Conflict in Marriage is Like Peeling an Onion

Do you know the unwinnable game at your local kids’ pizza place — the one where the machine pops up cylinder-shaped objects that the contestant must beat back down as fast as they pop up? Skirmishes in marriage are like that game; they keep popping up, even when you don’t want to play anymore.

A week ago, my husband and I were in another unwanted skirmish in our marriage. Same topic, same emotions, round gazillion! Our marital battles are unlike a conventional military war where an enemy is engaged, the battle is won, and the army moves forward to a new battleground. Continual forward progress with eventual victory declared is what I want. Don’t you?

I’ve been disappointed many times that our issues are not resolved cleanly. They aren’t black and white.

Over the decades of our marriage, our repeated disagreements have settled into several categories: parenting values, decision making, sex, and travel. Victory, a conditional one, was declared in only one of these (parenting), and that was simply because time ran out. The others demand ongoing engagement. For you, your recurrent marital battles may be over finances, in-laws, jobs, or other situations. No two marriages battle the same combination of issues. Yet there are similar patterns.

The “how much we are traveling” conflict was the one that caught us once again last week.

My husband’s mother affectionately called her son a “road-runner” after the cute cartoon character who was off in a flash everywhere he went. I thought it was sweet. I should have paid attention to the truth she was speaking. Not that it would have changed my decision to marry him. But his road-runner enthusiasm for travel, adventure, discovery, and conquering enemy territory has caused more ongoing stress and conflict in our marriage than any of the others. Btw, I love to be home.

The recent conflict began when I realized we were over-committed. Again. Somehow the schedule monster had eaten up more days than we realized, and suddenly we were facing the enemy of miscommunication with no escape. Feelings of mistrust, lack of protection, lack of support, and anxiety resurfaced as we confronted the fact that I need more time at home than he does, that he needs me to go with him and support him and do life with him.

Neither is wrong. It’s what we do with the clash of those colossal differences that matters.

At the core of this marital conflict, and at the core of any other recurring conflict, is fear.

For me, it’s fear that I am not really valued for what is important to me. If I perceive he is constantly scheduling us to the brink, pushing me to my limits, then I come to believe he hasn’t heard me, that he doesn’t get it, and therefore that he doesn’t care (aka love me). And the same is true of my husband. If I refuse to adapt, to grow, and to risk the stress of following him, then he perceives that I haven’t heard what he needs, that I don’t get it, and therefore that I don’t really care about him as a person.

It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, rather than declaring victory. Each time we clash over this issue and others, we are in different circumstances in our lives. I needed margins for different reasons twenty years ago when I was parenting full time. He needed my partnership for different reasons, too. Each conversation can peel another layer off our individual coverings so that we can see ourselves and our spouse more clearly than we did before. Our perceptions of ourselves and of each other are vastly flawed.  We forget that most of the time.

So while I don’t believe we declared victory this time and that we’ll never argue or disagree over travel ever again, I do believe we peeled another layer away. I see more clearly that I need to work on my following attitude, that I need to rejoice that my husband wants me with him, and that I trust God with this situation that He has given me for my good.

During the last snowstorm, our office building closed for the day. Dennis and I decided to enjoy every minute of the glittering snow-covered day, so we donned our winter gear and went hiking in the woods. On the way back, which was all uphill, I paused to catch my breath. As we stood there panting, my husband said to me, “I’m not going to push you anymore.” It had nothing to do with the travel issues, but I heard in his promise to wait for me that he also heard my words to him.

He allowed me to be who I was in that moment of needing a pause when he didn’t need a chance to catch his breath.

Next time you are chopping an onion, remember that those layers represent more than a pungent cooking ingredient. To the one who perseveres in marriage, each pulled-back layer takes you closer to the heart. Though often accompanied by tears, as happens with onions, the progress made is satisfying.

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  1. Barbara, I love this. I see you on the platform right alongside Dennis and your passion for marriage and family and I forget that you all have issues, too. Thanks for being so transparent. God bless, love, Robyn

  2. Barbara,

    Thank you for your honesty and being real about the roots of conflict – fear, does he really love me? This has encouraged me to think more about persevering through those areas of conflict in our marriage that I feel like we keep coming back to over and over again. Thanks Barbara!

    love, yvonne

  3. Just had a big fight with the husband this morning. After feeling like we had finally conquered some issues it’s painful for them to be right back in my face. It really is like an onion. I was so vindictive and spiteful and now I need to go and ask forgiveness AGAIN. I wish God would hurry it up with this whole sanctification business, lol!

  4. My husband and I have had the same argument. He is 6’4 and I always feel like I am running to catch up with him, literally and figuratively. I have said before that I have felt in our marriage like those tin cans tied behind the car under the just married sign. I do still want to be treated like a “tender vessel”. My husband has made great strides in this area but sometimes I still feel overrun. I understand your feelings on this. The one thing I can say is that time will mellow you both and at some point we have (and hopefully you) will get into a rhythm of give and take. Sometimes you go with his adventurous plans and sometimes he slows down for you. This does happen, eventually. We will be married 30 years this April, trust me, things do work themselves out. But the key, is spending time together and the good old give and take.