Allow me to use an analogy that we can relate to from the home. I believe that the steps taken in dealing with a mess in the kitchen are much the same as the steps that need to be followed in resolving a conflict. For the sake of illustration, let's say that your child, while attempting to pour a drink, drops an open two liter bottle of soda on the floor. Think fast: what do you do first?
1. CONTAIN THE MATTER.
Make sure the mess doesn't get any bigger than it already is. Thus, you quickly grab the bottle and set it upright. Only a lazy fool would see the bottle fall to the floor and then watch as its contents poured out. A wise person will do his best to contain the spill. In the marriage relationship, it's the same way. We must do our best to contain the matter and minimize the problem. There will be messes, mistakes, and miscommunications that take us by surprise in any relationship, but the wise will not sit by idly and allow small messes to balloon into large ones. Action should be taken immediately to stop the problem from compounding and getting out of control.
Make sure you clarify the issue first. Do you really understand what the other person is upset about? Sometimes conflicts arise over non-issues because frustration has been brought home from work. At other times, we become irritable because of fatigue or because we're just not feeling well. A common mistake is to reach back into the history of the relationship and dig up old problems that were supposed to have been forgiven. You should never do this. Likewise, you should especially avoid sarcasm, false generalizations, and the issuing of threats in the midst of conflict. Sarcasm is kind of like shooting a gun blindfolded. You may or may not cause any serious damage, but it sure is dangerous! Most negative generalizations are not true and should not be uttered. For example, the hurtful statement: "You are just like your mother!", cuts several ways. Additionally, it is never wise to make threats: "If I wanted to, I could divorce you!" All of these things make matters worse.
Don't air your "dirty laundry" before others (not even your children) in an attempt to get sympathy or support. Doing such only makes marital conflicts grow. You wouldn't want someone walking through that puddle of soda on your floor and tracking it all over the house, would you? Likewise, why would we want our conflicts made known to others? Only Satan can benefit from such. If you want to talk about your spouse in front of others, make sure it is to commend them!
2. GO FOR THE QUICK CLEAN-UP.
There are very few circumstances I can envision where I would walk away from a two liter bottle of soda that was open and emptying itself onto the floor. I would try to contain the matter and then go for a quick clean-up, otherwise it would turn into a sticky mess and cause much more clean-up work later. To leave a mess like that on the floor would be asking for trouble. Likewise, when a problem hits your marriage and splatters, go for the quick clean-up! It's foolish and only asking for further trouble to ignore a problem and allow it to get worse. All messes clean up better now rather than later!
Well, Stephen, how does one quickly clean up a conflict? First and foremost, sincerely apologize for whatever role you had to play. Heartfelt apologizes go a long way toward minimizing conflict and keeping the joy in marriage. And, when you apologize, do it well--don't do it sloppy! Don't offer excuses or mitigating circumstances. Don't say: "I'm sorry, but the reason why I did that was because blah blah blah blah blah..." Friends, offer clean apologies, not messy ones!
In addition to offering sincere apologies, forgiveness is another key toward quickly resolving conflict. When I realize I have treated Ranae inappropriately, I do my best to apologize and ask her forgiveness. It is her duty then to forgive me and help further the reconciliation process (cf. Luke 17:3,4). Even after an apology is offered, it must be accepted and forgiveness extended in order to move on. When one refuses to apologize, he is in error and is guilty of making the conflict worse than it needs to be. Likewise, if one rejects an apology that is offered, then that individual is now in error and is guilty of compounding the problem.