How to Resolve Conflict
About the Guest
Pastor Dave Wilson and his wife, Ann, talk with Dennis and Barbara Rainey about marital conflict. The Wilsons admit that they had a lot to learn about conflict when they got married. Ann's family background included loud fights, which was a far contrast from Dave, who learned at an early age not to rock the boat. Together they share what they've learned over the years about the finer points of conflict.
Pastor Dave Wilson and his wife, Ann, talk about marital conflict. The Wilsons admit that they had a lot to learn about conflict when they got married. Together they share what they’ve learned.
How to Resolve Conflict
Bob: Dave and Ann Wilson say one thing they were completely unprepared for when they got married was how to resolve conflict.
Ann: You know, we’d been married a few months; and we hit our first big fight. He gets up and walks out of the room!
Dave: And that’s what I did. I didn’t even process it—I just like: “You leave.” I’m walking out of the room, and I’m walking into the kitchen. She yells—
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, February 19th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. So how do you handle conflict in your marriage? Do you have a strategy?—do you have a plan?—or does it just turn into another battle/another skirmish? We’re going to talk about that today with Dave and Ann Wilson. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. Maybe this is not proper to admit on FamilyLife Today; but there are some couples, where I’ve thought to myself, “I’d like to be in their house and hear what happens when a fight happens in their house.” Have you ever had that thought?
Barbara: You’d like to experience it from across the room?
Bob: Yes; or from another room, where I’m not even in the same room; but I’d just like to hear what the dynamic is when they fight. There are some couples I just imagine—
Dennis: Have you had this thought often in your life? [Laughter]
Ann: I’m thinking, “Why?!” [Laughter]
Dennis: I’m just wondering how long you—[Laughter]
Bob: There are some couples, where I imagine it gets really silent when they’re fighting; and there are other couples, where I imagine it gets really loud when—
Barbara: —and they really go after it.
Bob: Yes; and—
Dennis: I’ve never had the thought of going to be there though.
Bob: —to just experience and see the dynamic?
Dennis: No; no. I have enough problem with my own conflict. [Laughter]
Bob: Guess what? Today, we’re going to give you a chance to be there. We’re going to vicariously go into Dave and Ann Wilson’s home and hear what it’s like when they fight. Don’t you think it’ll be fun?
Dennis: That’s right; I think it will be fun. I think our listeners need to know that Dave and Ann Wilson are the authors of a new book called Vertical Marriage. They are from Detroit, Michigan, where they give leadership to Kensington Church. They started back in 1990—a church of 14,000 people. They have three married sons and four grandchildren.
Bob: And there is something else, maybe, that our listeners ought to know about Dave and Ann Wilson.
Dennis: They are moving across the table/around the table from where I’m seated and where Barbara is to my left. They are going to be taking over the microphone of FamilyLife Today for me, and for Barbara, beginning the first of March.
Bob: And for listeners, who are going: “Wait! This is news to me,” and are starting to process that—you’re [Dennis] saying, “This is okay.”
Dennis: Well, it is okay. It started over 15 months ago when Barbara and I, at the request of the Board of Directors of FamilyLife®—which we agreed with—they asked us to step out of the seat of giving leadership to FamilyLife.
We passed that baton and responsibility to David and Meg Robbins. They’ve done a great job; and we [Dennis and Barbara] kept on—Bob, as you know—here on FamilyLife Today for another year after that—a little over a year, actually.
Now it’s time to find a new host who can relate to a younger generation. Dave and Ann Wilson are that couple. We’re excited about the job they’re going to do and how they’re going to take this broadcast forward.
Bob: And Barbara, for those, who are going: “No! Wait! I don’t want you guys not to be on the radio every day,” what do you say to them?
Barbara: Well, I want to say to them that change is necessary. I don’t like change. Do you like change? I don’t really like change a whole lot. [Laughter]
Dennis: I think some people like to create change. They may not like to experience it themselves though.
Barbara: Yes; some people do like to create change; but yes, I don’t always like change; but change is a necessary part of life and of growing. This is of God, and we’re excited about Dave and Ann being here.
Bob: And you guys [Dave and Ann] taking over—moving to the other side of the table and being in those chairs—
Dave: We are excited and humbled to fill the boots—I won’t say shoes, because Dennis probably wears boots—of Dennis and Barbara. I mean, really, it’s a humbling moment. This is a powerful, powerful ministry.
Dennis: Looky there, baby.
Dave: You have boots on!
Ann: You do have boots on! [Laughter]
Dave: I knew it!
Dennis: Frye boots on. [Laughter]
Ann: I think we’re—we love Barbara and Dennis—we love you guys. I’m sad, because there’s been an era of life transformation in drawing others to Jesus and giving hope and help for marriages. We’re humbled and kind of scared, too, because it’s hard to fill your spots. I don’t think there’s ever filling a spot, but we will do our best.
Barbara: I don’t think so.
Dennis: I don’t think that’s the mandate. I think you’ve got to be who God made you to be and use all those gifts and experiences you’ve had in leading a church to connect with this generation and see a lot of people come to faith in Christ.
Bob: You guys have spoken at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways for three decades now. One of the subjects we tackle there is the subject of conflict. I know, because we’ve talked about this, that you guys had two different approaches to conflict that you saw modeled for you when you were growing up. What was it like in the Wilson home when you were growing up?
Dave: Well, a lot of fights—alcohol involved. I remember, as a little boy—I mean, my parents were divorced when I was seven—so a lot of these memories were, you know, a very young age. He would come home drunk and be abusive and loud. I would run away with my sister to my bedroom.
Dennis: You remember the fights?
Dave: I can remember them.
There was a year—15/18 years ago, I did a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember in Parsippany, New Jersey, and realized it’s right near my home I grew up in—it was in New Jersey.
Long story short, I got a van and went over and found my house. I’m a grown man now; and I walked in, and I could remember fights all over that house. I could remember the feeling of fear and almost terror running away to a bedroom just to cover my ears and not hear the sort of carnage out there. That’s what I grew up with; and that didn’t go away until the divorce, which was horrible. I still wanted my dad even though it was a very sort of dark era of my life; but then my mom and I moved to where her parents lived in Ohio, and it got real quiet.
I didn’t know it then, but I knew it after Ann and I got married, I developed a perspective about conflict which was this: “It’s bad. Avoid it at all costs. It ends in divorce. It ends in ugly stuff.” So when conflict comes in your life, you just avoid it. So I get married, thinking that’s going to work in marriage. Well, guess what? I didn’t marry that—[Laughter]—I married a woman who embraced conflict.
Bob: A prize fighter; right? [Laughter]
Dennis: —who chased you around the ring trying to pick a fight; right?
Bob: You [Ann] don’t like conflict; but you grew up learning, if there’s conflict, you wrestle this baby to the ground.
Ann: Yes; my dad was big on conflict—in terms of resolving it, or battling it, or tackling it. I grew up with two brothers and a sister. He wouldn’t let us leave the table—if something happened, he made us talk about it. I don’t know if it was necessarily healthy in what we said, because it could get loud/it could get verbal. I don’t think there was any cursing, but I didn’t see it as negative. At the end of the day, he would say, “Are we all good?” and then he’d allow people to leave.
So Dave and I get married. We’d been married a few months, and we hit our first big fight. He gets up and walks out of the room!
Dave: And that’s what I did. I didn’t even process it—I just like: “You leave.”
I’m walking out of the room, and I’m walking into the kitchen—nobody’s at home at this point. We’re living with her family, at the time, because we were raising support to become missionaries. I’m walking into the kitchen, and she yells.
Ann: Oh, I was shocked. I’m like, “Where are you going?!” He just gives this look. I said, “Come back here and fight me like a man, you chicken!” [Laughter]
Dave: Oh, those words stung.
Ann: Please! No one ever say that. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; by the way, that’s the chapter title in our book: “Come Back Here and Fight Like a Man, You Chicken.” That’s, literally, the chapter title that introduces this whole thing about conflict in the book; because I’ll never forget those words. I turned around—she’s sitting on the couch—and I yell back—okay; remember this is 38 years ago—I yell back: “Oh yeah? Well, bleep you!”—
Ann: And we were very new in our faith.
Dave: —and I leave. I didn’t realize, until years later, what I’d done in that moment. I did exactly what I saw my dad do. Never even computed that I would have seen my dad yell and scream and curse, and there I am—
—I say, “Well, bleep you!” I turned and walked away because that’s what I do; right? She yells back at me: “Oh yeah? Well, bleep-bleep you!”
Ann: —which I had never done. I had never cursed, but I was so mad that he would say that to me.
Dave: And when she cursed back—double curse by the way—I was bad, but she was really bad.
Barbara: She one upped you.
Dave: I just went [gasp]. I literally went [gasp], because I was shocked that my wife would curse me. I’m out; I left—I went upstairs. I’m just going to leave this situation, because that’s what you do; right?
Ann: Everyone’s thinking, “These are the new hosts?” [Laughter]
Dennis: That’s what I was thinking. [Laughter] That’s what I was thinking—I was going: “I bring you this message from the host selection committee of FamilyLife Today. We have a question for you: ‘Do you curse each other out today?’” [Extended laughter]
Dave: Thirty-eight years ago—it’s never happened since.
Ann: It really hasn’t, actually.
Dave: It never has happened since. Again, I’m not saying were perfect; but yes, God has done a miracle in our life.
Here’s the amazing thing—when I walked upstairs, guess what my wife does? [Knocking] She follows me.
Barbara: She follows you; absolutely.
Dave: I am like—it’s the bedroom she grew up in. I went in there and shut the door. She kicks open the door—
Bob: Good prize fighter—you go to the corner and they come after you in the corner. They can pummel you to death over there. [Laughter]
Dennis: “Come out! You’re fighting like a chicken.”
Ann: I sat beside him and I put—I sat right beside him—
Dave: —on the bed.
Ann: Our thighs are touching. I put my hand on his leg, and I look at him—like, “We need to talk about this.”
Dave: And I was just so frozen. I was like: “What are you doing?! Get out of here!” It was—I look back now and it is like, “Okay; I had a belief about conflict.” I was showing it right there: “Conflict’s bad; you avoid it.”
I now have a belief about conflict—it’s in the book. Conflict is actually a good thing. I would say—probably better stated—it’s neutral; and how you handle it determines [how] it can be really—a really good thing in your marriage.
In fact, every marriage/every relationship has it. We all know how to have conflict—very few of us know how to resolve it. That’s why we wrote a whole section—it’s like: “Let’s help couples. If they go, vertically, with Christ—when you get the vertical marriage thing—how does that help them resolve conflict?” Because now I actually enjoy conflict. I don’t look for it; but when it happens, I am like, “Oh my gosh; if we do this well, we’re going to be closer at the end of this thing, not further apart.”
Dennis: I think one of the most important hours in the entire Weekend to Remember is the session on Saturday afternoon, right before the sex talk—it’s about resolving conflict.
Dave: Yes; yes.
Dennis: I think the reason is because most couples do not have the basics. They don’t have a vocabulary nor the training to know how to talk to each other and to discuss a disagreement and how we’ve hurt one another.
I want to ask both Bob and Barbara—first my wife, Barbara: “Do you remember your parents arguing? What was the model of arguing?”
I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you that question, just listening to you two [Dave and Ann] talk about it.
Ann: —which would be a great discussion to have with your spouse—
Dennis: It really would.
Ann: —“Tell me about…”
Barbara: Well, even for pre-married couples/—
Barbara: —engaged—as a part of getting ready for marriage. It’d be great to talk about that ahead of time.
Ann: And “What do you still carry into that?”
Ann: So go ahead, Barb.
Barbara: My family didn’t—there wasn’t much conflict resolution. There was conflict, I’m sure; but my parents were very guarded about what they expressed in front of us kids. They didn’t express a lot of emotion, or a lot of affection, or certainly not much anger. Now, there was a little bit toward the kids, occasionally, when we disobeyed or did something wrong; but as far as marital conflict, I never saw any.
Bob: I remember isolation. I remember seeing that my parents aren’t close. I remember seeing my dad come home. We’d have dinner, and then he’d go down to the basement to work. Mom would stay upstairs, and there was not connection; there was not affection.
You looked at them, and you didn’t see overt conflict; but you didn’t see a couple, where you thought, “These two are so in love with one another.” That’s not the memory that I have.
Later, in my teen years, I started to see some of the conflict come out. In fact, I started, in my teen years, to get drawn into some of the conflict between my mom and dad and to try to—
Dennis: —be a referee?
Bob: Yes; I was siding—actually, I was siding with my mom—not trying to be a referee. It was Mom and me piling up on Dad to try to address the issue that I saw in him. I was oblivious to the issues with her. I could just see his overt behavior. I didn’t see her covert behavior that was kind of going on behind the scenes with them.
Dennis: And I only remember my mom and dad having one argument.
Dennis: Yes; voices were raised. I remember, as a five-year-old boy, physically shaking for fear, thinking that my parents would get a divorce. There were no bleep words. There was just anger and disagreement—I have no idea what about.
I think today, as you think about how prevalent divorce is in our culture, kids have to be scared to death. There’s an African proverb that goes “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Your kids need to see you two resolve conflict. Now, you may not resolve all of it in front of them; but they need to see healthy engagement between two people, who occasionally do disagree or disappoint one another.
Now, we’ve just got a brief amount of time here. I want you guys to walk us through just the essence of the basics of how you go about resolving conflict between two selfish imperfect people who disappoint and hurt one another.
Bob: Yes; think about couples, who are listening, who are saying: “Okay; we’ve got conflict. We don’t necessarily do it well. It leads to hurt feelings. We don’t get things resolved, so we need some help because we want conflict to be something that builds our marriage rather than tears down our marriage.” What kind of advice would you give them?
Dave: Well, it’s interesting. There’s so much advice. I try to make it real simple—even in the book we just call it “The Seven S’s of Conflict Resolution.” One of them you start with—and they’re not in any order—but if you start here, you’re starting in a good place. First one is: “Shut up!”; in other words, “Listen.” Because we are selfish, we come into conflict thinking, “We’re right; they’re wrong, and we’re going to show them that,” and we don’t hear what they say.
So, honestly, a lot of times it’s like, “Oh my gosh; I’ve got to be selfless enough.” Again, this is where vertical comes in—if I go to God and say: “God, give me ears. Help me not just to be about me. I want my eyes to be focused on her/on him.” I’m going to listen. I’m going to let them talk. I’m not going to interrupt. I’m going to look at them—I’m going to put my phone away; I’m going to turn off the TV. All that good listening skill stuff I’m going to do, and I’m going to shut up.
I’m telling you what—I can say this right now, and it’s a whole another thing to do—because when she’s saying what she’s saying, I’m like trying to interrupt and say, “You’re wrong.” It’s like: “No; do not interrupt. Literally, look at her/look at him and say, ‘I want to know your heart.’”
Because here’s the thing—behind every story is a story; behind every feeling and comment she or he’s making, there’s something behind it. If you listen well, you’ll get to the heart of the issue; because often, it’s not the presenting problem. We all know that—it’s something behind that.
I remember—it’s a long story, but a short clip of that would be Ann and I got in a fight about her parking in a parking spot at our church by the front door—which there’s a rule at our church—if you are on staff or a member, you park in the worst parking spots and leave the best ones for unchurched people. She pulls into the parking spot by the front door of the church, while I’m standing out there before the service, and comes walking up—like “Hey, God gave me this parking spot.” I literally said: “God did not give you that parking spot! Move the car now. I’ve got to go preach.”
Anyway, I get home; and we’re in an instant fight, because she’s violated a core value of our church. I’m not saying every church should do this, but that was one of ours. We start into this fight. Cody, our youngest son—how old was he?—14?—
Dave: —is watching this fight. He says to me—he raised his hand in the middle of the fight—it was in the kitchen. He goes, “Hey, Dad, don’t you and mom travel around the country and teach couples how to resolve conflict?” I go, “Yes.” He goes, “Can you show me?” [Laughter] You said you have to show your kids—well, here it is—I go: “You just sit there, young man. You watch; I’ll show you.”
I was really upset that she violated a core principle of our church. She leaves the room. While she goes upstairs, I’m literally thinking, in my righteous anger, like: “You should leave the room. You know you’re wrong.” I sat there, and Cody’s there; and we both shook our heads—like, “Yes; Mom’s going to go up there and figure out she’s wrong and come back down.” She comes back down ten minutes later, and tell them what you said.
Ann: Well, I wish I could say I went up there and prayed and asked Jesus to help me; but I really just kind of built up ammunition of what he had done wrong and what I had done right. I kind of blasted him with: “I do everything around here while you’re off at Kensington.” I had a big long list, and I felt good about it. Then Dave came back.
Dave: Well, she went off. She’s being very nice right now but just walks through her life as I’m doing my thing.
Bob: The machine gun just rattled.
Dave: Yes. [Machine gun sound] Yes; and it was good stuff too. [Laughter] I tell you—Cody was sitting at the end of the kitchen table, and he looked at me. It was one of those man-to-man looks. We didn’t say a word; but the look was “Dad, you’re toast.” [Laughter] I looked at him like “Yes; I am,”—you know?
But anyway, when she got done, I asked one question—and here, I’ll set up the question this way. When she went upstairs—first of all, I’m like, “You should be upstairs,” but she was up there like 15 minutes. I did a really important thing to do in conflict, and it’s really hard to do. You know what it was?—I prayed. While she was upstairs, I prayed. It wasn’t “God, I want to be right and want to prove her wrong.”
Ann: I didn’t pray. I didn’t pray, you guys. [Laughter] I want you to know.
Dave: She’s up there; but I prayed a simple prayer—not out loud—just sitting there. I just said: “God, I’m missing something. I’m obviously missing something. Help me to see what I’m missing!”
Dennis: That’s a good prayer.
Dave: She comes down; does her little [Machine gun sound] deal; right? All I said was: “Let me ask you something. Do you feel like Kensington”—that’s our church—“is more important to me than you are?” She didn’t even answer—she just shook her head, “Yes.”
I’m like, “There it is.” I’d been missing that whole thing. I think it was about a parking spot—it was all about her feeling cherished, and loved, and priority. I missed all that; because I wasn’t willing to shut up, let her speak, lean in—really try to say, “There’s a story behind the story; what is it?” There it was. I was like: “Oh my gosh; we’re back to the ten-year anniversary.” It’s like, again, she’s second and everything else in my life is first. It was one of those moments where the conflict now could be engaged in and get to resolution because, now, we knew what it was. It wasn’t a parking spot—by the way, she’s never parking there again—but it wasn’t a parking spot.
Ann: —that he knows of. [Laughter]
I think the thing that I love about that story—and I think this is just—if you could just do this one point in conflict, of go to God first; because let’s all be honest—
—we don’t want to go to God first—
Ann: —because we want to make our point. And God doesn’t always want to make the same point that we want to make, so I think that’s a good one: “Go to God first.”
Dave: Yes; and I know, because of time, we’re not going to walk through “Seven S’s of Conflict Resolution.” Get the book; read them.
But it’s interesting—as you look through—and here they are—like: “Shut up,” “Soft Answer”—which, again, I didn’t really realize it in the moment. I responded gently rather than escalate. When you escalate, they escalate. When somebody’s escalating and you de-escalate, they can’t escalate. If they do, they’re just crazy—it’s like, “Oh,
Proverbs 15: ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath.’” I asked her gently, “Do you feel like Kensington’s more…?”
Boom; that led us to “Okay; what’s the truth here?” We call it “Seek Truth” or “Receive the Truth.” Then there’s this whole big deal—and it’s a whole long discussion—is “Seek Forgiveness” or “Grant Forgiveness.” These are these principles.
But Ann just said, and I think it’s the most important one—the seventh principle is really number one and we just say it this way: “Surrender,”—
—not to your spouse; to Jesus—you go vertical. When you surrender—again, you can’t control them, surrendering; because every couple probably listening right now, going, “Well, my husband won’t…” or “My wife…”—forget them—just you surrender your heart, to say: “Jesus, I’m going vertical. I’m going to do what You want me to do. I’m going to leave my spouse to You. God, soften my heart.” God can do a miracle, and he’ll get you to resolution.
Dennis: I’ve got to read this verse. I read it on every broadcast when we talk about conflict—Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,”—how?—“as God, in Christ, forgave you.” The Bible tells us that, when we were enemies, God loved us and sent His son to die for us. That’s the grace of God that’s being poured out. And frankly, you got a conflict with God that’s bigger than your conflict with your spouse that you need to resolve.
Some, who are listening to this broadcast, don’t have a relationship with God. You don’t know the grace of God/the forgiveness of God. You don’t know that you have been declared “Not guilty,” because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross and the empty tomb. Forgiving one another just as God, in Christ, forgave you—it’s the greatest news that has ever been declared. Don’t let your head rest on the pillow tonight without settling the score with God—declaring your guiltiness, your unworthiness, and yielding and receiving the forgiveness of Almighty God once and for all. He did it; you can’t do it—you can’t pay for your sins with God. Only He can pay the penalty now.
Bob: Yes; we’ve gotten some great coaching today on the subject of conflict resolution.
Some of our listeners probably need to go one level deeper on this subject. I’d encourage them to get a copy of your new book, Vertical Marriage, which we are making available this week to those of you who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. FamilyLife Today is a listener-supported ministry. We’re here providing practical biblical help and hope today because listeners, in the past, have said: “This kind of content really matters,” and “We want to make it available, not only for ourselves, but for our friends, and neighbors, our city/our community.
If you can help join that team—the team that makes FamilyLife Today accessible for so many all around the world—we’d love to say, “Thank you,” by sending you Vertical Marriage by Dave and Ann Wilson. You can make your donation, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to donate:1-800-358-6329—
—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about our pre-marriage past and particularly we want to talk about how promiscuity and sexual intimacy outside of marriage affects the marriage relationship/the marriage bed once you’re married. Dave and Ann Wilson join us tomorrow to talk about that. I hope you can be with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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