Even the Small Things Spiral

The way I remember the story is that it began when I said a phrase that had two possible meanings: the meaning I meant and the meaning she heard. Other details, like the specifics of what got said or what got heard, escape me today—probably because of how quickly the scene erupted from that single starting point. It was during a drive my wife Jane and I were taking together when I said the thing I said and she heard the thing she heard. And what she heard me say was offensive, so naturally she got offended by it.

But what I’d said wasn’t offensive, you see—at least I didn’t mean it that way, so when she took issue with it I interrupted her right away to explain myself. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea. Already feeling trampled, Jane wasn’t about to hear any explanations from me, so instead of listening to what I had to say, she kept trying to get to the bottom of why I’d been so hurtful. And the more she disregarded my claims of good intentions, the more I found that I was getting upset right along with her. As the mile markers passed, things got increasingly heated between the two of us, and pretty soon we were locked in a tremendous debate.

It was one of the biggest battles we’d ever had: she-said-I-said and I-said-she-said, bickering back and forth about timing and tone and anything and everything else. Eventually Jane was so frustrated she wanted to be away from me, and I was so frustrated that I stopped the car and got out. And both of us were wishing that vehicles could have built-in rewind buttons so we could have a way to play back those first words that had been spoken. So we could prove to the other person that we were right.

Often, it’s just like that, isn’t it? The smallest of things—a word carelessly spoken, a moment lost, an emotion overlooked—can become a downward spiral that’s out of control. Things get jumbled and then twisted until suddenly it seems like everything in the relationship is plummeting. And later when the dust settles, if you’re brave and fortunate enough to get to that point together, you have to admit you got caught up in a blowout over hurt feelings and semantics.

Even the small things spiral, and that’s why it’s vital for all of us to figure out how to resolve conflicts well. Specifically in marriage and family, this means when a battlefield pops up out of nowhere, we have to know the difference between fighting and fighting for. People who fight take sides. Their weapons are blame, accusations, and criticism. They’re always talking about what they did right, what they didn’t do wrong. For them, the battle isn’t over until somebody else pays for it entirely—which means the battle will probably never be over.

But people who fight for are people who have something much bigger than just the moment in sight. When they end up on a battlefield, they’re willing to lay down their arsenals and find a way to take each other by the hand—to get out as quickly, as painlessly, and as finally as possible. They take blame. They admit faults. They apologize. Instead of always fighting, they fight for the relationship. Not trying to defeat each other, they work toward winning together. Toward really winning at home.