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Several months ago our church hosted a marriage conference. You can hear one of the speaker’s sessions on conflict here. During the last session, there was a panel with couples who had been married for different amounts of time. Sharon and I were asked by our senior pastor to be on the panel as the older couple. At first, we objected. “We are hear to learn,” we told him.

On the panel, we were open and honest about how hard we have had to work at our marriage. In Sharon’s words, “If marriage is a dance, then there are times it felt like we were stepping on each other’s toes.”

Preparing for that panel caused us to recount several of the storms that we had endured together. In talking about those times on the panel, I used the concept of “pulling the fire alarm” and I thought that might be helpful to think about in this article. You can hear me talk about it at around the 17:10 mark of this podcast.

Let’s start by thinking about three different types or levels of conflict couples face.

1. Low-level issues. Some problem are minor inconveniences and annoyances. This other person is a unique individual. He or she does things differently. Some don’t matter. For example, if there are two ways to drive to a destination, inevitably Sharon and I will choose different roads.

Other small annoyances have to do with different values. One person wants the place fastidious and the other doesn’t care about the clutter. Couples have to learn to work through these all the time, compromising as they go.

The key verse for problems at this level is 1 Peter 4:8. Love covers a multitude of sins. Not all of these are sins, but some may be. Love covers over some things. Love does not nitpick. Love does not grumble or develop a bitter heart.

2. Medium issues. However, not everything is a low-level issue. Some are more important. At this level we seek to be understood and perhaps bring about change in the other party. We want to be careful that our conversation is not destructive. But if we don’t talk about the problem, then we will start to develop a bitter heart or the relationship will wither.

God brings us together to sharpen and encourage each other. Without the iron sharpening iron, there will not be individual growth. We will not be helping each other become our future glory-selves.

Medium issues should be brought up at the right time and place. See this article on the coffee date.

The key verse for this is found in Matthew 18:15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Here, Jesus is telling us that there are some issues that we cannot nor should overlook. In a healthy marriage, disagreements are regularly being discussed in a healthy way.

3. Big issues. Finally, there are issues that are too big to ignore. These are the “pull the fire alarm” issues. We pull a literal fire alarm when there is a fire too big for us to handle. We want the outside help of the fire department. Similarly, there are times when couples have issues that beyond their control. Too many couples try and resolve fire alarm issues on their own. But this is where we need the church community, wise friends, and pastors. Each of those parties can help us and help our spouse. But we need to recognize the size of the issue and pull the alarm.

Pulling the fire alarm means other people will know. As I have learned on a few occasions, you can’t pull a fire alarm (or call 911) and have one fireman show up. They all show up. But it is for good! As couples we owe each other protection not secrecy. But it is good to let friends know.

Not only does pulling the fire alarm let others into your problem, it causes you to stop and focus. Sometimes we are so busy that we view a marital problem as an annoyance. It flares up every now and then but it is not something major to work on. Pulling the fire alarm tells you this is serious and needs attention.

The key verse for pulling the fire alarm is also found in Matthew 18:16: But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. In this verse, Jesus is telling us that some issues need others involved. Sometimes that third party can help one of us see something we are not seeing.

Sharon and I went through one church issue that affected us individually and our marriage. It took its toll on our relationship. When I realized this was happening, I “pulled the fire alarm” in my head, I slowed down, worked less hours, and spent extra time listening to and talking to her.  Another time, we pulled the fire alarm, we met with a wise couple in our church.

Everything is not a big deal. But some things are. And they need to be treated as such.

Listen to the podcast to hear a few times we have had to pull the fire alarm for our marriage.

That’s about it for the week.

Blessings on your family discipleship!