When Couples Collide: Navigating Relationship Conflict Around Science
Do you and your significant other agree on everything? What about science? How can we talk to those we love with grace while standing firm in our convictions?
It was too late, I’d lost my temper with her. A volley of angry words flew from my mouth like arrows. I got to my feet and stormed out of the room—slamming the door for good measure. Once upstairs, reason reasserted control as I sat on the bed. What had I done? Waves of sickening regret and shame washed over me. By the time I’d calmed down, I felt like a complete fool; which was exactly what I had been. You don’t need to be William Shakespeare to know that “the course of true love never did run smooth.”1 In romance, arguments and disagreements are inevitable. What matters is how you deal with them.
I’ve had the joy of being involved in local church ministry for more than nine years. Over that time I’ve seen couples face a range of challenges and struggles in their relationships. Moreover, as a families worker (and as an Elder) part of my role is to help equip our church with the tools they need to navigate these challenges—preferably, before they emerge.
This is not an uncommon goal and churches often succeed in helping Christians navigate typical relationship “flashpoints.” Especially, when the source of tension is money or expectations, the wider family, or sex. But what if the cause of conflict is something more nuanced like modern science, climate change, or evolution? What then? Below are two questions about relationship struggles concerning science and evolution. Following each question, there is some practical advice for finding a way forward. Whilst the examples are specific, the advice is applicable beyond the specifics.
“I’ve started dating someone with a different view of evolution. Should I break off the relationship?”
This is a question that has a simple answer: it depends. The longer answer is more complex. Let me explain.
Imagine a relationship as two horses pulling a carriage. If both horses set off at the same speed and in the same direction, the journey to their destination will be relatively smooth. However, if at a certain part of the journey, the horses begin pulling at different speeds, or in different directions, then the journey will be uncomfortable and may have to be abandoned. The horses best equipped to pull the carriage will be those who are best matched. Similarly, one of the simplest ways to avoid future relationship conflict is to date someone whose core beliefs best match your own.
Now don’t mishear me. I’m not suggesting that you start looking for your opposite sex doppelgänger! My wife and I have been happily married for ten years and we have very diverse interests. (She enjoys running, puzzles, maths, and action-thriller movies. I like reading, insects, computer games, and science fiction films!) But we are on the same page when it comes to key worldview-shaping issues. It might be that your relationship can survive such a difference of opinion—ours did for a number of years. But, it might not. Before you do anything, I would recommend some open and honest dialogue with your new (or prospective) partner.
I say this because science (and experience) show that romantic attraction can cause us to make poor choices in the name of love. When we begin to feel romantically attracted to someone, our brains are flooded with chemicals. Specifically, hormones like testosterone (in men), estrogen (in women), dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin.2 In other words, when we begin dating someone, we really aren’t thinking clearly! It is no wonder then that as we enter a relationship, we can easily minimize, compromise, overlook, or even hide things that we might not in other circumstances.3 Many of these things could become a source of tension and conflict later on in a relationship.
Be honest as you discuss it together. How important is this issue to you? Are you or they likely to change your minds any time soon? Look to the future together—how happy would you be attending a church that taught that the Bible is incompatible with evolutionary science? If you have children, would you both be happy with them going to a public school which taught evolution as fact? If you homeschool, what will you teach them about the origins of life on earth, and who is going to do the teaching? If you are serious about the relationship, then it’s vital you have this conversation as early, prayerfully, and as honestly as possible. You may find it helpful to discuss the situation with older married friends or family who know you well. Encourage your new date to do the same.
It may be that different views on evolution are not that important to you or your new partner. It may be that you can agree to some ground rules that will help you navigate the scenarios I mentioned above. Conversely, these may be red line issues for you. If that is the case, you may find it better to make a clean break now (as hard as that might sound). But better that than risk unresolvable conflict further down the line. At the end of the day the choice, and responsibility for that choice is yours.
I care deeply about the environment. My spouse keeps making fun of my views on climate change, and often gets angry and defensive about their own views. How can I get them to see my side?
Defensiveness along with contempt, stonewalling (the cold shoulder), and criticism have been called the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.4 Much like their New Testament namesakes, research has shown that left unchecked, these negative traits can spell the end of a relationship (or at least a happy one). But knowing how to respond to them can be hard. However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible. To find a way to manage disagreements like these, it’s worth asking the question: What do you want to happen? Do you want them to see that you are right and they are wrong? Or do you simply want to be able to talk about the issue in a way that leaves you feeling respected and heard? In the short term, it is unlikely you’ll be able to have both.
So how do we find a way to peace? To begin with, it’s helpful to understand what is going on “in the moment.” In reality, defensiveness is “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.”5 That sounds complex, but it is actually quite simple. When your spouse acts defensively, they are perceiving your complaint as an unjustified attack on them as a person. That probably sounds unreasonable. But remember, their defensiveness is an emotional response, not a rational one. They may not even be aware of what they are doing.6 None of this makes their actions excusable, but it does make them more understandable. And with understanding comes compassion; a vital ingredient in reconciliation (Colossians 3:12-13).
A continued defensive attitude can be infinitely frustrating for the other person in the relationship. However, as hard as it might be, try not to act on that frustration. If you do, you may find that you reinforce the idea that your issue is with them and not how they are acting. Remember, your goal is to be able to speak to them without them acting defensively, so that you can deal with the real issue: their disrespectful attitude to your beliefs about climate science.
Three Strategies for Good Conversations
With all that in mind, here are a three strategies you can deploy when having hard conversations
- Ask “Why?” This is one of the hardest, but maybe one of the most important strategies to begin with. Openly, honestly, and without self-condemnation, ask yourself, “Was there anything in the way that I responded to these jokes that might have contributed to this reaction?” It could be what you said, how you said say it, or even your body language. Let me be clear though, a spouse intentionally mocking personal beliefs is not okay. But then, neither is returning the volley out of anger or hurt (Proverbs 15:1). If you identify something (and you may not), pray about it, and then make a plan for how you’ll respond differently next time.
- Be Positive; Lead with Love. If the defensive person is anticipating an attack, then one way to circumvent this is to begin with a compliment and end by acknowledging their feelings. Try something like, “I’ve always felt like I can talk to you about anything. I love that about you. But these jokes are making me feel the opposite. I know this is hard to hear, but I want you to know that I love you too much to let this go.” Now, you do actually have to be genuine here, otherwise they will see through your words and feel manipulated. But when done well, it helps your spouse understand that your issue is not with them, but with the behavior.
- Be general, not specific. In the moment, it is easy to focus on their actions. However, a defensive person may well “hear” this as a personal attack. Instead, try depersonalizing your response. Rather than saying, “Why are you always making fun of me like that? It is so disrespectful!” which may trigger a defensive posture, instead try, “I enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone. But when people make fun of my views on climate change, it leaves me feeling disrespected and small. Can you see how I might feel that way?” Essentially, we are trying to do two things here. First, we’ve taken focus away from them and so removed the threat of personal attack. Second, we’ve invited them to empathize with the way you’re feeling. This, in turn, invites them to make the connection between their actions and how you feel as a result.
Whilst these are solid strategies for dealing with conflict, remember, they are not silver bullets. Their goal is to defuse the tension, so that you can respond with compassion. That in turn, paves the way for healthy communication around an ongoing issue. Effective communication that can lead to reconciliation, and reconciliation, peace. As such you may find some strategies work whilst others don’t. That’s okay, all relationships are different. Use what works best for you and your spouse.
Having the correct tools to hand
The two examples above, are on one level, very specific. However, on another level, they are examples of two perennial relationship challenges. The first, thinking through the possible risks and consequences of dating someone with a markedly different worldview-shaping belief to yourself. The second, marital conflict resulting in hostilities and growing breakdown in communication.
How these common typical relational ‘“flashpoints’” express themselves might look different, unique even, from one relationship to another. But by and large, the methods and strategies to deal with them will look more or less the same, even when they are applied to different circumstances. In both examples, the strategies I suggest are designed to either foster conversation around the issues (different opinions on evolution) or remove roadblocks to communication about an issue (defensiveness). In both scenarios, the specifics could be replaced with any number of other variables7 or reactions8 and the strategies for dealing with them remain largely unchanged. That’s because the strategies are tools—nothing more. The more tools you have in your relationship toolbox, the more likely you’ll be able to reach for the correct one the next time a relationship challenge arises—which it will!
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
David Brooks | To See and Be Seen
Jessica Moerman | No Act Too Small
Mónica Guzmán | The Gift of Curiosity