The beginning of a new year can serve as a catalyst for dealing with old problems, including long-standing relational conflicts. Every family – every person – experiences conflict. Two people are all that it takes to set the stage and for the drama to begin. When it was just Adam and Eve, with no ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, or mothers-in-law, they probably argued over whether to go with the trim-fit fig leaf or the loose-fit sycamore.
Everyone experiences conflict, and we all have our own ways of responding to it. One way is with anger. The psychologist Neil Warren, who founded eHarmony, identified four common ways people express anger in conflict. Some people blow up, and there are shrapnel wounds all around. One never has to guess what is wrong with this kind of person. When the top of his head comes off you can see what is on his mind. He erupts like a volcano, and you know what’s bothering him.
There are other people who don’t blow up; they burn up. They don’t explode, they smolder. If asked, they will probably say that nothing is wrong. They even tell themselves that nothing is wrong. As far as externals go, everything is cool. But there is internal combustion going on, and it is eating them up. If nothing changes, their insides will eventually turn to ash.
Then there are people who pout. Their weapon in conflict is not explosive anger, but corrosive guilt. They suffer terribly, and yet, oddly enough, it is everyone else who is miserable. A good example is the older brother in Jesus’s famous parable of the prodigal son. He is conspicuously missing from the family celebration, demanding attention by his absence, and yet spurning it when it is given. His father asks him to join the others, but he lays on the guilt: “You give him, the bad son, a party. You never gave me a stupid party. You always loved him best.”
The fourth way people deal angrily with conflict is with payback, frequently delivered on the deferred payment plan. They slowly torture their victims, using words to injure, but often under the guise of humor. They won’t admit they’re angry, but they won’t be satisfied until they see their victims squirm – again and again.
The way conflict is handled can intensify it rather than quell it. The initial disagreement, handled appropriately, might have been resolved with relative ease but, dealt with in the wrong way, ratchets up the anger. One sees this often in troubled, long-term relationships, both at home and at work. The principals in the conflict can provide a long and specific list of complaints, but can’t remember where the trouble started.
At this point, a good counselor can be helpful. He or she can clarify the steps needed to resolve the conflict. But knowing the steps will not help much if the desire for a better relationship is missing. I have asked people point-blank, “Do you want a better relationship?” only to hear the response, “Yes, but…” followed by a list of accusations. Until the emphasis is on the “yes” and not on the accusations, real progress will be rare.
In conflict, people become profoundly adversarial, even when they compromise, concede, or withdraw. It’s been my experience, both as an observer and a participant in conflict, that the most important and most difficult step in healing a relationship is to stop thinking of the other person as the enemy and instead think of the unresolved issue as the enemy.
If people can do this, the conflict will often be resolved very quickly. But who can do this – who can think of the person who has injured (or is injuring) them as anything but an adversary? It is not what normal people do.
Perhaps not, but it is what spiritual people do. When I have had the privilege of seeing it happen, there has always been a spiritual dynamic present. The people who love enemies and do good to them, as Jesus instructed his followers to do, are conscious of God’s presence and confident of his help. Because God is real to them, they can risk being vulnerable to others.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/6/2017