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Podcast: Navigating Conflict in Marriage (Christopher Ash)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Biblical Wisdom for Marital Conflict

In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Christopher Ash, author of Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be, discusses how to navigate conflict in marriage. He reflects on some of the struggles that he and his wife have wrestled with over their three decades of marriage, shares biblical wisdom for working through disagreements related to money, sex, and kids, and offers practical advice for couples who feel like conflict has become the norm in their marriage.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

Married for God

Christopher Ash

Offering us a God-centered view of marriage, this book will help men and women experience the joy and fulfillment that result when a husband and wife focus on loving and serving God first and foremost.

Difficulty in the Early Years of Marriage

01:30

Matt Tully
So how long have you been married to your wife Carolyn?

Christopher Ash
Carolyn and I were married in 1982, so 37 years.

Matt Tully
As you think back to those early days of married life, does anything stand out as surprising or unexpected about marriage, whether good or bad?

Christopher Ash
I think we were both surprised at how hard the first year or two were. We're very happily married. We're very fond of each other in every way. But we are very different. Very, very different. And during the first year or two, just rubbing off the sharp corners was pretty painful sometimes.

Matt Tully
That seems to be a pretty common refrain you hear from married people, that the honeymoon period wears off more quickly than we would have expected and that conflict or disagreement at a level that we didn't even experience before marriage becomes a reality. What were some things that were difficult in those early days as you were living together for the first time?

Christopher Ash
I think we both had all sorts of expectations as to how to do life and how to relate to our families, and things were difficult especially when our children were born. Our first son was born within the first two years of marriage–so relatively soon–and we often disagreed about how to bring him up. All three–we brought three sons and a daughter–and we would often disagree as to how to discipline them, and that was really painful. It was just very, very hard. And also understanding her as a female. I have a brother and I went to rather strange schools with just boys in England.

Matt Tully
That's more common in the UK than it would be in the United States.

Christopher Ash
Yes, probably. I didn't understand how girls ticked. I knew that I liked them, but I didn't understand them. So when I found myself married to one, however lovely she is–and she's very lovely–I kept thinking I don't understand how you tick.

Conflict Because of Gender Differences

03:34

Matt Tully
How much of marital conflict would you say is related to the fact that men and women are different? Individuals are different, but certainly even men and women are different and it just takes some time to figure that out.

Christopher Ash
I think quite a lot of conflict is related to the fact that men and women are different, but also our backgrounds. For example, I gradually became aware of how deep an impact Carolyn's relationship with her father had had on her. He wasn't always an easy man and that affected the way she related to me. It kind of bounced on a generation.

Conflict Because of Family History

04:09

Matt Tully
That’s been a surprising thing that my wife and I have realized–and talking to other couples, they've also realized–the big impact that our own family histories have on how we think about life in general. Are there any other ways that you've seen that work in your own life?

Christopher Ash
Yes. I think my family was probably a little bit dull, but it was secure and straightforward and you got on with life and you did a job and you tried to do it decently. That was the kind of upbringing I had. Carolyn's was a little different in some ways. It's like bringing suitcases into marriage. You think you're marrying someone and it's just them, but there's all sorts of suitcases that you bring and they are full of all sorts of clutter and clobber–some of it really good and some of it not so good.

Matt Tully
As you've already alluded to, when you marry a person, in a way you are marrying their whole family. How have you and your wife navigated the reality of in-laws?

Christopher Ash
Our parents have died now. They lived to a ripe old age, but they've died now and we gradually got used to them and to relating to them. In fact, the last to die was my mother and Carolyn, my wife, was so sweet with her. It was almost like the book of Ruth. It was wonderful. I remember a nurse in the care home saying to Carolyn, "You're like a daughter to her." She was really sweet and that was lovely to see because my mom had not always been the easiest to get along with.

Matt Tully
So the relationship wasn't always necessarily like that?

Christopher Ash
No. it wasn't always like that. It was lovely to see that by the end, but it wasn't always like that. We didn't have huge fireworks, but that's partly because of our English middle class culture–things tended to get papered over even if they're not very happy. It wasn't like if we'd been Italians or Spanish or something because then would have had great fireworks and then settled down.

Common Causes of Conflict

06:10

Matt Tully
As you think back on your work as a pastor over the years shepherding everyday Christians in churches, what have been some of the most common causes of conflict in marriage that you've had to counsel people through, or that you and your wife have experienced yourself?

Christopher Ash
Just thinking as a pastor, sometimes it relates to career. One, or it could be either in our contemporary culture, prizing their career perhaps above their marriage. Sometimes that causes tensions and sometimes it's just straight ungodliness that a husband needs to say to his wife, Look, our marriage is more important than my getting promotions. I think particularly men sometimes think, I'm free to go where I want, and get any job I want, and my wife will just tag along with me. Some wives are very wonderfully loyal, but some of us husbands need to be a little bit more considerate. To be really honest, the physical side of marriage and sex can be a source of tension in all sorts of marriages, and as a pastor people will sometimes talk to you about these things and it's a good thing they do because then you can talk with them about the Bible's teaching and you can pray with them. They know they're not on their own in these things, but sometimes I think we pretend that that is just sort of happening and that's all just fine. And sometimes it's wonderfully fine, but sometimes it really isn't.

Sex and Intimacy Issues

07:39

Matt Tully
Do you feel like you've been surprised by how often people have come to you with sex and intimacy being a struggle for them in their marriage?

Christopher Ash
I think I'm getting less surprised as time goes on. We live in a fallen world and it's all messed up. The air we breathe in our culture is completely messed up. The portrayals of sex and intimacy that you get even in movies and things that don't show anything–they're not explicit–but the implications that are there in a rom-com or something are pernicious. They're just evil and they're simply not true. The implication is it's easy and wonderful and great and everything else. And the truth is, at its best it's wonderful. At its worst it can be deeply disappointing. And most marriages have a bit of both.

Matt Tully
So what kind of advice have you offered to couples who are struggling through some conflict related to intimacy? Obviously each situation is unique and different, but are there large strands of advice or guidance that you've offered to couples on those lines?

Christopher Ash
We are now in our 60s and we’ve often found that a young couple may feel that we're safe to come to as an older Christian couple. We're not going to tweet everything they've said to us. They know they're safe with us.

Matt Tully
And they know you've probably been there, too.

Christopher Ash
Yes. We've often said to people if I'm somewhere else and we don't live there, Is there an older Christian couple you can go to and talk to? And what a help that can be! We've prayed with couples through infertility–which are deeply painful–and all manner of different things. An older Christian couple can't solve the problem, but they can open the Bible with you, remind you of what you already know from the Scriptures, they're on your side, and they're praying for you.

Matt Tully
Just knowing that other people have faced the same things–are facing some of the same things–and that you're not unique in some of the struggles that we face in marriage is so helpful.

Christopher Ash
It's a huge encouragement, isn't it? Sometimes a young couple will come and talk to us and you can almost see the relief on their faces when they realize that they're not the first couple in history to have faced some of these struggles.

Money Issues

10:13

Matt Tully
How about money? That's another category that can often lead to conflict in marriage. What patterns have you seen of ways that conflict has worked itself out in your own experience?

Christopher Ash
I think debt can be a big problem. I don't know if that's true in North America, certainly in the UK where I live. Coming into marriage with a debt–maybe credit card debts, or I'm not talking about a mortgage, but serious debts–that can be a really big issue, and different approaches to saving and spending. It can be a huge tension. We've been very thankful. We've had families who've been generous. We've always had enough. More than enough, really. Carolyn's wonderful and we live well within our means. And so that's not been an issue for us, but as a pastor you realize that that's not the case and some people come into marriage with a history of making bad spending decisions, and bad borrowing decisions, and maybe their parents have done the same. And that could be a really, really big thing. So I've realized that you do need to talk through those kinds of things.

Fighting Related to Children

11:31

Matt Tully
Another large category where conflict can often rise is related to children. Whether it's questions about whether or not to have children, how many children to have, but probably even more so after children come into a marriage, that just adds an extra layer of complexity and stress to home life. So what have you seen along those lines in your experience counseling people?

Christopher Ash
I realize again and again what a blessing marriage is and what a curse it is to be living together unmarried. Most people in the UK would live together unmarried. They might get married later, they might not. I'm guessing in North America . . .

Matt Tully
I think we are heading more and more in that direction as the norm.

Christopher Ash
I mean that is just the norm here in the UK. I don't envy them because you're always on performance. I know marriages do break up, tragically, but they are way more secure. All the social statistics demonstrate that they are far more secure than living together unmarried.

Matt Tully
In terms of their relationship continuing?

Christopher Ash
Yes. Just simply in terms of the relationship continuing. Carolyn and I thank God we both came from homes where our parents were together and stayed together. That's not very normal now and it's a great blessing. So we came into marriage with the assumption you get married, and by God's grace you stay married, and you go through some rough times. Yesterday we had breakfast with friends who've had twins and we were staying in Ohio with friends who have twins, and you realize that when twins come, the stress levels come on steroids. It's just huge! It's a blessing, it's wonderful; but oh, it's intense.

Matt Tully
Oftentimes the issues and the decisions that come with children can feel so significant because they aren't just involving yourself or even your spouse, but they involve people that you love so deeply and are responsible to care for so deeply. Have there been times in your life when you and your wife have disagreed on the best course of action with your children? You mentioned discipline was an area where you guys struggled to agree sometimes. How did you work through that together as a couple?

Christopher Ash
There are times when it was very painful. We've disagreed about schooling decisions, we've disagreed about discipline decisions as they grew, how much freedom to give at what stage. I often feel I've been a very bad father. I'm very conscious of so, so many mistakes. We have worked through them. You hang on in there, you wait, you have the conversations, you listen, you talk through them, you apologize, you forgive.

The Importance of Apologizing

14:43

Matt Tully
How important is apologizing and forgiving for a married couple?

Christopher Ash
I think it's really important. I am not very good at apologizing. I hope I'm a bit less bad at apologizing. Carolyn is very good at forgiving, very long suffering. It's really important. I think particularly for us men it’s difficult to put our hands up and say I'm sorry, I was wrong. Which is not the same as I'm sorry you felt hurt or I'm sorry I upset you, but I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that or I shouldn't have done that. And that's a very good thing to do. It's easier to do when you know that your wife is forbearing and forgiving and that she will forgive you. I think some pressures in marriage come when–it's both ways round–but when a man isn't sure whether his wife will be willing to forgive what he said.

Matt Tully
But he still has a responsibility to apologize.

Christopher Ash
He must still do that. But you've got all these decisions about children and they really reveal your heart as to what you most deeply long for in a son or daughter. There are all sorts of idolatries. In Cambridge, England where we live, education is a big idolatry–academic success. It's a clever place and the danger is that Christian parents will unwittingly buy into that and they will mind more about the exam success of their children or which college they get into more than they do about their children following Jesus.

Poor Communication

16:19

Matt Tully
A lot of conflict in marriage is caused, or at least exacerbated by, poor communication. What practical advice would you offer to couples on that front?

Christopher Ash
I remember an older pastor once saying to us that people talk about quality time, but actually you need quantity time. Actually, there is no substitute for having unhurried time when you're not both completely exhausted. Last thing at night is often a bad time for communication.

Matt Tully
And that's often the time that–especially parents with young children–that you try to have these conversations and spend time together.

Christopher Ash
Yes. And it may be the only time you can, but it's not always the best time. You're about to sort of hit the pillow and one says to the other Can we talk about this? We've had some pretty bad conversations at that time. But actually take time to go for a walk and listen. Sometimes it takes time for what we really think and feel to come out because we're used to saying what we think we ought to say. I found with my wife it takes time to give her space and time really to say what she genuinely feels and thinks, and for me to listen to that.

Matt Tully
And it's not always that the person is holding back intentionally, we don't always even know what we think about things.

Christopher Ash
Yes, it takes time to formulate it and to express it.

Speaking Positively about Your Spouse

17:54

Matt Tully
How have you and your wife balanced the importance of speaking positively and optimistically about your marriage and about each other, especially when it comes to other Christians in your church, with the need for being honest and transparent about the things that you're struggling with and the things that you might need help with? I think sometimes we can feel a tension there of, I feel like I need help because I feel like things aren't great, but I also don't want to speak bad about my wife or bad about our marriage. How have you navigated that tension?

Christopher Ash
Praising one another is a great thing, isn't it? I mean I find it not difficult to praise my wife. She's very lovely in all sorts of ways. And it's not difficult to praise her. She's not very good at math but hey, I'm not sure that really matters. She's really, really lovely. Focus on being able to speak positively where it's genuine and true and heartfelt and clearly right. Don't neglect to say those positive things, not just to take them for granted.

Matt Tully
That's so easy to do.

Christopher Ash
Say them to one another privately and say them about one another publicly. And then in that context to say, Actually, it's been really difficult recently. I've been stressed and short tempered, or whatever it is. These aren't shock horror revelations. People listening to them think, Oh yeah, they're human and touched with sin just as we are.

The Importance of Spending Time with Others Couples

19:27

Matt Tully
How important has it been for you and your wife to have other married couples to do life together with and to share these things with?

Christopher Ash
I think it's been really good. We've often had good times when we've had a meal with just one other couple and we talk about all sorts of things, but we'll often close the evening with some prayer together. And that's really good. The other thing we've both found really helpful is to have deep friendships of our own. I am at the moment and in the past I have sometimes been in a prayer triplet with a couple of other guys, and there's a couple of men I meet with in Cambridge each week. Just that encouragement of us all wanting to encourage each other to follow the Lord faithfully, to live with a good conscience, to walk with Jesus, to serve him. And for Carolyn, in a very feminine way, to have women friends–Christian women friends–has been a really valuable thing. I think sometimes the pressure you get is where you get a couple who buy into society's idea of coupledom where they just gaze into each other's eyes and each is everything to the other and they cut themselves off from their friends–that man from his men friends, the woman from her women friends–and that can be very stifling.

Matt Tully
I think that can happen often in those early months and years of marriage. I've felt that temptation and I've seen other couples do that as well in those first days.

Christopher Ash
And especially when a couple moves. Maybe for work they move to a different part of the country. We've moved quite a bit and we've taken to praying particularly that when we move Carolyn will make some really good women friends and that I make some good men friends.

Ephesians 5 in Marriage

21:27

Matt Tully
How significant has what Scripture says about marriage been to you and your wife as you've thought about not just your marriage generally, but navigating conflict? I think of the classic passage that speaks to marriage–Ephesians 5–where the apostle Paul is really drawing connections between marriage and what Christ has done for his people. Speak to the role that that passage and others like it have played in your own thinking and approach to these issues.

Christopher Ash
It's been hugely significant and grappling with the Ephesians 5, or Colossians 3, or 1 Peter 3–the three passages that speak about the husband's Christ-like headship and the wife's Christian submission, which are really explosive in our culture–grappling with those and trying to understand my calling as a husband to be a Christ-like sacrifice. I think C.S. Lewis said, The only crown that a Christian husband has is a crown of thorns, which is well put. It's not a recipe for male chauvinism and men getting everything we want. It's a recipe for sacrifice. And me getting to grips with that and thinking, What does it mean now to serve my wife in ways that are not pleasing me and making everything easy for me? And I guess the same is true for my wife thinking, What does it mean to be Christ-like in submission? I think we've often got it wrong in all sorts of different ways, but those passages have been really, really significant for us.

Matt Tully
I think a lot of us hear those words–headship and then even especially submission–and the first thing that comes to mind is a husband who just sort of always gets his way, always makes his voice heard over and above his wife's voice, and then a wife who is dominated and doesn't have a say, and isn't cared for in any way. How often do you think that's actually been the case in your experience working with married couples?

Christopher Ash
Often it reflects the culture. So the liberal culture that we live in in Cambridge, you're more likely to see a wife dominating and it's hard for a husband to know what it is to be a man, and to be a husband, and to exercise any kind of lead because our society says that's all wrong. So you see that. But in other more conservative cultures you sometimes see the man thinking, This is a free pass to doing what I want and just being a little tyrant. You see the pattern distorted in different ways and you see the wife who thinks, Well, I'll just be sort of mousy and let him walk all over me. And then she ceases to be the helper of Genesis 2–to work alongside him, serving God together–or the great wife at the end of the book of Proverbs who are women of great dignity and really serving alongside their husbands. Or–and you get this quite often in the culture that I live in–the husband just abdicates and thinks, I'm going off to the golf course, or the sports club, or the office, or wherever I work because that's a much easier place to be. And sometimes wives don't help because they don't give the husband much chance to give any kind of lead. So it's a delicate relationship and I've seen it distorted in lots of different ways.

When Spouses Don’t Want the Same Things

25:15

Matt Tully
What advice or counsel would you offer to the person who wants to live out their God-designed calling as a husband or wife, but their spouse isn't really interested in that–maybe isn't even a Christian? How should they pursue that when there's not that ideal reciprocal mindset?

Christopher Ash
To some extent there never is, even in a Christian marriage. I think 1 Peter 3, which is addressed to wives–some of whose husbands are not believers–is a very helpful one because Peter is saying to the wives, Be a Christian wife, even though it's hard. Don't constantly nag your husband, but be a godly wife. And I guess the same applies the other way around, that a Christian man may be married to a wife who's not a believer and she may be an aggressive secular feminist, in which case it's not going to be easy for him to give a Christ-like lead. But he should seek to go through each day with a clear conscience and to do what he can.

Practical Advice for Young Marrieds

26:25

Matt Tully
I'd love to go through three categories of couples who might be experiencing conflict to some extent, and then if you could offer three practical steps next steps for each of these couples for moving forward in their relationship. So the first category would be dating or engaged couples that are eager to lay a good foundation for their marriage, especially when it comes to handling conflict together. What three practical steps would help them start down that road?

Christopher Ash
I think one would be to try to prioritize the friendship while dating and keep the temperature low on the physical side of things so that you can really concentrate on relating as friends.

Matt Tully
So relating as friends to each other?

Christopher Ash
To each other. The second would be to work hard at listening. Don't assume that you know what the other one means. Listen and maybe even use the old–it's a bit hackneyed–but practice saying back, So you're saying this? I know it's a bit artificial and a bit cliche, but there's something there of thinking, I'm really listening and I really want you to know that I want to understand what you're saying. I think that's a really helpful thing. And the other is beginning to model saying sorry and forgiving.

Practical Advice for Those in Continual Conflict

28:05

Matt Tully
The second category would be married couples who are struggling with conflict on a regular basis.

Christopher Ash
I think I would advise them to keep walking with the Lord, keep reading the Bible and praying on their own in their personal devotions, and stay consistent in their church belonging. Because if they're following Jesus and walking with Jesus, all sorts of things fall into place. They're confessing their sins and realizing how much the Lord has forgiven each of us. In Matthew 18 in the parable of the unforgiving servant, he grasped how much he'd been let off and that would transform him. So that's probably the biggest thing. Walk with Jesus. The second would be don't be afraid to get another couple or somebody pastoral in to help. Often the chemistry becomes toxic and you're always going into conflict, not just occasionally, but it's just becoming the norm. To sit with a third person, or another couple, who aren't taking sides can really help because you think quite carefully what you're going to say when there's somebody else listening. And if it's just the two of you, you can get heated and not set a guard over your tongue. But if there's someone else there it's really helpful. So don't be afraid to do that. That would be a second thing. And to ask friends to pray. You probably don't want to say it at the church prayer meeting, but to ask selected friends. Say, Look, we're really struggling with conflict. It's becoming a very painful thing that's becoming all too normal in our marriage. Would you pray for us? A man can maybe say this to other men, or a wife to other women. And then in a sense they can then say, So how's it going? And it might be very specific. It might be you send a WhatsApp message or something saying, Please pray. This evening we've got a parents meeting at the school and we usually quarrel. Could you pray that we won't? And then a prayer partner can say the next day, How did it go? That can help.

Practical Advice for Those at a Breaking Point in Marriage

30:25

Matt Tully
The final category would be the married couple that isn't just struggling with conflict on a regular basis, but maybe they're at a breaking point. They are maybe even wondering if their marriage can continue. What would you counsel them to do?

Christopher Ash
It's really hard because the levels of pain and misery can be so intense. More than anything else I would want to point them to the faithfulness of God–the unchanging covenant faithfulness of God to us in Christ–and that nothing can change that if I'm in Christ. That security means you are standing firmly on a rock. You feel as though the whole world is moving all around you and there's nowhere safe to stand, but there is if you're in Christ. I would say that first. Second, I would say don't overestimate how easy it would be to split, and don't underestimate the blessings of holding on. I think there are times where it's right for somebody to walk out of a marriage. Sometimes adultery or repeated adultery would seem, from the Scriptures, that that's justified. I think there are times when there is physical abuse that somebody just has to be out of it and that overrides other things. But I think there's a great many marriages where it's really difficult and painful, but it may be that in 30 years time they'll thank God that they hung on in there. I think there have been a number of marriages where that's been the case. So don't overestimate how easy it'll be outside, and don't underestimate the benefits of just hanging on in there. For the third piece of advice, remember you're trying to serve God in your marriage and the marriage is not there primarily to meet your needs. Our society says the whole relationship is there to make me feel good or to make us feel good as a couple. But rather, say to yourself, I'm here to serve God. I'm married, so I'm here to serve God in my marriage. This is just as an unmarried person should wake up in the morning and be thinking about how he or she can serve God in their unmarried state. Think, I want to serve God today. I want to walk with a clear conscience. Whatever is said to me, I want to speak the truth. I want to be generous. I want to show the character of Christ in my marriage. I remember talking to a friend whose marriage sadly did break up, but I was saying to him, You can't control what your wife will do or say, but you can resolve to walk through today with a clear conscience.

Matt Tully
That's interesting because that's pointing people beyond their marriage and pointing them to a deeper and higher reality and responsibility that we have to God himself.

Christopher Ash
Very much so.


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