We're created for relationship with God. And that relationship is expressed in many ways through our relationships with others. But sometimes those relationships go terribly wrong. People have the power to wound and scar us. The more we love someone, the deeper they can hurt us. And we have the same ability to hurt others. When the unity of a relationship is disrupted, we call that disruption "conflict." I don't know anyone who likes that word.
How does conflict affect us?
Technically, conflict is defined as "a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife; controversy; quarrel between parties; discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas."
Unaddressed conflict affects more than just our spirits. In his book The Peacemaker, Ken Sande, a lawyer and full-time Christian mediator, writes, "Conflicts steal time, energy, money, and opportunities for better things. When Christians are fighting, our battles overshadow anything we try to tell the world about Jesus." Failed and broken relationships have a drastic effect on our lives, and the lives of those involved, which makes it all the more important that we understand why and how to seek restoration whenever possible.
Think about all the different relationships in your life. Chances are, at some time or another you've faced conflict in each relationship you're in. And if you've lost friendships along the way, there's a good chance conflict that wasn't handled well led to the end of that relationship. Did you disagree with a professor or coach in college? Ever have a fight with your sibling in the back seat of Mom's car? Treat a coworker rudely because he/she got on your last nerve? Go to bed angry with your spouse over miscommunication? Fill in the blank with your own relationships, but I doubt you'll have to look far to see evidence of discord.
Conflict is an inevitable consequence of doing life with others. And while no one would choose conflict over peace, it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes we have to work through our disagreements and issues with others in order to build a healthy relationship rooted in mutual understanding and integrity. If discord arises from standing up for who you are and what you believe, then it's worth it.
But there are other times when discord in a relationship cuts us down deep in the core of who we are. It has the power to tap into our fears and insecurities and reopen old wounds from our pasts. This is the kind we're all prone to avoid, and it's what makes us resistant to conflict in the first place.
Dealing with conflict
The effect of conflict on you and your relationship is impacted by 1) how much that person means to you, 2) the source of the conflict, and 3) how both of you respond. When we face conflict with a coworker, it can be an annoying and persistent burden until we deal with it. But when a spouse or loved one hurts us, it can be heartbreaking. Psychologists have concluded that everyone responds to conflict in one of three ways:
- Move away: The flight response is an attempt to avoid conflict by withdrawing from the situation. Some characteristics of this response include blame-shifting, denial, avoidance, ignoring, or postponing conflict.
- Move against: The fight response is a defensive, self-protective response where the motivation is to protect yourself by getting what you want. Characteristics include insults, gossip, aggression, and competition.
- Move toward: The peaceful response is also the healthy response, where the goal is restoration and harmony. The good of the relationship is more important than self-protection. Characteristics include communication, accountability, mediation, accommodation, collaboration, persistence, and compromise.
Our engagement or disengagement in challenging relationships is a lot like the moral struggle we face each day. When it comes to taking the high road of restoration and peacemaking, our problem isn't usually in knowing what's right, but in choosing to do what's right.
When we make God-honoring, loving, and healthy relationships a part of our day-to-day lives, we're living as God intended. So it's crucial that we take the time to assess who we are to the people in our lives and how to live in community with others. Let's face it. We're all imperfect people in relationships with other imperfect people, and this makes our relationships messy and often challenging. The more we can understand God's design for community (with a focus on selflessness, sacrifice, and loving others well at the core), the better friend, spouse, child, coworker, neighbor we'll be and the more glory God will get out of all our relationships.
This article is excerpted from Relate: Knowing, loving, and forgiving the people in your life, a four-session Bible study that takes a practical, Scriptural approach to improving all manner of relationships.