Some of the most dangerous physical structures on Earth can appear fairly innocuous because we only see a small portion of them. Ninety percent of an iceberg lies beneath the surface of the water. Inactive volcanic cones can overlie dikes of magma connected to yet deeper chambers fed from the Earth’s mantle hundreds of miles below the ground.
We should keep those images in mind when we think about conflict in relationships. Often the part that causes the most trouble is what remains hidden from view.
Conflict: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Conflict in relationships is inevitable, but it need not be destructive. Much of the progress we make in relationships and society comes because a problem creates tension, and that tension provides the energy to overcome the obstacle. Conflict, then, can lead to growth and progress.
I understand there are people who thrive on disputes and conflict. I’m not one of them, and most people aren’t, either. So we prefer to avoid direct encounters. Superficially, things may not seem that bad. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, a force could be building to catastrophic proportions.
We tend to focus on the contest of power in disputes, and it is a significant issue.
But even when two or more people are battling for control, it’s the underlying wounded-ness that really drives the relationships to a bad outcome. Many of these wounds are hidden from our view, and this can include the ones we carry.
Seemingly insignificant and unintentional acts can add to our partner’s injuries. Little jabs along the way and passive-aggressiveness can build pressure behind the emotional magma dike. Direct attacks and retaliatory strikes then exponentially escalate the whole process.
So what should we do when we care about someone, and we recognize tension in our relationship?
Make the first move.
Maybe you’re not the one who caused the problem. Perhaps you’re the one who’s been injured. Why should you be the one to make the first move toward reconciliation?
Because that’s what sacrificial love does. Love “does not brood over injury” (I Corinthians 13:6). Sitting back and waiting for the other person to make the first move often means neither of you will make any progress.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about not judging others:
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so you will be judged, and the measure with which you measured will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye, while the wooden beam is in your eye?’ You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5 NABRE
Embedded within this teaching is also a vital life principle: That reform begins with self. While it may be true that your friend has a splinter in his eye, before you start trying to help him clear his problem, you should recognize your own contribution.
Making the first move then means two things: (1) To look at yourself and identify your own weaknesses and contributions to the conflict, and (2) to reach out to the other person in a move toward reconciliation.
Reveal the hidden parts.
You will eventually need to deal with the apparent, exterior disagreement. If that’s all there is, and you can dialogue respectfully, you have lots of potential to negotiate a solution. But this will go nowhere if you have deeper issues that remain unattended. Much of the time we can sense that there’s something more going on—but not always. This means we need to gently probe and give the other person the opportunity to open up.
If your partner is nursing an injury, this may not be so easy. Exposing our hurts puts us at risk for getting hurt again. The other person may have erected great defensive walls and battlements to protect themselves. They may strike back in retaliation several times before they lower their guard. Being imperfect people with our own issues, we may find ourselves tempted to respond with a counter-strike.
To deal with the hidden parts, then, we may have to build or re-build trust. That means making ourselves vulnerable and perhaps even enduring some abuse before things simmer down.
Heal wounds first.
We need to build a bridge where both sides can cross and communicate. If we’ve hurt the other person, our first step should be to offer a sincere apology and ask forgiveness.
We may have hurt the other person without realizing it. This means we need to give them an opportunity to share their side of the story, first. If we’ve been at fault, then we need to admit our role and seek reconciliation. If we’ve been wounded, at some point we may have to share our story, too.
Sometimes we only need to listen and show empathy.
Regardless, recognize that if you want to restore your relationship, you will first need to work at healing the wounds.
Negotiation follows healing.
Once you’ve addressed the brokenness and pain, there still may be a particular issue you need to resolve. Now you can begin to negotiate. But your goal is not to maximize your position, but to find a solution that helps both of you realize what you want: a win-win outcome. This means you have to look at things from the other person’s point of view and work for their cause just as much as you are trying to achieve your own.
Next week we’ll look at a simple but effective technique you can use to put these four steps into practice.
Resolving Conflict is part of an ongoing series on the Christian faith and relationships.