Greg Smalley, a longtime marriage counselor and psychologist, has worked for several years to help married couples deal effectively with conflict.
He has included many of his insights about conflict in his book “Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.” Smalley, 38, and his wife, Erin Smalley, will lead a free marriage conference based on the book on Jan. 18 in Oklahoma City.
Smalley, executive director of marriage and family formation at Focus on the Family, said he and his wife will celebrate their 21st anniversary in May and they have four children.
In a recent telephone interview, he discussed the ways married couples face the challenge of conflict and what couples who attend the conference later this month will learn:
Q: Your book title is catchy. Why did you give the book that title?
A: I like it for its multiple meanings. For example, I love the idea of fighting for my own marriage as far as fighting to make sure it's strong and healthy and that we're growing together. I love the thought ‘what have I done for my marriage today?' It's this idea that we've got to be constantly doing things to strengthen our marriage. I like it in that sense. But the other big part of it is it is obviously a book about conflict. People, especially in a marriage, view conflict as a bad thing, something they should avoid. Either they grew up around a horrible role model regarding conflict or they never saw conflict — their parents would just disappear and then come back and everything was OK so they never learned how to really deal with it. In their own experience, it never goes well, so people avoid it. That's so tragic because there's so many benefits that we can gain from facing our differences. Instead of avoiding conflict, it's something that I have an opportunity to go through with my wife, knowing that on the other side of that, I'm going to learn new things about her and learn new things about me and I'm going to learn new things about our marriage. That was the other part of the title.
Q: Why did you write this particular book at this particular time? Were you looking at certain statistics or had you been dealing with many people with conflict challenges?
A: I think for me, in a very broad sense, I think if we do two things and do them well in our marriage, then we're going to have a strong marriage. I would say on one hand we need to learn how to manage our conflict, deal with problems and differences. Couples who have great marriages have learned how to really manage their conflict. Then on the other hand, we have to learn how to invest regularly in the marriage. We have to do the kind of things that will strengthen it. One is kind of proactive but then I've got to learn how to be reactive at the same time, when conflict breaks out. Those are the two things that I'm passionate about and I've written a lot on conflict. I've never kind of taken the things I've learned over all these years and put it into one book. I was excited about this book saying conflict isn't something we should be afraid of. This is really meant to say you've got to understand what's going on when you get into a fight. I teach that it's really when your buttons get pushed — these are your deeper emotions — that you're going to react. In the process your heart closes. It's like this roly-poly bug.
Q: Can you talk a little more about this process?
A: In a marriage, when conflict comes up, he shuts down, she shuts down, their hearts close. Then we just get in this cycle. So part of the hope is to really show couples, here's what's really going on. It's not about money. It's not about your job. It's not about sex. It's not about the kids. Those are topics. It's when you deal with those things, your heart closes and then you react. The hope is if you can get that, the next question is if instead of reacting when my buttons get pushed, what should I do? In the book, it lays out hey, when my buttons get pushed, I need to deal with me first. Long before I try to talk to my wife or deal with the issue, I need to get my heart back open. Instead of reacting by yelling, or withdrawing or defending myself or whatever the reaction might be, I need to deal with that stuff. The first step is I've got to deal with me first. Once my heart is open, I'm ready to be a listener. I teach people how to really do that. Once we kind of have an opportunity to really hear each other, then we can solve something as a team.
Q: So conflict is natural?
A: It's absolutely inevitable. In any relationship, you're going to step on toes. My attitude with couples is that you are going to fight. Learn how to do it right. It's sad when couples feel they need to avoid conflict.