Canadian winters are long, dry and dark. We gaze outdoors observing dead grass, dead leaves, and bare branches, which can lead to a gloomy mood.
As we shared things that help us get through winter, my friend notes paying attention to living things, her houseplants, her people, and recently, her seed catalog. She’s choosing packets to buy and calculating when she can start them indoors.
Inside, the seeds germinate and sprout under sunlight or a grow light. They look sharp and polished, like our kids on the first day of school. Then as the weather warms, no more frosty nights insight. we get ready to plant them into freshly tilled soil of our garden.
But we can't just take a plant and put it into the soil. They need to 'harden off' first to prepare them for new conditions.
Hardening is the process of exposing them little by little to the outdoor wind and temperatures, a few hours every day. This helps the structure of the plant grow thicker and increase protective measures, like the wax on the leaves.
If we miss this step, plopping our plants into freshly tilled soil of our garden, though we water and fertilize, the elements easily break the stems.
Conflict in our marriages does the same.
Often our marriages begin wrapped in a cocoon, like plants in a greenhouse, of excitement, romance, and friendship causing the relationship to sprout and start well. As the days of marriage go by, the spark of newness fades and like being set out into the garden, exposed to the reality of the elements.
Some of the environmental hazards of our marriage include:
Differences. The way opposites attract is interesting at first, but it eventually strains as you try to explain your point of view, knowing the other doesn’t really understand.
Disagreements. As a result of our unique perspectives, we don’t always see the same problem nor solution. There’s more than one way to make a bed, so decision-making proves a challenge.
Disappointments. Circumstances aren’t always what we wished they would be. Our spouse doesn’t act the way we expect them to, or how we want them to, which impacts our responses.
Amidst the challenges we face, as believers we have our footing in the good news of the gospel. This obviously doesn’t erase our conflict or problems, but the truth provides us a framework for thinking about ourselves and our relationships in light of what Christ accomplished for us.
As God created mankind, he fashioned us in his image, unique from every other living thing, in connection with him and with others. It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, he was intended for partnership. However, the lure of forbidden fruit and the lust of their heart landed them at odds with each other, as they point fingers of blame, then banished from the Lord’s presence.
Sin fractured relationship.
Sin fractures relationships.
Things aren't the way they should be. Sin gets in the way of connectedness, as "Genesis 3 explains why we who marry in happiness and hope get our hearts so deeply broken.”  Our deceitful hearts seek our own interests above those of others, we try to solve problems on our own, and pride prevents us from confession, from humbling ourselves in repentance.
But thanks be to God this is not the end of our story, since “through our sin we have corrupted God’s image in us. But God did not allow sin to define us.”  In the person and work of Christ, our relationship to God is restored, he knits his people together into a holy collection of imperfect knots. Yet, “connected to Christ our Savior, we are called and enabled by his grace to love others, including our spouse.” 
Empowered by the Holy Spirit our hope is not that we are perfect, but that we are being renewed each day, transformed into his likeness—learning more about his love for us and in response, how we can love others better, even in conflict.
As Tim Challies writes, “If Satan took up marriage counseling, he would want even Christians to focus more on the struggles and difficulties of marriage than on its joys. He would want even Christians to talk often about how hard it is and seldom about how good it is. And he would most certainly want Christians to forget all about the reality that the deepest meaning of marriage is not first about a husband and wife but about Christ and his church.” 
Though it's easy to live in discouragement as decisions and differences overwhelm, the gospel fortifies us and we don't need to lose heart. We wait for a blessed hope, the day all things will be made new again, and until that day comes we are given more grace and offer it to our spouse.
The hope of the gospel is not found in ourselves, but in the grace of God. In the same way, to bushwhack through the rough terrain of differences, disagreements and disappointments in our marriage, his grace will cut the way. For, “God’s mercy must inform our marriages because the gospel contains a logic for relationships...when we show this kind of grace toward our spouse, it makes it easier for our spouse to show it back.” 
So in practicality, what might this look like?
1 The Grace of a Pause
The blessed moment of waiting to respond. Instinctively we have a reaction to what’s before us, and we’re most eager to voice it when it’s in opposition. Proverbs reminds us, “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19).
What would it look like to pause before answering?
2 The Grace of Curiosity
What if, instead of responding with unyielding resolve, we asked ourselves a question:
Why is this important to me?
As we uncover the motives of our heart, we will better understand our response and in turn, communicate it more clearly. We may find the issue is not as important as we originally felt, or perhaps it is. In testing our motives, we’re practicing discernment, for “every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Prov. 21:2).
Are there any decisions you and your spouse are making? How can you practice curiosity?
3 The Grace of Connection
In an effort to bring clarity to disconnection on an issue, we can ask our spouse, “can you tell me why is this important to you?” and “what do you see as the goal in this?”
See, asking questions invites discussion. It’s impossible to observe what our spouse is thinking or feeling, our only strategy for uncovering what’s hidden is to offer an opportunity for them to describe it to us. In offering the question, we demonstrate love and care, by seeking to understand their point of view.
On an issue you're facing, how can you seek connection?
Whether we've been married a short time, or long, the winds of difference, disagreement and disappointment will blow in our relationship. Often my husband and I have started on opposite ends of a decision and after time find we've traded sides.
These can be opportunities for growth as we seek to honour the Lord with our responses and our love. If you're in a season of 'hardening off,' I pray these graces will strengthen the structure of your marriage.
 Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel, ch.1.
 Beth Falker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, ch.5.
 Chad Van Dixhoorn, Gospel-Shaped Marriage: Grace for Sinners to Love Like Saints, ch.1
 Tim Challies, If Satan Took Up Marriage Counselling.
 Chad Van Dixhoorn, Gospel-Shaped Marriage: Grace for Sinners to Love Like Saints,, ch.9.