Conflict: The Gift of Good Relationships
By Bo Stern-Brady
I loathe conflict.
I want life with the people I love to be happy and fun and sparkly. If relationships are a five course meal, I want every course to be dessert. However, I’m old enough now to realize that conflict is not just survivable, it’s the ONLY way to truly grow in connection and trust with one another.
My husband and I started dating three years ago. I think our first “conflict” was over how often (or actually - how NOT often) he texted me during the day. Please let me state for the record, I would have SWORN to you that I would never ever be the girl who gets angsty and moody because her boyfriend doesn’t text her enough. How silly. How middle school. How ridiculous. And yet…there it was. Undeniable evidence that Cliff did not love me enough to take a minute from his day to check in. Or, undeniable evidence that Cliff didn’t really love me at all. Or, undeniable evidence that Cliff was living a secret life as a Columbia River day-pirate. Or, perhaps he had been killed in a freak office accident involving a copy machine and no one had let me know. I mean, just all the crazy thoughts swirled as I waited for the ‘bing’ on my phone, signaling that he was still alive and in love with me.
Cliff, on the other hand, has worked very hard to be a great provider for his family. His job is an important piece of his identity and he takes it very seriously. Once he gets to work, he is very myopic and really does forget that other parts of his world exist so that he can make money to take care of those other parts. He is the hardest worker I know and his reputation in the workplace shows it.
That was two long paragraphs to tell you: We had dueling core values. I value the security that comes from knowing he is thinking of me and he values showing his love for me by doing a great job at work. But this reality wasn’t immediately evident to us. What was immediately evident was: He cares more about his job than me vs. she doesn’t appreciate the hard work that I’m doing so I’ll NEVER be able to make her happy. We initially judged each other’s motives incorrectly and harshly and in order to face the conflict squarely, we had to be willing to let go of what we already thought we knew. We had to do a couple of things repeatedly, in fact, in order to let this conflict make us stronger rather than sinking us. Here’s what we did and what we still do now when we face conflict (only now we do it a lot better and more automatically):
I had to hear him as someone who had a history of feeling devalued and a present reality of working very, very hard to raise kids and maintain a household and learn to cook and do all the laundry and SO MUCH in order to make sure his family was loved and whole. His default feeling was: “I’m already working so hard and it’s never enough.” I had to be willing to understand that he was overloaded and taking on a girlfriend could either add a lot of support to his life or it could add more things to his to-do list. He had to listen to me as someone who had been on her own and alone for a long time - who was longing to find where she fit in his life, rather than someone who was trying to control him.
We chose to believe the best.
It’s so easy to villainize someone with whom you’re in conflict and it’s almost never true. In our case, it definitely wasn’t true. Cliff wasn’t trying to hurt me and I wasn’t trying to control him. We’re just broken people with a lot of old scars that can easily distort the way we see things. So, before I talked to Cliff on the phone about this, I listed out all the ways I see the goodness of God in and through him and all the things about him I know to be true. He’s often told me when we’re in the middle of a conflict, “I know this isn’t true of you, but I feel…” He starts from a position of believing he knows me and that I want the best for him, even if I am often imperfect and flawed in my delivery.
We refused to threaten the relationship in the middle of conflict.
We stopped making statements like, “If we can’t work this out, I don’t even know if we should be together…” Those kinds of statements are so difficult and heavy to carry and they move a simple, resolvable conflict from a bother to a bombshell with the ability to blow up everything. Since we were dating, we knew the time might come when we would decide our relationship was not going to last, but we wanted it to be the result of the full scope of our way with one another and not over an isolated argument.
We found the treasure in the field.
This particular conflict is THE thing that helped me understand Cliff’s way at work and the how much he hates feeling like a failure in relationships. I discovered the tender parts of his heart and history in the way we communicate and these are things I REALLY needed to know in order to build a life with him. Cliff discovered truths about me that I wouldn’t have thought to tell him when the sailing was smooth: I am insecure and uncertain and terrified that I will lose the thing/person I love the very most. He also discovered that a tiny bit of reassurance goes a LONG way.
Our solution to our communication problem - and I know this might sound ridiculous but it worked SO well - is that when he was busy at work and couldn’t take time to get immersed in a long text conversation, he would just send me a heart emoji. When I got that emoji, I knew that he was thinking of me and loved me and that was enough. I would send a heart back to him and that was all it took to make me happy until our phone date. It was a simple solution, but to find it it we had to wade through a lot of complex emotions and experiences. That’s just one reason conflict has been a great gift to us and we hope to continue to steward it really well.
If you’re afraid of or avoiding conflict altogether, please consider the ways you might squeeze all the treasure out of it to discover new things about the relationships in your life. I promise there are important things to learn about them and about yourself that only conflict can unearth.