by Samuel Rainey
What’s the first thought or feeling that comes up for you when you hear the word “conflict”?
Memories of fights in the home growing up?
An urge that says, “It’s time to start running”?
For most people that I interact with in my counseling office, conflict brings up some pretty negative memories and experiences. Especially with couples who come in with years of unresolved conflict.
Here’s what I’ve found in the 15+ years I’ve been working with relationships: Conflict (like revenge) is always a dish best served cold. It doesn’t matter what the situation is or who it is with, when things get heated we humans tend to say and do some pretty stupid things.
The book of Proverbs in the Old Testament speaks frequently and pointedly to this very tension in relationships when it urges us: Don’t be a fool.
Here is a brief glimpse of what Proverbs says about the fool:
- “… fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7)
- “… a babbling fool will come to ruin” (10:8)
- “… the mouth of a fool brings ruin near” (10:14)
- “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” (12:16)
- “The prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly” (12:23)
When we don’t take a time out (yes, a literal time out), we don’t allow space for the truth of what is happening in the conflict. The more heated we get, the less capable we are of understanding ourselves or the other person.
Escalating conflicts lead to treating each other like objects, not people. If they are an object, we can easily turn them into an enemy, or the enemy.
And guess what happens when they become the enemy? You become the last hope for humanity! We somehow convince ourselves that the fate of the world depends on our ability to strike down and defeat this enemy. Or you might feel like the other person sees you as the enemy and you refuse to give up on defending your honor, even if it will be the death of you.
It’s not always possible, but take a step back to pause before responding when you’re in a conflict. In some relationships, stepping back will cause hurt, but that might be the best of two difficult choices. If the choice is to offend by taking a step back or risk saying/doing something you can’t undo, then take the step back. Let the conflict cool down. Then attempt to reengage.
Here are four questions that can help guide you as you seek to resolve a conflict. These questions can be done on your own, or you can do them together with the other person. You might want a piece of paper to jot some notes down to help you clarify your perspective. At the end, to illustrate how this exercise can work, I’m going to tell you a story about a couple and a conflict they had.
When you’re answering this question about a conflict, begin with a brief prayer asking God to help you be objective. Ask Him to distract you from the speck of dust in the eye of the other, and to show you the log in your own eye (Matthew 7:3).
1. What happened? (data)
Write down as much as you can recall about the incident, focusing on facts. And remember there are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth. Most all of us think that “my side” is the same as the truth. I hate to break it to you, but those are not synonymous. Your side of the truth is what you saw, experienced, and witnessed. Those are important, but don’t elevate your perspective with being the full, unadulterated truth.
As you will see in the example I provide below, this can be a bullet point list of what happened, or you can make it more of a narrative form. Regardless of your format, don’t interpret what happened; just write or consider the facts of what happened.
You might even want to try looking at the event through the eyes of the other person, or if you’re really brave, try looking at the event through God’s perspective.
2. What feelings came up? (emotions)
The feelings I see come up with my clients regarding conflict include anger, guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, shame, unworthiness, rage, anger, sadness, loved, unloved, and hopelessness.
Psychologist and author John Bradshaw describes emotions as “energy in motion.” If we don’t direct our feelings into productive actions, we will react and act out our feelings in unproductive ways.
In the example below you’ll see that Alyssa “acted out” her guilt by accusing Tim of being too loud. Instead of taking care of what she felt, she took them out on Tim.
Just as you did with the first question, you might want to spend some time considering what “the other side” felt as part of this conflict? What do you imagine God felt?
3. What did I do to contribute to the conflict? (actions)
There are many questions God asks to various people throughout history. One of the most gutting and painful questions was in Genesis 2:13 when He is speaking to Eve about her and Adam sinning. He says, “What is this you have done?”
This question “What did I do to contribute to the conflict?” is both a question to illuminate your potential wrongdoing and an invitation to address how you are taking care of the emotions you felt. It’s a question that can lead to a do-over.
Unlike the suggestions in questions 1 and 2, do not spend any time naming or addressing what the other person did about the conflict. Trust that God will take care of them in His timing (2 Peter 3:8-9).
4. What do I need to do, and what help do I need? (needs)
Knowing you can’t fix or resolve everything is normal for all relationships. We all need help outside ourselves.
Needs allow us to recognize one of the most important truths about relationships: There is a God, and He is neither you nor me. When we can own this about ourselves and others, we give both of us room to fail and be imperfect. Failure is a part of being human, and thus speaking the words “I need help” is a sign of health and hope for your relationship.
Be careful about naming a want as a need. For instance, I might want my wife to apologize, but I don’t need her to do so in order to forgive her. Think of it this way: Wants are like creature comforts making your trip more enjoyable; needs are essential to the trip and your survival.
Before I get to the story of Alyssa and Tim, I hope you have found a few items that you need to make amends for (an action, feeling, or thought you had that was of ill-will towards the other). Making amends will be one of the best gifts you can offer the other person as you both work towards resolving the conflict.
Now let me introduce you to Alyssa and Tim. They’ve been married 12 years and have two girls ages 8 and 11. Lately they have been getting lost in conflict because Tim often mis-interprets what Alyssa says, and she feels like he often blames her. Neither of them can figure out why their minor disagreements inevitably turn into days-long fights.
In their last conflict, Alyssa told Tim that he was loud when he voiced his frustration about her forgetting it was her turn to pick up the kids from basketball practice. He rolled his eyes, said she was wrong, and went upstairs to watch TV.
She followed him upstairs and tried to resolve it, and it made things worse. They both yelled at each other and unearthed some resentments they had both been storing up for an occasion like this. Tim had enough, got up, and slammed the door as he left the room.
The next day Alyssa woke up and felt horrible about the night before. Not wanting to wait for days of silence and avoiding each other, Alyssa found the four questions we’d discussed in marriage counseling and got a piece of copy paper. She drew a line down the middle of the page and wrote “my side” at the top on the left, and then put “his side” on the right. She began writing, and this is what she came up with:
- Data – What happened.
- I forgot it was my turn to pick up the kids
- He had to get them because I had Bible study
- When he got home, I told him he was yelling
- He told me I was wrong
- He went upstairs
- I followed him
- We yelled at each other
- He slept downstairs
- Emotions. What feelings came up?
- Ashamed for forgetting to get kids
- Guilty for Tim having to go get them
- Like I’m a bad wife and mother
- Angry that our life is so busy
- Exhausted by all the activities
- Hurt by all the things he said
- Actions. What did I do?
- Forgot to get kids from basketball
- Told him of being too loud with his frustration
- Followed him upstairs
- Yelled and insulted him for being mean to me
- Drank two glasses of wine before going to bed
- Help. What I need to do or get help with?
- Need to apologize:
- For forgetting about getting the kids
- For choosing the wrong time to criticize his tone of voice when he got home
- For keeping the fight going by following him upstairs
- For insulting him and yelling at him upstairs
- Need help with:
- Need grace when I forget something
- Need communication on our schedule because of how busy we are
- Need to be a priority with time and attention. Dates. Gifts. Etc
- Need to be reminded that I’m not a bad mom and wife
After she finished, she asked Tim if he would be willing to revisit what happened. She told him that she’d done the 4-questions exercise and that she wanted to share what she’d learned. He agreed and they went and sat on the porch.
The first thing she did was to apologize for the ways that she didn’t handle herself right or treat him well. These short and brief apologies set the stage for an incredibly productive conversation about what happened the night before. They were no longer reacting to each other. They were no longer defensive or at odds. Her apologies softened his heart. Her humility won him over (1 Peter 3:1). All of this added up to them reconciling the fight and found a couple of ways to care for each other better in the future.
Samuel Rainey is a marriage and family therapist.