Conflict: A Person vs a Principle

Published June 19, 1986. I was talking to a young man not long ago who was very concerned about his marriage. He said he and his wife were near divorce.

I asked him why, and he replied they didn’t agree on how to discipline their children. I suggested that most husbands and wives disagree on occasion about family concerns. Very few husbands and wives rear a family without disagreements of some kind regarding their children.

My friend said the problem had escalated, and the original problem regarding child discipline had now become a major power struggle between him and his wife. Being a very religious man, he perceived himself as head of the house. As such, he thought his wife should submit to his will and his way of doing things.

She claimed, he continued, she should only have to follow his dictates if he were acting in a righteous manner. And since he was acting in an authoritarian way, in her way of viewing things, she was no longer obligated to follow.

The man asked me what he should do.  Should he, as “head of the house,” as he frequently referred to himself, force this issue and insist his wife and their children do as he say?

Or, he asked, should he relinquish his role as “head of the house,” and listen to his wife?

It seemed that the man and his wife had become involved in a classic power struggle in their marriage. The original concern of how to discipline the children had been set aside in place of the overriding issue of who should make decisions in the marriage.

I asked the man at what point in a marriage does a principle become more important than a person? At what point will we sacrifice the relationship for the sake of a principle? Our way of believing how something should be accomplished?

In every marriage there are situations in which a principle should supersede a person. Most individuals, for instance, in marriage believe in the principle of fidelity . . . repeated extramarital affairs would not be tolerated. Many of us would terminate the marriage if the principle of fidelity were repeatedly violated.

There are undoubtedly other principles that would take precedence to the person. Few would or should tolerate repeated physical abuse of a spouse. And what are other principles? We all have them. Under what conditions would or should we terminate a marriage by divorce because a principle was violated?

And what about the concern of my friend? He and his wife disagreed on how to discipline their children. He wanted to discipline them his way, and she would not comply. Perhaps the situation was more complex than he indicated. But is the discipline of children an issue for divorce in contemporary marriage? In a few instances it may be—but in most cases, surely not. Their marriage was intact long before the children arrived. And it can be long after the children leave.

When does a principle become more important than the person in marriage? There are a few situations where it is. But when should the person be more important than a principle in a marital relationship?

In the vast majority of the cases.

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