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Building a Great Marriage

Building a Great Marriage

Understanding and Overcoming Marital Conflict

Session #5

Great Marriage

Paul and Linda J. Bucknell

Building a Great Marriage Index:
Faith: #1 Hope | #2 Love | #3 Submission | #4 Oneness
Forgiveness: #5 Conflict | #6 Crises | #7 Forgiveness
Friendship: #8 Intimacy | #9 Trust | #10 Love works!

Understanding and Overcoming Marital Conflict
Understanding marital conflict
| Creating marital harmony
Possible responses | Study questions | Footnotes

Unconditional Love

Purpose: Great marriages are harmonious because they are commited to oneness. Marital conflict and quarrels have disappeared. Learn how to build such a great marriage from (James 4:1-3) and (Philippians 2:2-5). This is part #5 of the larger series 'Building a Great Marriage!'

Marital Conflict Resolution: Part 1

Is peace on earth possible? Is it possible to bring this peace to your home? To your marriage? We believe so! In this session we will show you how a couple can turn an argumentative home into a home of harmony and love.

God’s design really does work. We simply go back to what God has given to us and take hold of it: Oneness. Harmony in relationship comes out of the oneness God has given to each couple.

There are many questions lingering in minds as to how to practically get to that point. We will do this in two ways. We will start by better increasing our understanding on how quarrels work. Why do we fight? or argue? After that we can turn to positive steps you can take to bring God’s harmony to your home.

A) Understanding Marital Conflict (James 4:1-3)

Couples with conflicts are like Opponenents rather than teammates.Most of you could tell me the last two or three things you argued about. They are still on your mind because they have hurt you. They are still probably unresolved. This is the way it is with hostilities.

One person might win that conflict. But because the other person still lives next to you, they have lots of resources to make life difficult for the winner. These troubles go deeper than the actual issue that a couple might argue over. Fortunately, God has provided some very clear words about quarrels for us.

buy marriage bookThe word argument is not much used in the scripture at least in the way we mean it here, that is, ‘a word fight.’ Scripture uses the word largely to mean ‘logical reasoning.’ Most of our conflicts are anything but logical reasons presented back and forth–though many of us believe we are right.

The problem is quickly aggravated when one is willing to verbally, and in more rare cases physically, hurt the other spouse to cause the spouse to give up the fight.

James 4:1-3 like old time surgery opens before us the heart of quarrels and conflicts. Look carefully.

“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

Quarrels and conflict in James 4:1-3Before drawing some observations regarding conflicts in general, let us first look at the two key words used here: quarrels and conflicts. They are used twice, first in noun form and then in the verb form (though in reverse order). Quarrel refers to the larger scale conflict: the war itself.

Conflict is the word for battle. One literally could translate it ‘source of wars and battles among you?’ Quarrels then refer to the long-standing unresolved war along with all the tensions and underlying issues at stake. Conflict on the other hand refers to the individual battles.

Most couples are more aware of the conflicts rather than the long-standing ‘war.’ They pay more attention to the wounds from the battles than to the real reason for marital infighting.

If you solve a conflict, will you solve the quarrel? No. We need to go deeper, much deeper like James does. It is rather amusing to think that no body likes these spats including God, but we still participate in them! Now let us draw six observations from James 4:1-3 under God’s direction so that we can rightly understand how to solve our conflicts

1) Quarrels require cooperation. Two are needed!

Reflections on scripture

Both the Greek words James uses have the sense of two sides: war and battle. Notice the word ‘members’ is also used. This refers to limbs of a body. There is fighting within.

Reflections on Marriage

We might tend to fault our spouses for our problems, but we should be humble enough to accept that marital arguments require both the husband and wife. Great improvement comes when I refuse ‘to do war no more.’

2) Quarrelers are motivated to please themselves.

The word for pleasure (hedone) in James 4:1 is the root word for ‘hedonism,’ which is the now popular philosophy of living to please oneself.

The star of course is me!A couple needs to carefully examine what their chief goals are in life. Without careful thought, more than likely the world’s thoughts have influenced your attitudes and decision-making process.

3) The actual pursuit to fulfill their desires causes conflict.

James 4:2 says that they “cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. They are driven so much by their desires that they are willing to cause trouble in the lives of others to get what they want. This is the opposite of love. There is no thought of God and they are self-driven.

Sometimes spouses get a plan in their mind that they suspect will not be accepted by the spouse. They might get sneaky. Sometimes they just do it and surprise the spouse. Other times they will manipulate the other into agreement. Remember Delilah’s sweet words?

4) Quarrelers lack self-restraint and self-control.

They quite obviously either have no self-control or at least do not want to exercise it. “…So you commit murder. … so you fight and quarrel.”

“That is the way he is.” Actually we all have a sin nature. The point is some spouses will repent and turn to God for His Spirit to help them and their marriage. Others will not. We all are responsible for our deeds.

5) Quarrelers do not seek God’s way.

James 4:2 says, ‘You do not ask.’ They do not have a mind to seek what God wants or even to think how He might provide for them. Their prayers are manipulative much like witchcraft. They want to control God to get their wishes.

Seeking not God's WordFor some husbands and wives to ask God for something seems ludicrous. They get what they want the way they want. They can act mean, savage, sweet or even threaten their spouse just to get their own way.

6) Quarrelers lack a perspective of peace or oneness.

They accept the assumption that to gratify oneself is more important than the general welfare of the whole. In this case it is the church, but it can also refer to a marriage.

twoness expressed is marital conflictOneness expressed is marital harmony.If a couple lives without a commitment to oneness, then their wills will compete against each other. Peace will be substituted for disharmony until they live according to their oneness.

You can order the Building a Great Marriage printed seminar materials including handouts at the BFF Resource Center or just get the BFF Marriage Training Library which includes all our marriage articles including powerpoints .


A Perspective of Wealth on Marriages

Without immediate satisfaction, the evil nature betrays itself by fighting and quarreling. When both couples are working, some of their quarrels will be eliminated. Some work just to avoid arguments. This reduction in conflicts can result in just from being isolated, but James points out there is also the important money issue.

Danger of wealth in marriagesWhen the purse strings are tight, then the spouses need to give up more of what they would like. The couple needs to make decisions together and sacrifice together.

When each has their own job, they get to buy what he or she wants. Their wants are satisfied. The other spouse doesn’t have much say about it. James says that it is when they do not get what they want, that conflicts begin.

Does this mean that they have a good marriage? No, not at all. They just do not realize how they are living in the spirit of divorce. They have made separate lives for themselves. The tempter can easily cause them to stumble because of the way they live (or should we say ‘do not live’) out their marriage.

Some use Proverbs 31 to justify working outside the home. By closely examining this passage, we will discover that she focused upon meeting the needs of her husband and home. She worked diligently to fulfill her duties. One can easily see where her heart was. She had a spirit of service. There was no spirit of ‘twoness’ in that marriage.


buy marriage bookWe can spend all our time discussing this passage in James and not get to how to solve marital conflict. But before we move on, let us summarize this discussion on conflict by recognizing that the real source of conflict is our own hearts.

We allow ourselves to prioritize our own preferences over the wellbeing of the whole, in this case meaning our spouse and marriage. This is true in a church or in a marriage. The reason we become so aggressive in meeting our own needs so that we will even become pushy or selfish (which is always impolite and unkind) is because of our selfish nature. Deep down below, we are out to please ourselves.

Some people have mastered how to use fear, anger, self-pity, worry, or silence as a means to get what they want. They regularly approach some situation in a certain way to get what they ‘need’. God wants us to live by faith and obedience instead. The faith is the necessary trust in God to help you accomplish what He is asking you to do.

Now frankly if you are non-Christian, you need to come to know Jesus. He not only takes our sins away but also gives us a new nature built on love. Everyone’s old nature runs on the same fuel of selfishness. There are many who profess to be Christians just because they raised their hand as a child.

That might shape where you go to church on Sunday, but it doesn’t change your heart. You need to repent from your selfish person, seek cleansing in Christ’s blood by believing on Jesus and start living out Christ’s Spirit of love that now generates your new life. If you don’t want to live God’s way of love, then you need to be saved. Your lusts are ruling you and will take you into eternal judgment.

If you are a genuine Christian and still struggle greatly with these issues, we can be confident that God is able to and desires to help us out faster than we ever thought possible. We have the power to live a godly life in Christ by living out the fruit of the Spirit. Of course, we can also by choice and deception fall to living by our old nature.

Think of it as a car with two gears. When you put it in one gear, it will always go forward (northbound). But if you put it in the other gear named reverse, it will always lead you backwards (southbound). What direction do you want to go in? What kind of marriage do you want? You will either choose to live by the Spirit or the old selfish nature.

By living by God’s Spirit, we will serve Him and others. By living by the flesh, we will serve those old desires and ourselves.

Steps to Bring Relief from Past Conflict

If your marriage has had these fights and quarrels, then you have been missing out on God’s great design of marriage. You simply do not need to argue, though there will be disagreement. Here are a few steps to help you out of your quagmire.

(1) Identify these pleasures or desires. What is it that has been driving you into conflict?

(2) Repent from seeking your own gratification rather than God’s will. Focus on your own shortcomings rather than your spouses.

(3) Commit to doing God’s will regardless of the consequences. You as a Christian are to serve God.

(4) Follow God’s will. Talk is empty without action. (More on this is coming next.)

(5) Patch up ‘war’ scars. When you have hurt others, then you need to apologize, confess your wrong and ask for forgiveness.


We have learned a lot about conflict. We have even begun to identify some real issues that are under the arguments couples have. We must not try to solve the conflicts first but understand and deal with why there is war in the first place. Some people are glad to win this or that battle but have never asked why there is fighting at all. Our goal is to end the war and gain harmony. We need to decide clearly that we no longer want to make our selfish desires our priority. It has been destroying our marriage.

The couple is one, not two. As husband and wife, are we not on the same team? Do we not have the same goal? Aren’t we both winning when the other does well? We sure are! We will now look into a passage that leads us to take positive steps to implement this God-promised harmony!

B) Creating Marital Harmony (Philippians 2:2-5)

God, the great Reconciler, coaches us on conflict resolution in His Word. We just are not very aware of it. Philippians 2:1-11 is better known for theological statements than for dealing with issues like personal problems, but this was its original purpose. Christ modeled what He wants lived out in our own lives. We will limit our discussion to the first five verses.

“Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:2-5).

This passage is almost the opposite of what we just looked at in James 4. Here we have positive things we need to do to preserve our unity. The context is again how the members of the church should respond to each other in light of Christ’s grace and example. This might sound rather theoretical at first, but in fact it is ultra practical.

With each observation, we will also apply it practically to marriage as we did before. These are things you want to do. Most likely you do some of them already but have not yet understood how vital they are to a great marriage.

1) Remember the oneness.

Oneness as a couple“By being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose”(Philippians 2:2).

We see an inordinate emphasis placed on the life principle of oneness in verse 2:2: ‘Same mind,’ ‘same love,’ ‘united in spirit,’ ‘one purpose’  are all based on being of one body. This oneness concept should become a concept so deeply rooted in our hearts that it influences how we think (thoughts), care (heart and attitude) and make decisions (will).

 Marriage principle: Our commitment to our spouse comes from our marriage covenant and God’s declaration that the “two shall be one.” Our spouse is not just another person that we live with but is us. What happens to him or her, directly affects our own lives.  In all of our decisions we must think of our spouse’s well-being.

As we grow in our intimate relationship with our spouse, so we will have a similar mindset, a regular preferential treatment, common outlook on life and purposed to the same cause. A great marriage works as a team. Husband and wife are that team and can only win if they work together.

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
Did you talk or pray about them with your spouse?
Did you share any special verse that God has been speaking to you about with him or her?

2) Reject any impulse to selfishness.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit” (Philippians 2:3).

Paul hides no sin in the bag. He names the selfishness and vain conceit for what it is. Each is a hidden motivator. Selfishness produces actions and words, which cause a better result to come to yourself at the expense of others.

Conceit on the other hand is a high esteem for oneself and a prideful disdain for others. The conceit hides the guilt from selfishness justifying its action in a swarm of unholy lies such as, “I can use this for God better than he can.” “I’ve been a Christian longer than he.” “I’ve read a lot more than he.” “He has so many problems. What does he know!”

Marriage principle: We need to hate everything associated with the root of selfishness. Because of our pride, we can more easily spot our selfishness when we see our spouse respond with despair, aggravation, debate or selfishness over something we did. “You did what?

We will have a whole set of excuses prepared for our spouse’s antagonistic reaction. Instead of rebuffing them, respond with a humble “Perhaps you are right. Let me think and pray more about it. How about we talk more about it tonight?” Make sure you follow through.

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
• Did your spouse react strongly to something you did or said this past week? What was it? How did you respond?
• In light of what was discussed above, how should you have responded?

3) Devote yourselves in humble service to the other.

“But with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Philippians 2:3).

We rarely hear anyone applauding humility today, but Jesus does. Not only must we accept that we need to do humble things but our heart attitude needs to change also. We need to believe that the other person actually is more important than self for us to treat them so. This is humbling, but it is good. 

We can bypass the question whether or not the other really is more important. But with Christ as our example, we will accept as our life duty to treat people more special than we treat our own selves.

Marriage principle: Humility allows the guards to drop. Suddenly, your goal to meet the needs of your mate has become more important than satisfying your own pleasures. Your goal is now to serve your mate so that he or she is blessed by your presence. Humility by its own nature melts away argumentative and defensive attitudes. When you are humble, you are ready to see yourself as God sees you. Equally important, you are ready to do what God has called you to do as husband or wife. You are glad to serve Him and others.

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
• Were you at any point considered humble? What makes you think this way?
• Isolate one problem between you and your spouse. Humble yourself regarding it. Trust God for the results.
• Go and speak to your spouse, in a humble spirit, at the proper time about the issue. Note the reaction.

4) Consciously don’t watch out for your own personal needs.

"Look out for" comes from the Greek word 'skopeo' from which scope comes from.“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests. (Philippians 4:4)

 The word merely is italicized in the NASB because there is no word for it in the original. The translators put it in. The NIV does the same thing, but they don’t tell you. The verse clearly commands us “Don’t look out for your own personal interests.”

The word ‘look out’ comes from the Greek word skopeo from which our English word ‘scope’ comes from. Don’t fix your eyes upon your own needs. How desperately we need to apply this lesson to our lives. Disobedience to this one command causes us make many excuses for our selfishness. We can only do one or the other.

God wants us to purposely focus on caring for the other person’s needs. How many times have you held back God’s prompting of love or giving because you thought too much about your own needs?

 Marriage principle: The husband and wife have their God-given defined commands, which at times can make them feeling rather vulnerable. “If I do that, then he (or she) might….” God does not bring that thought of risk to your mind, the evil one does. He is tempting you. He plays on your selfishness and fears so to influence you to disobey God. Christ’s example showed how obedience is always more important than one’s own welfare. In Jesus’ case, it did cost Him His life but even then God worked the best through it. God said, “Don’t look out for your own personal interests.” We need to trust Him with the results.

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
• Did you feel prompted to do something this week for your spouse? Did you do it? Why or why not?
• Does the “If I do that, then he (or she) might….” ever play a factor in your decisions?

5) Commit yourself to think about the needs and interests of others.

“But also for the interests of others” (Philippians 4:4).

We are to seriously rearrange our lifestyle and choices so that we are more able to give consideration to the needs of others. I was sick last Sunday. One brother found out. On Monday he gave me a call to find out how I was doing. Perhaps it was a professional call because he is my doctor. I didn’t take it as that. I felt his concern and care. He made a call. Rarely do I hear of a doctor calling their patients today. But even if it was, he has implanted this focus on caring for the interests or needs of others as part of his profession. God’s love through his phone call came through bright and shining.

Marriage principle: Each spouse must make him or herself available to serve the other in any special way that God prompts. I know my wife is responsible to care for certain needs. God has appointed her to keep the house and children. But I try to make it easy for her. I take down our dirty laundry.

I vacuum our bedroom floor (not regularly enough). I try to put myDid you buy flowers for your wife? clothes away (even if I fold my sweaters backwards). I try to use our once a week date to drive her to a few places that she would not otherwise easily get to. I don’t count the time I spend with her talking and praying at night.

I try to think of her needs. Lately, I have been asking her if there is a ‘to do’ list for me to do (talk about being vulnerable).

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
•What steps have you taken to make life special for your spouse?
•Would you say that you treat your spouse more special because they are more important than yourself? How can you improve?

6) Glory in having an attitude toward life like Christ.

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

Seeking the CrossAttitudes change actions. Beliefs change behavior. We are to have Christ’s attitude and nothing short. We are to get excited about God’s calling for us in Christ. We get to do ‘good works’ just as Christ did. Our purpose is the same. We want to bring glory to God and help our neighbors. Each day we are to seek out the opportunities that He has created into the situations of the day. As we sensitively live in His presence, by faith we do them.

Marriage principle: Each spouse needs to focus on improving his or her own attitudes. We must not take up the other’s responsibilities but make it easier for to carry out their own and so cultivate the joy of life. We must serve without thinking of reward. Our reward is the joy of service and allowing Jesus to be part of our marriage.

Sometimes a husband might be stubborn in his pride or a wife caught in her depressed feelings. The other spouse is not to be easily offended but remember this special situation where you can be like Jesus to the other. It might take longer than we like for the other one to turn back, but do your best and trust the results to God.

FOLLOWTHROUGH Think through this last week’s significant actions and decisions.
• Is there a situation in which your spouse is being difficult? Write it down.
• Make a plan to love your spouse with Christ’s love, especially in those difficult situations. Prepare yourself long term. We have hope that such love finally melts down resistance but it can take a while. In the end our contentment is found in a growing love for God and showering our spouse with love.


We can see from the powerful example of Christ how we can begin to live out these principles in our marriages. All of these principles are built on God’s proclamation that as a married couple we are one and no longer two. Therefore we must live out that fact by practical steps, some of which are outlined above.

Possible Responses

Let me anticipate some different responses to the principles we have been gathering from God’s Word.

• Resistance. You might sense a strong feeling of resistant to these teachings. It might be a protective measure a person commonly uses when shortcomings are being exposed. Don’t be afraid of the Spirit of God. His ways are good. Through Christ you can find forgiveness for all sins. If you harden yourself, there is no ways to improve your marriage. Many marriages have broke apart in shame because partners hardened themselves.

• Shame. You might feel a lot of shame. It is hard when we see ourselves much like a cancer bringing damage to our own body. Just think, we could have used those same days, months and years to bring Christ’s loving presence. God forgives and empowers us as we humbly turn to Him.

• Shock. You might be shocked at how long you have been in church and yet never connected God’s Word with His principles. All of a sudden you see them applying to your lives. You wonder, “How could I have missed so much?” We can only say you are not the first or the last. Thank the Lord that His forgiveness is complete and He is willing to work with any humble soul.

• Argumentative. You might have an argument to contest something that has been said. We are not afraid of the questions as much as the argumentative spirit! These questions more often than not disguise guilt. Focus on what God has taught you. Clarify the principles and carry them out. Be open to your guilt and confess your sin.

• Too ideal. ‘Too ideal’ is one of those quick excuses that glosses over either our personal guilt or a refusal to obey. If a person sincerely believes it is beyond his reach but would like to aspire to it, then it would be better to rephrase the question: “I want to be like that. I have tried. I wonder if you have some suggestions on how I could better attain to that?”

• Yes! This is the way we would like couples to take the Lord’s teaching. “Oh yes, that is what we have been looking for in our marriage for a long time! Pray for us so that we can put it into operation.” Can you say that?


Now let us assemble together all the principles that we have learned today. The source of all quarrels and conflicts is right in our own selfish hearts. The sad part is that we have hurt the ones we love. The good part is that we have a Savior Jesus who is greater than our sins. The power of Christ can set us free to have the Christ-like attitude of humble service. As long as the self-serving spirit governs us, there is no chance for peace. A person’s selfishness will compete against the other.

Of course, if one person is gracious, then the marriage will become much better, but it will still be difficult. Would it not be better to have both spouses committed to an attitude and actions like Christ? God is willing to teach us. He has been all along.

He is with us today. He is listening to what our hearts are saying. Is it a cry, “Oh God help me be like you.” God has a plan to help those with that cry. God will answer your prayer. Trust Him and begin a notebook to keep track of how God rebuilds your marriage.

Here is a sample prayer.

Dear Lord, I have never realized how far our marriage has been off track. I thought we were above average. I now see that we are far from where you want us to be. Lord, please forgive me of my sin. I have failed many a time without even realizing it. Sometimes I did know of my selfishness but was stubborn. O make my heart tender. Break my love for self and my pride that stands as a soldier guarding my selfishness.

Let the war end. From this time on I declare a truce. I am now for peace. I choose your love and your presence. I want our home to be a place Jesus would be welcomed all the time. I know I have a long way to go, but you can help me. I might not be the sole cause for all the arguing in our home, but I know I am one real big part of it. Please forgive me. Let me not fear humility but embrace it as Jesus has. May I be a wonderful spouse. Please give us a great marriage Lord. We don’t deserve it after all that has gone on. But you are merciful. You are powerful. Do your work in our marriage to your glory. In Christ’s Name I pray, Amen.

Marriage Study Questions

Study questions, footnotes and the revised edition can be found in our BFF store.

Other resources:

Embracing humility is a new idea for many but basic to godly Christian living. Check it out.


Continue reading => Sixth session of Building a Great Marriage

This Building a Great Marriage is a long series. We have printed or download ebook editions which make it easier to read and are available with BFF's other great books in our store.

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You can order the Building a Great Marriage printed seminar materials including handouts at the BFF Resource Center or just get the BFF Marriage Training Libary which includes all our marriage articles including powerpoints, audios and videos.