Many years ago, psychological researcher John Gottman made a claim that he could predict the success or failure of a marriage by speaking to a couple for 15 minutes. Based on a study of 130 newlywed couples, he predicted with 83 percent accuracy which of the couples studied would stay married and which would call it quits.
The deciding factor: how the couple discussed a conflict.
In the course of the study, which was published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1998, Gottman had each couple fill out questionnaires and talk about a disagreement for 15 minutes. Gottman recorded and evaluated their conversations, observing emotions, tone of voice, facial expressions, and even specific words used. A recent article summarised the results of his study:
Gottman found that couples that started out with less negative affects in the first few minutes and were able to deescalate negativity were more likely to stay together. Conversely, all 17 couples that later divorced began their conversations with what he called a “harsh startup” — more displays of negative emotions and less positive affects.
While conflicts in a relationships are natural, expressing disagreement in the wrong ways can wear at a relationship over time, breaking down trust and weakening affection. Consider some key passages about conflict from Scripture:
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
Becoming a conflict pro
When I was single, I had to work through a number of major conflicts with family members, coworkers, even people with whom I served at church. I had ample opportunity to work on approaching conflict with love and humility before I had to use these skills in my most important relationship (after Christ) — marriage.
Whether you’re single, in a relationship or married, here are three things to consider as you hone your conflict skills.
Don’t avoid it. Years ago I was holding a grudge against a leader in my young adult group at church for something he had said about me. Every time this person made an announcement or shared an encouragement from Scripture, all I could think about was how he had wronged me. Finally, I was convicted to go to him as Matthew 18 instructs to present my grievance. I discovered that he had no idea he had hurt me, and I received a full apology. We reconciled and my relationship with God was no longer hindered by my bitterness.
Now that I’m married, I’ve discovered that it’s a gift to resolve conflict quickly instead of letting it linger. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” You’ve probably heard this applied to husbands and wives resolving conflicts before they go to sleep, but this command is for all believers.
Don’t go in with guns blazing. All of us can become passionate about certain issues. I am good with words, so at times I have “blown away” someone with my well-spoken argument. While it feels good in the moment to get a grievance off my chest and clearly communicate my perspective, I have learned that this approach can significantly harm the relationship, causing me a lot of cleanup work later.
This damage could be easily avoided if I was quick to listen and slow to speak as James suggests. Gottman’s study found that couples who began their conversations with positive words and calm demeanours — even while disagreeing — were the ones most likely to stay married.
Pray for a heart of humility. While the Bible is clear that quarrels are not to be a regular part of the Christian life, at times all of us need to address an interpersonal conflict. When this happens, spend some time praying about it before you engage. Ask God to show you areas where you may be escalating the conflict or have transgressed against the other person.
As Proverbs reminds us, “a soft answer turns away wrath.” When we approach conflict with the goal of reconciliation instead of simply winning the argument, the other person will feel respected and be less likely to put up walls.
A valuable skill
Obviously, I haven’t always handled conflict perfectly in my life. But I have made an effort to approach it in a godly way that is outlined in Scripture. And I have observed how this “training in righteousness” has benefitted my marriage.
Gottman’s results prove what God has already told us in His Word: Strong relationships occur when each person is looking to Christ and also to the other person’s best interest. This shows itself in arguments seasoned with humility, kindness and love.