Conflict vs Combat: Why Conflict Can be Beneficial in a Marriage

Communication varies from couple to couple. Some never argue, others argue often and a few are somewhere in between.  Husband and Vice President from Focus on the Family Greg Smalley wants you to know why conflict in a marriage might not be such a bad thing. 

“It is sometimes essential for a husband and a wife to quarrel - they get to know each other better.” - Goethe (circa late 1700’s)

Your mother warned me about this before we got married.” These are not the words you want to hear from your wife during an argument, especially after nearly twenty-four years of marriage!

"The problem is I walked this style of conflict straight into my marriage."

Apparently, as a young boy, I was notorious for engaging my parents in long, arduous ‘debates’. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, but when something didn’t make sense to me, when I didn’t agree with them, or I felt that they were wrong, I would calmly engage my poor parents in lengthy ‘discussions’. I learned from a young age that I could win one of these marathon exchanges by simply wearing them down. Eventually, my parents would simply give in or give up out of sheer exhaustion. I was a little hellion in this way!

The problem is I walked this style of conflict straight into my marriage.  I’d like to think that as I’ve aged and matured, these types of interactions have lessened, however, the other day, I found myself smack in the middle of one—again!

Erin and I got into a discussion about our 14-year old son, Garrison, and his football watching ‘habits’. I felt that she was being unfair to characterize him as obsessed or addicted to watching football. Really, Erin was just trying to explain that she felt this area of his life was out of balance. Well, needless to say, the accusation annoyed me and we ended up in one of those two-hour deliberations and eventually walked away frustrated and disconnected.


The Anatomy of a Fight

Why do we argue and fight? Proverbs 13:10 provides the best answer, “Pride leads to conflict…” During conflict, a prideful heart is “self-consumed” and can’t see beyond its own thoughts, opinions, perspective, pain, feelings and needs.  

Pride is the reason that I engage Erin in these marathon arguments. I become so prideful that I’m unwilling to yield.

Here is the problem with pride during marriage conflict.  James 4:6 says, “God opposes the proud...” And so will your spouse! The word “oppose” means to compete against, face-off, do battle with—combat.  Aren’t these perfect descriptions of what happens when we argue and fight?

But let me clarify something about conflict. Conflict is good for a marriage; combat is destructive. Healthy conflict can teach you something new about you, your spouse and your marriage. This is why James 1:2 says, “…when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity…” Combat, things like sarcasm, yelling, escalating, criticism, withdrawal, assuming the worst, deception, bullying, blaming, demeaning, stubbornness, disrespect, debating,  which leads you towards frustration and relational disconnection. Pride always propagates combat and opposition.

Two specific ways pride can manifest during conflict are found in the first part of Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…” Selfish ambition is when you place self-interest ahead of what is good for your spouse, regardless of the strife it causes. Selfish ambition always produces rivalry that leads to combat and division. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). Vain conceit is when you are excessively proud of your own opinion and project the attitude that you are always right.  This haughty attitude makes communication very difficult because there’s no room for your spouse’s perspective or for you to be wrong. Both selfish ambition and vain conceit are self-focused and completely exclusive of your spouse. This is exactly what happens when I engage Erin in a marathon debate session. When my pride takes over, I’m focused on my interests and believe that I’m right. That’s a nasty combination. Pride will keep your spouse in the role of adversary—in opposition against you.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”.


Antidote to Prideful Conflict

Humility is the cure for unhealthy conflict (combat) because it’s the opposite of pride. Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”. During conflict, we can swallow our pride and choose to value our spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and needs above our own. This isn’t easy or natural but it will be a turning point in your disagreement. This is what humility looks like during healthy conflict:

  • I focus on you
  • I listen and give you my full attention 
  • I am patient and kind
  • I seek to understand you before being understood
  • I assume the best about you
  • Instead of trying to change you, I ask God to change me
  • How you feel matters regardless if it makes sense
  • I treat you with gentleness and compassion
  • I respect you with my words and actions
  • I strive for unity and focus on what is best for ‘us’
  • I extend grace and forgiveness

These things counteract the negative impact of pride because you are honoring and valuing your spouse. We are told in Romans 12:10 to “Outdo one another in showing honor”. As you humble yourself by “outdoing your spouse in showing honor” she is more likely to respond in a positive way. Just like pride creates combat, humility renders grace. 1 Peter 5:5 makes this clear, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”.  As you humble yourself, your spouse is more likely to extend you grace by honoring you—your thoughts, feelings and needs. “One's pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23). While pride ushers in opposition, humility creates grace and honor.  

Turning conflict from combat into something that will benefit your marriage flows from humility and grace. My prayer is that I will see the arguments and ‘combat’ that I get into for what they truly are: pride.  And that God will give me the courage and strength to humble myself.


Dr. Greg Smalley is the Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. He has written extensively in the area of conflict and has a book called Fight Your Way To A Better Marriage. For more information visit or call 800-A-Family. 

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