What I Learned About Leadership from a Fight with My Wife

Gail and I have been married for thirty-three years. She is my lover, my best friend, and my coach. But a few days ago we had a fight. It was a doozy.

A Husband and Wife Reconciling After a Fight - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mediaphotos, Image #11553872

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/mediaphotos

It’s not important what it was about. It was one of those issues we have stumbled over previously. But I will admit that it was my fault. I ambushed her and let it escalate beyond what the circumstances warranted.

Thankfully, it ended well. Primarily, because Gail was patient, refusing to react to my rant. This was enough to end what Emerson Eggerichs calls, “the crazy cycle.” (If you haven’t read his book, Love and Respect, you must do so. It’s the most practical book on marriage I’ve read.)

Weary—and feeling a little foolish—we asked one another’s forgiveness and restored the relationship.

As I was reflecting on that experience today, I thought to myself, How can we avoid slipping into this same conflict in the future. I wrote down five lessons I want to remember for the future.

  1. Clarify our expectations up front. Most conflicts are born out of a misalignment of expectations. In this particular argument, I had a set of unexpressed expectations that Gail failed to meet. If we had discussed them before the day began, we would have likely avoided the problem altogether. But, she didn’t know, because I hadn’t bothered to articulate them.
  2. Assume the best about each other. This is especially difficult in the heat of the moment. It is easy to impute motives. But, realistically, your spouse does not get up in the morning intending to make your life miserable. You have to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he or she is well-intentioned.
  3. Affirm the priority of the relationship. The most important asset you have as a couple is the health of your relationship. You don’t want to win the battle but lose the war. Near the end of our argument, I finally came to my senses. I said, “Honestly, I don’t know who is right or who is wrong. What I know for sure is that I love you and that trumps everything.” She quickly agreed.
  4. De-personalize the problem. When you square off against one another and make it personal, it gets ugly. If you are not careful, you end up cornering your spouse and leaving them no other option than to react or retaliate. Instead, you have to move to their side of the table, and work on the problem together.
  5. Listen more than you talk. When you get angry, it is easy to rant—to give expression to your emotion. This is almost never a good idea. Instead, if you want to be understood, you must seek to understand. (Thank you, Dr. Covey.) This means trying to see the other person’s point-of-view. Ask a question, and then ask a follow-up question.

What does this have to do with leadership? Everything. If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. And if you can’t learn to manage conflict with those closest to you, how can you manage it with those who have less of a stake in the outcome?

Question: What have you learned from conflict in your own marriage? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Pingback: Czego nauczyłem się o liderstwie po ostatniej walce z żoną | Lifehacker Polska - usprawnij swoje życie | Lifehacker Polska - usprawnij swoje życie

  • http://amylynnandrews.com Brian Andrews

    What’s helped me is memorizing and meditating on my job description (Ephesians 5:25-33) and praying for my wife every day.  It’s really helped when I’ve been tempted to have an adversarial attitude.

  • Pingback: The Secrets of a Successful Marriage | NLP THIRTEEN

  • http://twitter.com/niallgavinuk Niall Gavin

    There is nothing more infuriating – and with the potential to push an argument (or even a relationship) even further into the irrecoverable – than either party making  erroneous assumptions of the other’s motive. We’ve learned to listen to/hear each other without prejudice, but it’s been a hard-won place to get to (it’s taken us nearly 30 years).  Thanks for this post Michael.

  • Pingback: Cfare mesova nga zenkat me gruan:) | Lemsh e li | Pak nga ketu a pak nga atje

  • Christy

    We were at a marriage retreat with Jon Coursin this past weekend and he just kept saying,”Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” From Matt. 6:21.  His comments and then your post regarding the aspect of always thinking the best of your spouses intentions hit home for me. If my heart is invested in the things of the Lord and I “assume” the best of my spouse it really takes the fight out of my naturally sinful heart. Thank you!

  • Pingback: 3 Good Posts

  • TD

    Insightful and concise, How do I affirm the importance of the relationship w/o my need for alone time threatening her?
     I might add there is no infidelity or abuse in this 30 year relationship just fears on her part of not being loved enough and fears on my part of not being able to fulfill my responsibilities and being smothered. I also tend to withdraw from intimacy.

  • Josh


    Had a big fight with my wife tonight.  We have only been married 4 months.  Thank you for this post.  It and the book your recommended are a blessing in this dark moment. 

  • http://twitter.com/TheScottMorgan Scott Morgan

    #4 might well be the most challenging, in my experience.  You almost can’t help but to be or get personal with this person with whom you live, and it becomes very easy to cross that line (especially where anger or hard feelings are involved).  But I also agree with the nod to Stephen Covey…understanding the others’ frame of reference is important to a mutual resolution.  I can just about guarantee that you can’t get to that point if you violate #4.  Keeping things as objective as possible is most definitely a necessary component to conflict resolution.