Italy, to serve as overseas team leaders for Cru. It was during that time they fell in love with ﬁnding ways to relate and communicate with a secular, pluralistic culture. They trained to serve overseas long-term until God surprisingly led them back to the U.S.
Anger with your spouse can be real! FamilyLife President David Robbins & wife Meg describe their power source and strategies on how to deal with conflict.
David and Meg Robbins: How to Handle Conflict without Tearing Your Hair Out
Dave: So if there’s a message that I love giving at the Weekend to Remember®, it is which one?
Ann: The gospel—
Dave: If there’s—
Ann: The gospel/Holy Spirit! Ding, ding, ding, ding! [Laughter] Is that it?
Dave: Yes. That’s no fun, though; you got it right on the first guess!
Ann: Yes; well, we’ve been married a long time.
Dave: I mean, we’ve been—
Ann: And we’ve been speaking at that conference for a long time.
Dave: —30-plus years.
Dave: And I say it every time, wherever we are: “The whole weekend is built around this one talk. If we don’t understand this when we leave this conference, this conference will not sustain your marriage.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
If you have a married couple in front of you—they’re newly married—
Dave: I have one right now! They’re sitting in the studio. [Laughter]
Ann: But if/like you would say that’s what you’re going to talk to them about: “The power of the Holy Spirit in your marriage.”
Dave: No question! You can talk about all the great marriage tools [for]—conflict, intimacy, roles—you name it! We all know this: if you walk out of there, without the power of the Holy Spirit working in your life, none of it matters.
Ann: As a listener, you should be leaning in, thinking, “Wow! Of all these things you’ve been teaching for 33 years,”—because we’re old—“this is it?” [Laughter]
Dave: Did you have to throw in there that we’re old? [Laughter]
Ann: Yes; we are. We’ve been doing it a long time. But think about that.
Dave: Well, we’ve got a young couple in the studio with us today. [Laughter]
Ann: You guys are so young.
David: Wow, you’re making me feel good today.
Ann: And you’re cool too. [Laughter]
Dave: You probably already recognize their voices: David and Meg Robbins are back, the president of FamilyLife.
How many years—21 years—been married?
Dave: So as you’re listening to us talk about the power of the Holy Spirit—and I know, you’re speaking at the Weekend to Remembers, and that’s one of the talks of the weekend—is that your most favorite and most important?
David: I think it’s our favorite because of 24 years being together—4 of those dating; 20 of those married—and constantly coming to the end of ourselves. It’s: to a young couple, the most important thing; to a couple, 20 years in, it’s the most important thing.
Ann: —and 40 years in, the most important thing.
David: Yes! I mean, you know, God, in His kindness, says in John 16—you know Jesus is the One who said it while He was on this earth—He said, “It is good for Me to go away, because I’m going to send to you a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who’s going to show you things that you’re currently not ready to hear.”
Ann: You guys, I always think about that! Think about Jesus, walking with His disciples, and He says, “It’s better that I go.” I’d be thinking, “No, it’s not!” [Laughter]
Meg: “Don’t leave!”; right.
Ann: And even for our marriage—it’s like, “No, Jesus, I need You right here in the midst of everything,”—and He says, “No, because the Holy Spirit...” And yet, we don’t tap into that power source.
David: Right; exactly. I mean, He is the One: He promises He will help us follow wherever God is leading us to go; He will move us to go that direction. He will let us see sin in our lives. I don’t know about you, but it’s not very helpful if I’m always just pointing the finger at Meg’s sin.
Ann: Yes. [Laughter]
David: I need to see my own sin first: the log in my eye.
Dave: I thought our spouse—that was their role—[Laughter]—to help us see our sin.
David: Right; is that working for you, Dave?
Dave: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
David: You know, He helps us forgive sin in others, especially our spouse. And the Holy Spirit helps us do the right thing in the right way; I mean, it’s obedience. And a lot of times, we experience fruit when we step into the things He’s leading us into.
Dave: And don’t you feel like, when you’re standing on that podium, at the Weekend to Remember, teaching this truth—don’t you feel like the couples are looking at you—and they’re like: “Yes, this is good; but can you get back to how I resolve conflict?” or “…how I…” And you just know: if they do not appropriate the power and understanding of the Holy Spirit, they actually have no chance of transformation. They can wish it; it might work for a week.
Dave: But it won’t last!
Meg: So true.
Meg: Right! It’s so true; because as much as I would love to think that I’m growing, and sin is getting less in my life, I’m still human, still living on earth. I still have sin. You know, I’m still going to struggle and do the things that I don’t want to do. Paul talks about that; you know? In marriage, I think that’s where we experience our desperate need for the Holy Spirit the most; because unfortunately, the people that I love the most, and spend the most time with, see that ugly side of me come out.
I know that God tells us:
- “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth”; but I don’t always want to speak kindly! Sometimes, my anger is taking over, and I’m saying things that I wish I didn’t say.
- Or “Do not repay evil for evil; but on the contrary, bless.” I’m not always doing that; let’s be honest. I mean, there are many times, where David is like, “Oh, yes! I’ll be home! Let’s try to all eat dinner together before our daughter heads off to volleyball. I’ll be there at six.”
David: This isn’t going to a good place, guys. [Laughter] This is real! This is real; I just want to say that.
Meg: This is real! This may have happened recently.
David: Yes, “may.”
You know, he gets out the door a lot later than he plans to, and he comes in late. I’m tempted to feel like, “Okay, have fun cleaning up and getting everybody to bed. I did my part, and I did overtime; you’re in charge now!” And I’m seething and frustrated.
Ann: Because you want to pay back in your flesh.
Meg: Yes!—because my desire is: “Now, it’s your turn to feel what I felt.”
David: And I’m just going, “But aren’t you glad you’re married to an optimist?” [Laughter] You know, like, “I’m always so optimistic!—
Meg: He’s like, “I’ll be there on time.”
David: —"about how things are coming together and how quickly I’ll get out the door; isn’t that a great thing?”
Meg: He does.
Dave: I don’t think she’s feeling it.
David: No, not so much.
Meg: Yes; right?
Meg: And it’s not that, when we talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s not that it excuses and does away with [responsibility].
Meg: Certainly, there’s still conflict there that we need to talk out; but in that moment: “How am I going to respond?”
Dave: So what did you do?—because it sounds like this was pretty recent.
Meg: Yes, this was really recent.
David: —recent and frequent; you know? But go ahead.
Meg: I’m sure, when he first got home, there were probably some ugly looks and some passive-aggressive comments.
Ann: Did you give him the stink eye? [Laughter]
Dave: —the stink eye.
Meg: But you know, quickly and certainly, I know the Lord is trying to convict me. My pride is taking over, and I don’t want to yield in that moment. I am like, “No; I worked really hard to cook this dinner, and he did not get here when he said he would.” You know, I’m playing all this, internally, in my head.
And at some point, confession—it definitely took longer than it should have; I could have responded to the Holy Spirit sooner, for sure—and there would have been [fewer] ugly words flying, probably. But at some point, I just had to say, “Okay” to the Lord. “I am now in sin also; my response here is ugly!”
David: What’s interesting about this most recent scenario, too, is that I actually wasn’t picking up on it. She was seething in some healthy ways. [Laughter] You really weren’t in an unhealthy—
Meg: I thought my daggers from my looks were getting there; but they weren’t, obviously.
David: But I’m like, “There were reasons that I had to stay late that were out of my control.” I didn’t communicate well—I was just: “Whoo! I made it home! Let’s go, guys!”—you know, “How do I become Disney-Dad and make all this better?”—probably overcompensating, but I wasn’t meeting her.
I think—you know, you said, “How do you actually enter into the space?”—not ignore it; not just, “Holy Spirit, empower me; I’ll flush it away.” We actually had to look each other in the eyes and discuss it. I had to hold space of why she was hurt.
The Holy Spirit empowers me to actually hold that space and not fix. I’m so prone to—like: “Alright, I’m going to do this next time…” “Yes, you’re right!”—ultimately, I just needed for her to be heard. I think the Holy Spirit, on this most recent one, was just—as she was sharing her heart, and I was clueless to it—was, “David, listen to her. Make sure you feel what she’s feeling. Do you understand?—not just, ‘Are you going to get home on time next time to make this better and work for you?’—‘Do you understand what she’s experiencing and feeling?’” That was the Holy Spirit’s prompting in me—that didn’t make it perfectly right quickly—but it was how He was wanting me to respond.
Ann: You guys, this is the best-case scenario; because you’re both yielding to the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you.
Let’s take it to a different scenario. Let’s say, Meg, you’re still angry—David’s not home—but David, you’re not really walking with Jesus.
Ann: So when you start sensing Meg’s—
Dave: I’m glad you picked him and not me; [Laugher] go ahead.
Ann: —Meg’s tension, you respond with, “What’s your problem? You know, I’m bringing home money; I’m providing for our family. You need to relax!” That’s a trigger word for me, when Dave tells me to relax.
Meg: —“relax”; yes!
Ann: Yes, because I get—
David: Maybe we can make it about you. We can switch to Dave. [Laughter]
Dave: It’ll end up here somehow.
Ann: But how, in that circumstance—you have one partner: she’s wanting to live empowered by the Spirit—but man, you get so triggered when your spouse is responding in a negative way.
Meg: The most recent example that I’m thinking of is more with one of our kids. They know how to push our buttons, for sure!
You know, I’ll snap back and say something—and I’ve totally lowered myself to their level of maturity, you know, in the moment—and say something that’s totally out of line and not wise parenting; you know? Yes, it happens; I go there, and then I am living out of the sin in my heart. Hopefully, in that scenario—I said something, and it was hurtful—finally, I realized, “Okay, we need to stop talking about this right now.”
I think, actually, you [David] probably came; you were like, “Hey, you guys need some space.” [Laughter] This child/kid: “Go to your room.”
David: I mean, there is a reality that, when the flooding is happening,—for us, whether it’s in a marriage conflict and tension/whether it’s in between a mom and a kid or a dad and a kid—the flooding happens. In the moment of flooding, you’re really not going to be able to get to the heart of it. You can’t let it linger for too long, or it can just get pushed under the rug—and build tension and explode the next time—but it is healthy to go, “Alright, let’s get to the side. Let’s have a space for our hearts to soften and the flooding to go down so that we can actually hear and respond appropriately.”
Meg: Yes; I mean, it’s hard for me to hear the Holy Spirit when my emotions are so high.
Meg: And I am set in my ways, thinking, “I’m right!”—my pride is taking over. But when I can remove myself, then I can take a minute: “Okay, Lord, I do hear You. You’re right.”
Sometimes, it takes me a while to get to the point, where I can say, “I was wrong.” Even as a parent, it’s more tempting to hold onto my right, because I am the parent! I mean, obviously, if I’ve said something hurtful or wrong, then I need to go back: that’s not okay. But sometimes, even my tone, I can justify wrongly—you know, that’s also wrong—and I have to admit that and confess that, like we were talking about.
Ann: This happened to me yesterday—
Ann: —with an adult son—where I’m texting, “I’m getting my hair cut.” He’s texting, and he’s mad at me for something. He’s going on, and I feel totally justified in my response—this is awful! [Laughter]—I start texting him the fruit of the Spirit on my phone: [Laughter] “Well, you sure aren’t showing love, joy, peace, patience…” I had it in my phone, and I was about to hit “send.”
Dave: Oh, you didn’t send it?
Ann: No, because—thank goodness!—I mean, this guy’s 30 years old, and I’m going to send him the fruit of the Spirit through a text on the phone?! [Laughter]
I just thought—it’s that taking a moment to pull back—that’s where I/you guys, I’m such a reactor, that I just want to: “Oh, I’m going to show you!”—and I’m texting away or talking away.
Dave: Well, that’s why a trigger word is “relax”; because I’m not sort of wired that way. [Laughter] I should have more of that, but I’m pretty laid back. When she’s getting all amped up—and I didn’t know it, you know, decades ago—but I would just go: “Honey, just relax!” She would blow up! [Laughter] “If you ever tell me to relax again, I’m going to…” I’m like, “Oh, my goodness!” Why is that such a trigger?
Ann: I think because I want to do something about it; you know, I want to do it now. I’m so prone to fearing that we’ll never deal with it, because you tend to pull away from conflict; so I’ll jump in, headfirst.
Even with that son, though, it’s been—I love one of the fruit of the Spirit: self-control—so instead of pushing “Send”—pull away; take a breath—it’s the spiritual breathing. Part of that is acknowledging: “Lord, I am so mad right now.” Actually, my anger comes from my hurt and rejection. Just taking a moment to do that, and [say]: “Lord, show me what I’m missing,” and “Jesus, fill me with Your Spirit; give me knowledge.” I love the fruit of the Spirit—because if we’re living by that—we’re going to look at ourselves instead of pointing our finger, as I was doing.
Dave: And here’s a question that comes to my mind right now: “What if your spouse”—or your son or daughter, or your coworker, or friend—"doesn’t change? They never, even an hour later—and they’re a follower of Christ—but they never get to a point, where they apologize?—or they just never get this attitude under control, so it really is never going to get there. How do you, under the power of the Holy Spirit, allow yourself to be like, ‘Okay, their behavior is not going to change me being filled with the Spirit’?”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David and Meg Robbins on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear David’s answer in just a minute.
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Alright; now, back to the conversation: “How do you respond if your spouse is not walking in the power of God’s Spirit and you don’t see, really, any change in their life?” Here’s David Robbins.
David: There’s the micro-mundane every day that happens—and that’s, you know, the first situations we were in—and there are also the bigger deeper-rooted issues in our lives.
What I would first want us all [to hear]—and I think we all agree on is—“never change”: well, there’s nothing outside of God’s power to redeem and restore. However, when we know there are issues—that we go: “This is a long-haul journey,” “This is a trust breech that was huge,”—“How do I respond in the power of the Holy Spirit, even though this is a long-road journey and an issue in this person’s life?”—or the stubbornness in someone’s life.
A lot of rubber meets the road, and a lot of marriages get into a really helpless place at this point; but Jesus is there for us. I think one of the things, for me—Ann, I agree with you and relate with you when it comes to—I’m an activator; I’m a reactor: “Let’s go get after it! Let’s fix it”; you know?
David: I’m not sufficiently good, wise, or gifted enough to make this thing work. It is God who has to enter in. “How do I wait and respond to Him?”—we’ve been talking this whole time about how we respond in a micro-moment—“On the big, macro-moments, how do we respond?”
First and foremost, in order for us to keep living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and pursuing those relationships that matter most to us—even though there may be issues that, I mean, are “stuck” issues—we have to turn our eyes to the Lord, and our hearts to the Lord, and have spiritual ears to hear: “God, how do You want me to respond?” It is a big question when we can’t fix it right away; and God has to enter in, in a fresh way. I just go, “I am so often wanting to fix something in my flesh.” And God wants to say, “I’m going to move in My own time. Trust Me; walk with Me.”
There’s this story that, for me, makes it hit home so bluntly for how much I depend upon my flesh. It was the story of a family that took a vacation in Galveston, Texas—pretty beach—but there are barges nearby; cargo ships. It’s an interesting beach, but people vacation there. I did a wedding there; that’s what I was doing there.
Dave: I know the song—
David: There you go! Okay.
Dave: —[Singing] “Galveston, oh, Galveston!” [Laughter]
David: There you go! Bring your guitar.
There was a family vacation there, and this so-ugly-that-it’s-cute little dog comes running up to it. The kids play with it, and you know what’s coming—long story short—they clean it up. It’s still an ugly dog; but at least, they groomed it. They petted it; they feed it, and it sticks around. The kids win; the dog comes home with the family.
They’re at home now, and they have this new dog; and they leave it for the first time in their house. They set it away and get it all propped up in their home safely. Well, they come back, and they come home to their longtime family cat deceased—but better word would be “destroyed”—there’s no doubt who the culprit is. This new so-ugly-that-it’s-cute little dog has blood all over its face. They pick it up; rush to the vet. Giving the dog to the vet: “Does it have rabies? What’s going on here?”
The vet takes it; comes back out, empty-handed, and says, “Well, we know the problem. What you have here is no dog. What you have here is an African rat. There’s a species of African rats that come from the boats in Galveston; they can grow up to 15- to 18-pounds. You fed it; it stuck around, but a rat will always be a rat/will always be a rat.”
In the same way, our flesh will always be our flesh/will always be our flesh.” You can groom it; you can have it in church every week; you can keep it away from every temptation you could possibly do, but eventually, your flesh is going to pop up. If you try to perfect yourself—if you try to respond and go, “Alright, I’m going to buckle down. I’m going to try to respond to this situation with all the peace and patience I can do, in my own energy,”—it’s going to run dry.
Some people are really disciplined and are committed—can stick it out for a long time—but eventually, your flesh is going to show its true colors. You will respond with fits of rage, and anger, and jealousy, and envy.
Meg: That’s right.
David: And that’s why we have to depend upon the Holy Spirit and the new resources He puts in us.
Dave: So now, I can call my flesh: “the rat.” [Laughter]
Meg: —the rat.
Ann: That was nuts. “Dirty rat!”
Dave: I mean—
David: “Stop grooming the rat!”
Dave: —I mean, it’s so true, though. I can remember sitting on a park bench with Ann. I’ve shared this before—so the short story is—we got in a fight at a park, on this bench, on a beautiful sunny day in the summer in Michigan. It was just like this beautiful setting, people walking by; and now, we’re in a fight! You can’t really get in a fight—because there are people—you’re in public.
I remember being so angry, like, “She’s wrong! I’m right!” And again, we’re saying this in firm comments; but you know, we’re sort of smiling. [Laughter] We should have gone somewhere.
Ann: I wasn’t smiling; I was wiping tears off my face.
Dave: Do you remember this moment?—yes, she was so hurt. I remember, in that moment, feeling like the Holy Spirit, who lives right in our soul, if you’re a follower of Christ—He can move and convict and soften your heart—He was trying to soften my heart. He was just so clear; it was like: “She’s hurting. What you’ve said has hurt her even more. All you care about is you. You need to care about her pain.”
I was so mad, I was like, “I don’t care! I’m going to…”—it was one of these battles! You talk about a rat, or our flesh, it was like, “I know all that’s true, but I still do not want to submit to God softening my heart.” It was a war, just sitting there! I’ll tell you what—I did; it was hard—and I remember going, “Okay, God! Would You soften my heart?—because I just don’t have the power to do it.” It was almost like I threw my hands up: “White flag! Okay, do what I can’t do.” And it was like this flood of tenderness just hit me.
Ann: I was amazed. I mean, it really was putting into action: “A gentle answer turns away wrath”; because you were soft; you were gentle, and I responded to that. It totally took our level of anger and frustration, and it took it all the way down.
Dave: Yes; and again, it’s a moment that I look back on—it was decades ago—that you go, “You know, God does still do the impossible.”
Dave: And you’ve got to let Him do it. He’s not going to override your will; but if you get to the point, where you say, “Okay, God, I can’t do this! Would you do it?” Even in your marriage, like, “I can’t see us making it a week,” or “…a month,”
Ann: “I can’t see us making it, period.”
Dave: Yes; throw up your hands, and say, “God, I don’t have in me what it takes to make this marriage work!” He’ll say, “Okay, now you’re where I need you”; you know?
Dave: What’s your famous quote?—“If dependency is the goal—
David: Yes; I don’t know if it’s my original, but it’s one that I love and repeat often!
Dave: I always say, “David Robbins said this.”
David: “If dependency on God is the goal, then weakness is actually an advantage; because His power is made perfect in our weakness.”
Dave: Yes; and so when we’re so weak, I think He’s like, “Okay, now you’re in a place where I can actually do what I want to do. I’ll fill you to overflowing.”
David: You know, as you guys were talking about the park bench, it made me think, Meg, back to a Weekend to Remember we went to and got to be participants in. You know, it was something that, when we were there, I brought something to you on a Saturday afternoon that the Lord was softening my heart to.
I didn’t go into the weekend, even thinking about it, or knowing it was something I was kind of withholding from you; but I remember God softening my heart, and me offering up the gift of: “Hey, here’s some insecurities I have that I want to bring to you, and I want to invite you in on.” The way you moved toward me in that space, that became kind of part of our story together.
That’s the great thing about Weekends to Remember: they create that space for the Holy Spirit to speak. You know, a lot of times—and we’ve been experiencing this—like we’re just going through the grind, and week after week is just flooding into the next thing—and we don’t have that space to look each other in the eyes and make room for God to move.
Dave: Yes, when you pull away, and say, “I’m going to put energy into the relationships that matter most,”—and our marriage is the most, second to Christ—something almost magical happens. You know, you walk in there Friday night, and you’re like, “Oh,”—you know, you’re tired. But by Sunday morning—isn’t it?—[looking to Ann]. I’ve seen it; we’ve done it for 30-plus years: almost every conference, we’ve been a part of, little and big miracles take place.
And here’s the thing—right?—right now, we have a two-for-one offer. Is that true?
David: Yes; right now, people can actually get half-off. They can get half-off for themselves. People can buy gift cards—and if you know someone who could use a getaway—then you can get half-off for them, and give it as a gift. But this is a unique opportunity. We only do this twice a year, where you can get half-off your registration for a Weekend to Remember.
Dave: So jump on it now.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with the president of FamilyLife, David Robbins and his wife Meg on FamilyLife Today.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will be joined by Karl Clauson. He tells his story of how God saved him from addiction and restored his relationship with his wife. It wasn’t through the power of self-help, but through the power of God’s grace. That’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time
for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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