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When Two Goodwilled People Disagree in the Gray Areas of Life - Part 2

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In part 1, I made the argument that the vast majority of married couples going into battle with each other over disagreements they have are not doing so over black-and-white issues of morality. Instead, their disagreements—that at times escalate into knock-down, drag-out fights—are typically in the gray areas of life, where neither spouse is wrong, but one is “less right” than the other.

The first thing to keep in mind in these gray-area disagreements, I said, is that instead of fixating, escalating, and exaggerating in the situation, make sure to focus on acknowledging the ton of good things going on in the disagreement.

The second point I want to make here is that, when disagreeing about good goals, don’t claim to be 100 percent the victim.

For example, the wife who wrote me below affirms nothing of merit in her husband’s concern but frames it all negatively so as to receive the approval of people who do not hear his side. 

My husband says I am not submissive if I spend money on things that are not a need. We have a lot of debt that we are working on paying off, but my husband doesn’t let us have a life while we are paying down the debt. We are not allowed to do anything but work and go to church. We can only spend money on food and things that are only necessary. I am not allowed to do things with family or friends if spending money is involved. I have started working to help with the money, so I was hoping that since we have some extra money, maybe we could go out once a month or do something little without spending too much money? I did buy our son a shirt the other day that was $1.74, and I got into trouble because it wasn’t needed, so now my husband is getting us separate checking accounts. Am I wrong? Is he wrong?

Based on what she reports, how can one conclude anything other than her husband is wrong? 

In her words:

  • “My husband says I am not submissive.”
  • “My husband doesn’t let us have a life.”
  • “We are not allowed to do anything.”
  • “I am not allowed to do things with family or friends.”
  • “I got into trouble.”

If this wife’s report is 100 percent accurate, then we must conclude that this guy has a problem, he is out of line, and she’s married to a patriarchal creep. 

But over the years I have found that when the innocent and humble spouse reports on a situation like this, though they are the victim, they do not report that they are totally the victim. Instead, there is a measure of empathy toward the other person. They acknowledge what is good and appropriate about their spouse’s concerns. In the case of this wife, nothing is expressed about the reasonableness of the husband’s position. Zero. Nothing is said about appreciating him for:

  • taking them out of debt
  • working to get out of debt
  • focusing on meeting needs
  • going to church
  • setting up separate checking accounts, which suggests allowing her freedom and independence

When I dig deeper, another side of the story surfaces. For instance, I am no longer in shock to learn that they had recently gone through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace class and the husband had them commit to getting out of debt. She had agreed to not spending outside the budget no matter what. 

So in this exact situation as described above by the wife, when engaging a husband, I might hear,

She makes me out to be a control freak. Like the other day she bought a shirt for $1.74 and told everyone that she was in trouble with me for buying a shirt for a dollar. I pointed out to her that it wasn’t the shirt but that we had agreed to stay on budget no matter the price. She signed off on the simple commitment that we would only spend money on food and what is necessary. So, it wasn’t the $1.74 that bothered me but the fact that she didn’t do what she said she would do. This was about integrity to me. What pains me is that she struggles with shopping and I knew this was her way of inching over the boundary as a gateway to spending more next time. I didn’t care about a shirt for $1.74, since that’s a bargain; but because we have been through this before, I knew what she was doing. 

The ironic thing about this is, assuming everything he said here is true, none of it conflicts with her story. She, too, spoke the truth! However, she did not speak the whole truth, but instead held back what she needed so as to help her case as being 100 percent the victim.

We need to learn from this wife. When disagreements arise, we need to be accurate and fair about the other’s concern and position. When we attack them as controlling, unreasonable, unfair, and unkind, and therefore completely wrong, we won’t find a win-win remedy. We must affirm what is virtuous and of value in their position. That does not mean we immediately give in to their position but that in the early moments of the discussion we let them know we see their goodwill and the good in their proposal. 

In the third and final part of this article series, we will discuss one more extremely important strategy to keep a disagreement in the gray areas escalating into a full-blown fight: find the common ground.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. What did you think after first reading the wife’s email? Why? 
  2. How did your opinion change after you read the hypothetical response from the husband? Why did your opinion change?
  3. When we claim to be 100 percent the victim, what are we communicating to others about the type of person our spouse is? Do you think most people want their spouse to be perceived in this way? Why or why not?
  4. Have you ever been guilty of misrepresenting yourself as the full victim, even though your spouse had good goals as well? How so?