Navigating the Ocean of Emotion in Ministry Marriages

Emotional argument
How has the communication cultures we were raised in affected the type we are practicing or creating in our home and marriage? (Getty Images )

In a sense, all marriages are "intercultural." Bringing a man and a woman together in marriage is like bringing two different countries together and trying to form one.

Our first big argument happened just a few weeks after we got married and started full-time ministry at a church in upstate New York. We were living in a new place, away from our parents and living in our first apartment. As to the subject of the argument, it was so significant that we cannot remember much of it at all. But what I [Robert] will never forget is the intensity and the emotion of that first experience. I remember how it made me feel; in a word, offended, deeply so.

As things heated up, I remember thinking, This is bad, really bad. This is getting too loud and too intense. We are letting our feelings get the best of us, or at least Pamela is, I know. We just both need to calm down and count to 10. Time out! Why doesn't she just let it go and chill out? I'm already over it. Why isn't she?

Then I said it. It just came out of my mouth.

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"Oh my gosh, Pam! This is out of control. If we keep arguing like this, then we're going to end up getting a divorce or something!" I said, urging a temporary peace treaty or, at least trying to negotiate a demilitarized zone.

"Are you kidding?" Pamela shouted. "This is just warming up."

Oh, no! I thought.

"I haven't begun to tell you how I really feel," Pam said.

Man, I thought, this little girl can really put up a fight. This is getting crazy. My dad and mom never raised their voices like this. At least I don't ever remember them doing so.

It took us a while, quite a while, to learn how to argue constructively in our marriage or how to "fight fair" with each other. Honestly, it is sometimes still something we are working on. We have definitely improved since those earliest days but we are also both painfully aware that our default mode is selfishness and the one-sided view that goes along with it. Sometimes it is a lot easier to share these principles with other couples as pastoral counselors than it is to put them to work in your own marriage and in the pastor's home.

2 Cultures

The way we argue, disagree or fight—whichever one you choose to call it—has revealed something to us about our backgrounds, something vital to remember. It is this: Men and women who get married not only come from two different families, but also from two different cultures. In a sense, all marriages are "intercultural." Bringing a man and a woman together in marriage is like bringing two different countries together and trying to form one. Imagine saying suddenly to Japan and Iceland, "OK, now you have just a few days to merge into one nation, one culture, one language, one constitution and one family."

Lots of luck with that.

One of the reasons we hit such a brick wall in that first big argument was that while Pamela saw the disagreement as "a good opportunity to air her true feelings," I saw it as "a threat to an already good marriage." But even something more was at work. Not only were a young husband and wife "butting heads," two cultures in fact were starting to collide within our home.

Most people we have counseled over the years have come from one of two different types of home environments when it comes to dealing with conflict. Which type were you raised in? A truth-oriented environment or a grace-oriented environment? While there are certainly varying intensities, in order to explain the difference, here are two extremes:

A truth-oriented environment embraces transparency over avoidance. These are homes in which open, honest, frank, clear and, at times, passionate confrontations were welcome. Telling it straight was more important than telling it sweet. As a result, confrontations and disagreements were not at all unusual. But while many things were talked over, it was also considered important to try and really talk them through. Let's call this setting a truth-oriented environment.  

A grace-oriented environment is a home in which open confrontation was avoided at, almost, all costs. In these homes one is taught to be considerate of others, careful, wise, thoughtful, even (an oft-used Southern term) "nice." Children are urged to "think before you speak." If you had to choose between one or the other in these homes, kindness was always chosen over honesty. Telling it sweet was certainly more important than telling it straight. As a result, confrontations and disagreements are rare occurrences. Let's call this a grace-oriented environment.

Truth-oriented or grace-oriented environment? Which kind of home communication environment were you raised in? Which kind are you now trying to develop yourself?

The Ocean of Emotion

That first big argument was just like diving into the deep end of the pool for the first time. I have often told Pamela that in "the ocean of emotion" of life, she is outfitted with deep-sea diving gear and me, well, I think I only have a snorkel! Pamela just knew how to navigate emotional depths in ways I simply did not. Usually that is a quality of hers that I really appreciate, except for the way she used it in the argument that day.

While things continued to heat up in that first big fight Pamela and I had as a new couple, the emotions ran high. In a way, Pamela had her diving gear on and was swimming through those emotional depths. She seemed to be saying, "Wow! It is beautiful down here in the depths! So colorful. So deep. So honest. So good. Ah, let's go deeper!"

At the same time for me, while trying to swim but gasping for air with my snorkel, I was saying, "Oh my gosh! I'm drowning in all of this emotion. I can't breath! It's scary down here in the depths. Time to surface. Quick. I need some air!"

One argument. Two totally different views. In my mind, it was simply a battle of the wills, mine vs. hers. That's all. Clear and simple.

How would we manage future disagreements, arguments and fight sin this relationship, in this marriage?

I wondered. I really wondered.

The Root of All Marital Offenses

When your spirit or soul becomes wounded or hardened by offenses, it can suck the vitality right out of your marriage or relationship. The tenderness, breadth and buoyancy of your love and romance becomes stilted. The soul of your relationship is threatened. The rhythms of life and love that once brought a flow to your shared existence turn to a rigid and tensed atmosphere in which love is diminished. Instead of responding to one another's wants and needs, we react and even resist one another. An offended heart refuses to be swayed. Instead of engaging our spouse's heart as an irresistible lover, we analyze and judge them as an intolerable debtor.

The source of the all offenses is the same. MacDonald describes it:

Pride is at the root of all marital conflict. Pride is the part of us that cannot face being wrong. Thus we will not accept criticism, easily evaluate facts which suggest that we hold the wrong opinion, or allow for the possibility that there simply may be times when our partner is right and we are dead wrong. As long as being the strongest, the best and the "rightest" is top priority, conflict will be destructive. Pride suggests that I am more important than the relationship, and that is all out of harmony with the original vows of Christian commitment, which said that the relationship is more important than the individual.

One of my favorite early church fathers, John of the Cross, wrote on this issue of offending others and being offended. While reading some of his material, the thought that emerged from his writings and put in my own words may be best said in a prayer that I sometimes pray: "God, help me to forgive my offender. The real issue, the most important one is neither the offense nor the person who offended me. The real issue is that I could be so easily offended."

Questions to discuss with your spouse:

  • Which kind of home environment were we both raised in—a grace-oriented one or a truth-oriented one?
  • How has the communication cultures we were raised in affected the type we are practicing or creating in our home and marriage?
  • How well do we navigate "the ocean of emotion" in our marriage?

Robert and Pamela Crosby are ministry leaders and authors. Robert serves as Professor of Practical Theology at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, and Pamela is the senior director of Compass: The Center for Calling & Career, also at SEU. As a couple they are the co-founders of Their latest book is The Will of a Man & The Way of a Woman (Barbour), from which this article was excerpted.

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