St. John of the Ladder, a prominent Church Father of Orthodox Christianity, offered some precious counsel about harsh and curt words that married couples can apply today. "Worse however is to give way to harsh words which reveal the upheaval on one's soul," he wrote. "Rough speech and harsh gestures will drive the splinter of 'contention even deeper." In this article I expand on St. John's teaching with a discussion on how married couples can resolve potentially contentious issues.
The "Preference Scale" is what I call a tool I developed years ago in my clinical and pastoral practice to help couples negotiate the conflicts and collaborate on the problems that marriage inevitably imposes. This tool can foster effective communication and eventual compromise between husband and wife. The clinician, chaplain, or pastor can help a couple master the tool, particularly in terms of "debriefing," where the couple develops a deeper understanding of previous conflicts that helps them learn how to handle future conflicts in more constructive ways.
One caveat is in order. The "Preference Scale" presumes a moderate amount of self-understanding on the part of each spouse. It won't work if the one or both spouses have unresolved emotional issues, or if they approach conflict and negation with a private agenda. I recommended professional counseling if these issues exist (Morelli, 2006a,b,c).
Developing a "Preference Scale"
The scale runs from +10 down to -10:
+10 +9 +8 +7 +6 +5 +4 +3 +2 +1  -1 -2 -3 -4 -5 -6 -7 -8 -9 -10
On the plus side of the scale activities or events that a spouse likes are rated; the greater the like, the higher the positive number. On the minus side activities or events that are disliked are rated; the greater the dislike, the higher the negative number.
Let me offer a personal example. I like classical music and would rate attending a concert quite high on the plus side. Tchaikovsky or Bach rate at least +9, maybe even +10. Opera is a different story. To my ear opera sounds like steel scraping against concrete, so much so that it deserves -9 or -10. What are some of my likes and dislikes more towards the center of the scale? I like camping only "a little" and give it a +3. Watching volleyball warrants only "a little" dislike and rates -3.
The scale is a simple but it works because it provides a way that that spouses can know the like and dislikes of their partner. I have discovered in my practice that very often the spouse who compromises on an activity that rates high on the negative side of his scale often ends up angry and resentful. They react unfavorably to the activity in ways that colors the whole episode so that the other spouse (who enjoys the event) feels disappointed and let down.
Granted, life is full of activities we often don't find pleasant. In a marriage however, limiting the unpleasantness of certain activities can strengthen a relationship by reducing stress and conflict. One way is to avoid activities that exceed -5 on any partner's scale. Couples who compromise "below the fives" often have a great time together.
Virtue in Marriage -- Divine and Human Justice
Sometimes a Christian spouse has a skewed idea of what he can expect of his partner. I have heard spouses say, "If my wife (or husband) really loved me or really was committed to me in Christ, they would do anything for me," implying that proof of the partners' love lies in performing an activity that rates in the high negatives of the scale. If a marriage worked like a monastery, this expectation would be reasonable. For all others, it's a recipe for conflict.
The expectation is predicated on a sense of justice, i.e., what is fair and equitable in human relationships. But the standard of justice for the monastic is different than what is required for a married Christian. In fact, the monastic fathers counsel against this type of expectation. Elder Paisius of the Holy Mountain wrote:
A monk must apply divine justice to his own life. He can let other take his cell and everything else he owns, if they wish to do so. On the contrary, I don't believe a family man should apply divine justice and become the reason for the rest of his family members to be upset. They can live according to divine justice, provided they all agree to do so. When others depend on you, you must always take them into consideration, so they will not end up suffering or being dissatisfied (Ageloglou, 1998).
The elder's can be applied in this way: If one spouse finds something so unpleasant to do and it lies within the purview of the other to alleviate the displeasure, it should be done. The "preference scale" is a practical way to help accomplish that end.
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.
Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications,
Morelli, G. (2007, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIII.php.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counseling-ministries) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.