Summary: Biblical advice on how to handle marital disagreements.

I have a question for you: What in this world does more damage to people than anything else? Drugs? War? Disease? I think the answer is…our words. We all remember the childhood saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” But that’s not true. Words do hurt; they hurt us emotionally. And unkind words can destroy relationships.

Listen to James 3:5-6: “The tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is full of wickedness that can ruin your whole life” (NLT). [Light match] James says that the tongue is small but can be terribly destructive. It’s like this match. This little match potentially could burn down this building. And your little tongue could potentially ruin a relationship—a relationship with a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, a family member, or even a spouse.


Title: How to Have a Good Fight

Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It’s a fact of life that couples argue—even couples that are deeply in love. Some of the favorite topics are finances, sex, and in-laws. Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott write in their book, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, “Knowing how to fight fair is critical to your survival as a happy couple. Love itself is not enough to sustain a relationship in the jungle of modern life. Being in love is, in fact, a very poor indicator of which couples will stay married. Far more important to the survival of a marriage, research shows, is how well couples handle disagreements” (p. 113).

Text: Ephesians 5:25-32 [Ask the congregation to look for statements in the passage that can help us better handle our disagreements with others.]

“Rules of Male-Female Relationships” (obviously written by a male):

1. The Female always makes the Rules.

2. The Rules are subject to change at any time without prior notification.

3. No Male can possibly know all the Rules.

4. If the Female suspects the Male knows all the Rules, she must immediately change some or all of the Rules.

5. The Female is never wrong.

6. If the Female is wrong, it is because of a flagrant misunderstanding, which was a direct result of something the Male did or said wrong.

7. If Rule 6 applies, the Male must apologize immediately for causing the misunderstanding.

8. The Female can change her mind at any given point in time.

9. The Male must never change his mind without express written consent from the Female.

10. The Female has every right to be angry or upset at any time.

11. The Male must retain calm at all times, unless the Female wants him to be angry or upset.

12. The Female must under no circumstances let the Male know whether or not she wants him to be angry or upset.

13. Any attempt to document these Rules could result in bodily harm to the Male.

We can sometimes find humor in our disagreements, but marital conflict is a very serious matter.

There are three ways of responding to disagreements:



Scott Stanley is part of a research team at the University of Denver that has identified factors that accurately predict whether a marriage will survive or fail. What he looks for is not whether a couple argues, but how the couple argues. Two factors are especially dangerous. The first is escalation. Escalation occurs when a person says something negative and his or her spouse responds in kind, with an even harsher statement. This leads to an argument that spirals to greater levels of anger and frustration. In some ways, this is very natural for us. Whenever we’re criticized, our first impulse is to defend ourselves by turning the tables on the one attacking us. We lash back, and our words can be harsh. It’s especially dangerous when one of the partners says something like, “If that’s the way you feel, maybe I should just move out.” The other might respond with: “Don’t let me stand in your way!”

Stanley refers to one couple he counseled who began discussing household chores, but in no time they were threatening divorce. He said, “They made the mistake of threatening their very commitment to the relationship—a very common and very destructive battle strategy. No matter how angry you become or how much pain you’re feeling, it’s never appropriate to punish your mate by threatening divorce. Rather than helping your spouse see things your way, it only causes him or her to question your commitment to the relationship.”

The second deadly factor in a marriage, according to Dr. Stanley, is invalidation. In simplest terms, this means putting each other down, calling one another names, or making personal comments or insults about the other. It includes ridiculing one another and being sarcastic. You invalidate the other person. You belittle them and attack their self-worth. This is no way to deal with conflict; it only hurts the marriage and the mate (Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook, 2003 Edition, p. 257).

Instead of clamming up and blowing up, I’d like to recommend a third response to problems in your marriage:


Biblical and practical advice for handling disagreements:

1. Don’t let problems SIMMER.

Be mature enough to sit down and talk through things openly, with a minimum of excess emotion.

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Eph. 4:25).

We are commanded to “speak truthfully” to each other. It’s harder on the front end to deal with problems directly, but it’s much easier in the long run.

2. Choose your battles WISELY.

You’ve probably seen on plaques and posters the prayer that says, “Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s over-familiar, but it’s true: One of the major tasks of marriage is learning what can and should be changed (habits of nagging, for example) and what should be overlooked (the way a spouse squeezes the toothpaste tube).

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in everything, charity.”—Augustine

Probably ninety percent of the issues that couples bicker about can probably be overlooked. So before you gripe about the way your partner made the bed or cleared the table, ask yourself if it’s worth it.

3. Remember that you don’t have to say everything you THINK.

The average person speaks 18,000 words a day, and the Bible warns, “When words are many, sin is not absent” (Pr. 10:19). Someone has said, “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” There are some things that are better left unsaid.

4. Define the ISSUE clearly.

When you feel the tension rising, ask each other to define clearly what the fight is about until both of you understand the issue. Marital battles become habitual if the source of the conflict is not identified, but once couples define the issue, they can be more up front about what is really bugging them. And once the conflict is clearly defined, it often takes care of itself.

To identify the real source of a conflict, you must address the questions “What are we really arguing about?” and “What is the real source of our disagreement?” When couples do not address or cannot answer these questions, the quarrel is often displaced to another topic (“And another thing: Why do you always…?). So before you fight, be sure you know what you are fighting about.

5. State your FEELINGS directly.

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott write,

We often teach couples the “X, Y, Z” formula to help them state their feelings. Think of this approach as a kind of game in which you fill in the blanks with your particular gripe in mind: “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z.” For example, “When you are on the road (X), and you don’t tell me that you miss me (Y), I feel unloved and lonely (Z).” Or, “Last Thursday night (X) when you called your mom long distance and talked for a half hour (Y), I felt upset because we can’t afford those long calls (Z).” Using this formula will help you avoid insults and character assassination, allowing you instead to simply state how your partner’s behavior affects your feelings (Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, p. 123).

6. Make a conscious decision to keep your ANGER under control.

“‘In your anger do not sin’…. Get rid of all…rage and anger” (Eph. 4:26a, 31a).

Don’t let your anger get the best of you and cause you to do and say things you will later regret.

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

“A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (Pr. 15:18).

7. Don’t dwell on DOWNERS.

“Get rid of all bitterness…” (Eph. 4:31).

Stick closely to the relevant issues—and try to end the fight. Unhappy couples turn every spat into a slippery slope of one unkind word that leads to another:

He: I guess my mistake was looking forward to a nice dinner.

She: If you came home on time, you might have gotten one. You care more about your job than me.

He: Somebody’s gotta make a living.

She: It wouldn’t me you if I didn’t work like a dog to put you through school!

That kind of arguing is one of the strongest predictors of divorce (escalation). These couples veer off into heated, unproductive fighting over tangential or old, unresolved issues. They resolve nothing and negative feelings rage. In stable marriages, the other partner won’t always retaliate when unfairly provoked. Instead, they find ways to defuse tension:

He: I was really looking forward to a decent meal!

She: Your hours are so unpredictable I can’t plan one.

He: There’s no choice. I’m under a lost of pressure at work.

She: Well, for tonight, should we just order pizza?

It’s not how you get into arguments, but how you exit them. If you dwell on downers you will eventually sink.

8. Give up PUT-DOWNS.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

“Get rid of all…slander” (Eph. 4:31).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another….” (Eph. 4:32).

One of the sad facts of close relationships is that we treat the ones we love worse than we treat just about anyone else. We are more likely to hurl insults at our marriage partner than any other person in our life (invalidation).

Put-downs are especially lethal when they attack an Achilles’ heel. If your spouse has confessed to you that his cruel high school classmates nicknamed him “egghead,” and if, in adulthood, that still bothers him, that name is off limits.

When your partner has done a chore, always show appreciation for the job even if the way it was done doesn’t meet with your approval (say “Thanks for washing the car” rather than “You missed a spot”). Research has shown that it takes only one put-down to undo hours of kindness that you give to your partner. So the most gracious offering of politeness you can give your partner is to avoid put-downs altogether.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6).

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Pr. 12:18).

“It’s harder to make amends with an offended friend [an offended husband, an offended wife] than to capture a fortified city” (Pr. 18:19 NLT).

9. Keep it PRIVATE.

Chuck Swindoll writes, “When you swing in public, your malice is showing. There are at least two ways that you can do this in a marriage. First of all, you can do it with open, bold embarrassment. Second, you can do it with subtle, cutting sarcasm. Either one hurts deeply” (Strike the Original Match, p. 130).

10. Learn to call a CEASE-FIRE.

“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:27b).

An escalating argument quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, and we’re better off saying, “I’ve got to cool down before I say something damaging. Let’s go out to dinner Saturday night and try to talk through this with civility, and let’s ask the Lord to give us the sense and the patience to work through it.”

11. Be willing to agree to DISAGREE.

If two people agree on everything, they double their chances of being wrong.


When you do go too far and say too much, apologize as quickly as possible.

“…forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32b).

13. Stay close to GOD.

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).

Many conflicts with other people are not fundamentally horizontal but vertical. In other words, if my heart isn’t right with the Lord, it probably isn’t going to be positive toward my mate. If I become irritable or out-of-sorts with my spouse, it’s often because my heart is out of tune with the Lord is some way.

We’re either going to harm or HARMONIZE. “Live in harmony with one another…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:16, 18).

When you have a soprano, tenor, bass, and alto, all singing the proper notes, their voice join together to create harmony. In a marriage, you have a bass and an alto. That is, you have two people with different backgrounds and different ways of looking at things. One is in a man’s body, the other in a woman’s. One has the mind of a man, the other the mind of a woman. There will never be boring unison, but neither should there be continual discord.

If we’re going to enjoy healthy relationships, we can’t clam up or blow up. We’ve got to wise up, which allows us to handle our disagreements in a productive way. If we learn to live in harmony with each other, we can make beautiful music together all our lives.

[Sources: Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook, 2003 Edition; Strike the Original Match by Charles Swindoll; Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Les & Leslie Parrott.]