REALationships: Stregthening Your Relationships Through Conflict
Strengthening Your Relationships
Senior Pastor, Jeff Jones
February 25/27, 2005
Today we are talking about conflict in relationships, because of we want relationships to last and to get better over time we have to know how to deal with conflict and hurt when they happen.
And to help me illustrate my main point today I have these plates on the table with me. They are here to remind us that you and I live in a disposable society, and I am all for it. I think all these plastic cups, plates, and utensils are awesome. No dishes to clean, no plates to put away…you just use them and chuck them in the trash. If Christy said yes I’d be all for throwing away all our real dishes and just use these…then we could replace our dishwasher with a trash compactor. When we have groups come over to our home, I will almost always pull out anything disposable we have. Why use anything else but these?
Christy, however, is not so excited about our disposable society and would be happier of these things had never been invented. This brings up on of the very minor conflicts in our relationship. She likes to use real plates, real glasses, and real utensils. When I buy plastic cups with the intent of disposing of them, guess what she does? They end up in the dishwasher to be cleaned and used again. What’s the point of that? I wouldn’t be surprised to see her wash and dry used paper towels one day, maybe even Kleenex. Really. You might come over to our house and see used Kleenexes drying out in the sun. It’s just this little running argument we have in our marriage.
You and I live in a disposable society…we are in a rush a lot and rather than just clean things up, it is easier to throw them away. That’s probably fine when it comes to paper plates, but certainly not when it comes to relationships. Yet, a disposable view of relationships is gaining ground in our culture and it impact our attitudes to relationships also. If relationships become too much work, we just move on. We have this idea that relationships that are good should be easy. No wonder most people don’t sustain life-long relationships.
Today we are talking about conflict in relationships, about the hard work that keeps our relationships from being thrown aside. We typically think of conflict as an enemy to relationships, but they can be our greatest friend in relationships that matter. Conflict well handled is the hard work that cements relationships that last a lifetime. So today we’ll look to God’s Word to see how we can handle conflicts well enough to strengthen and not destroy our relationship. The first thing we must realize is:
1) Expect Conflict
If you eat with dishes, they are going to get dirty. You are going to have to clean them up. Likewise, if you relate to others, conflicts are going to happen that you have to clean up. There is no way around that.
It is always entertaining in pre-marital counseling hear the two engaged loved birds talk about their relationship. In pre-marital counseling one of the things you talk about is how to handle conflict in marriage, and yet at that stage they are so much in a world of non-reality that they can’t even imagine having conflict. One of them might say, “Oh, we’ve dated two years and we haven’t ever had a fight.” The other one looks and smiles at them, and then they both look at me as if to say, “I’m so sorry your marriage is so much worse than our relationship. I’m so sad you have to deal with conflict. We aren’t going to have any.” They get married, and six months into it the boxing gloves come off and they are at each other.
Last week I was talking with a young couple who said something very similar. They’ve been married four months and are just now realizing that marriage is really hard work. They have conflicts and ways that they are missing each other, and it is freaking them out a little bit. I just assured them that they are normal. Conflict is going to happen.
We see that in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas split up as a missionary team because of a conflict over John Mark. Paul writes to two women and Philippi, both of whom he deeply respects, and he tells them to quit fighting with each other and work out their issues—to get along. He doesn’t say to these two women, “Shame on you for having conflict…you should never have things like that.” He just says, “Deal with it. Work it out.”
So in our relationships, expect conflict. Conflict will come for multiple reasons, for one just because you and your friend or spouse or child or parent are two very different people. Early in a relationship that is actually attractive, but over time our differences can be annoying. Christy, for example, is much more exact and perfectionistic than I am…so she has a “right” way to do lots of things, like loading the dishwasher or folding laundry. I feel like there are hundreds of different ways to load dishwashers or fold clothes, so we get in these little arguments about that. She grew up in a home where they spent time together as a family doing things around the house. I grew up in a home where we got away from the house to spend time as a family, so we always have this little push / pull thing that happens on weekends. We have conflicts because we are different. I wish everybody could be normal like me, but the world is full of abnormal people.
Conflicts also happen because of misplaced and uncommunicated expectations. We have expectations of friendships and marriages, and if they aren’t met we get upset. A newly married husband might expect his wife to be like a June Cleaver around the house, and she expects him to be like a Bob Villa. Not happening.
And the Bible tells us one more very common reason we quarrel and have arguments with those we love. James 4:1 says, "Do you know where your fights and arguments come from? They come from the selfish desires that war within you" James 4:1. Conflict happens because we are human, and as humans we want our own way. Rather than focusing on meeting the needs of our spouse or friend, our natural approach is to look for our spouse or friend to meet our needs. And we start keeping score in our minds. We want what we want and they want what they want. As long as they keep giving us what we want, no problem. But in that game someone will always lose. As long as we are human, we are going to have conflict. We need to expect them and not be surprised by them. And when they come our focus has to be on the next major point:
2) Resolve Conflicts
Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 4. We are going to camp out today in that chapter of the Bible to learn how to resolve conflicts in a way that strengthens our relationships. Again, every conflict if handled well is a chance to understand each other better and to deepen a relationship. We could just throw the relationship away or we can make it better. We are going to see five principles in this chapter to help us resolve conflicts and use them to strengthen our relationships.
- Roll up your sleeves for some hard work (Eph 4:1-3)
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul says, 1As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. He says that we are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Some translations say that we are to strive for unity—fight for it…because that is what harmony in relationships demands. That’s true of churches, minichurches, families, marriages, and friendships. We have to fight for unity.
We have to fight our own selfishness and our own natural inclinations to mishandle conflicts. I just read a book about Billy and Ruth Graham’s marriage, and you might think that they have had an easy time of marriage, but they haven’t. She talks about how hard marriage is, but how glad she is that they fought to keep it together. They learned to accept each other and to work through hard issues.
The reason a lot of marriages break up is because people aren’t willing to fight for unity like the Grahams did. They give up. The number one reason given for divorce is incompatibility. Get real. All of us are incompatible. Christy and I are about as different as they come. We are two very different people with our own selfish desires and we get chapped with each other sometimes. We could say that we are incompatible, but that would just be a cop out. Marriages that make it are those that say, “We are going to work through our incompatibilities to have a great relationship.” But that is not easy. I’m hearing more and more couples divorcing saying things like, “It just shouldn’t be that hard; it must not be right.” That’s a cop out. Marriage has always been hard. The only way really great marriages and great relationships are formed is through difficulty and through conflict handled well. It is easier to give up, but you miss out on great relationships. If you want great relationships, you’ve got to be willing to fight for them. There are a couple of legitimate reasons for divorce, but if you want my sympathy never tell me you are thinking about a divorce because of incompatibility. That’s not a reason. That’s a cop out. Be grown up enough to work through the conflicts. The same thing holds true in friendships and other kinds of relationships.
- Speak the truth in love
Ephesians 4:25 tells us to speak truthfully to each other. The New American Standard says that we are to “speak the truth in love,” which is a very literal and very good translation of the original language of Ephesians. When there is an issue, we are responsible to “speak the truth in love.” When someone has offended you, you have some choices, but most of the time our natural choice will not be to speak the truth in love. How do we do that? To live this passages means that we have to do a few things:
a) Balance truth and love
For one thing, most of us tend to be good at one side of that or the other. Some of us are pretty good at speaking the truth, but others of as are better at the love part. For some, saying hard things is not hard, but they don’t do it in a loving, sensitive way. For others, saying hard things is really hard and they just want to emphasize love and peace and not rock the boat.
Let me talk to the love people a little bit, those who have a harder time saying the hard thing. Many of these people are stuffers in relationship…they stuff their feelings inside, bury their anger, and either get quiet, go escape somewhere, or just act like everything is fine on the outside though they are steaming on the inside. You just smooth things over. That works for a little while, but eventually there is a blow up or the person becomes bitter and the relationship sours. When I was a little kid, I was always afraid of the pressure cooker. My grandmother used to make greenbeans with those pressure cookers. Once when I was a little kid I took off the little thing at the top and it scared me half to death. Steam poured out, it made a terrible noise. I’m still scared of pressure cookers. Thirty years of counseling, and I can’t get over it. That’s probably why I don’t really like green beans even now. Eventually pressure cookers will get to a boiling point. If you are a stuffer, watch out. That doesn’t solve anything. Others who withdraw, do so with the cold shoulder. Their approach is to freeze the other person out. And when you ask what’s wrong, they reply, “nothing.” And stay ice cold. Homes characterized that way are colder than igloos. Those homes will never experience the warmth and depth of authentic relationships. Stuffing rather than speaking is not a good plan.
On the other side are those who have no problem speaking truth and saying the hard things. I call these people “sprayers.” They have no problem spraying truth, but where they stumble is the “in love” part. That’s why many people just view them as offensive. Many of these folks just let it fly, just let their feelings spray right out of their mouth all over the people around them. They often lose control of their words and actions. If you have two attackers in the same house, then there’s going to be fireworks. But if people don’t express anger with love and understanding, then they just leave each other bloody, and only add insult to injury. Back in the 70’s some counselors advocating venting all your feelings unedited, just let it go. And guess what that accomplished? Nothing good. It might feel good to be the one venting, but it does not feel good to be the one dumped on.
Think about it, if I was upset with you, and I said, “You no good piece of trash. You told you me you would show up, and you didn’t, which means you are just one big ball of insensitivity and selfishness. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to relate to you. You are useless in relationships.” How would you naturally react? “Thank, you, Jeff. That was very insightful. You really connected with my heart and gave me perspective I needed to make my life better. I’m so glad I am your friend.” I don’t think so. It would just make you mad.
Last week we talked about how to communicate sensitive things in a loving way, and if you weren’t here I would encourage you to get the tape. I don’t want to repeat all that, but the point is that you and I are responsible not to stuff the truth, and not to just vent our feelings. We are to speak truth in a way that is loving.
b) Communicate the offense head-on
I’m from Alabama, and it seems in the deep south we learn to beat around the bushes a few thousand times before we say something difficult, and even then we use words that are more indirect than direct. People have told me that I could tell them to go to the bad place in a way that would make them want to go there. I’ve had to work on being frank in relationships. Proverbs says, “faithful are the rebukes of a friend.” True friends can deal with issues head-on. Rather than making our spouse or friend guess what is bothering us, we go to them after we have prayed and say, “I’ve got some things I need to share. Can we talk?” It means that we focus on the issue head on rather than throwing out little hints and offhand remarks that just feel like nagging. We may be upset with our spouse for not doing enough around the house. Rather than talking about it head on, sometimes it is easier to let that slip out in little offhand comments. “Well, if you ever did anything around here, you might just realize how hard it is to really run this house.” Or, “You gonna watch TV all day, or get something done?” Those comments only produce defensiveness. They won’t help you deal with the issue. It’s much better to speak the truth.
c) Focus on the facts
Another part of speaking the truth is to focus on the facts, not your judgments about their motives. We can never really know another person’s motives, so focus on the facts if you really are interested in resolving the conflict. What you know is your perspective, but you may not know the full reality, so a tip I’ve learned from Gene is to use “I feel” statements, because the one thing you do know is your own feelings. For example, you can say, “You never help around the house,” but that’s only going to make your spouse defensive. You can judge motives. “You don’t care about us, you just care about your work.” You don’t know that. But you do know how you feel. So, you can say, “I am feeling overwhelmed with my responsibilities around the house. Can we talk about how we can approach this issue together?” You may be concerned how your spouse is handling finances. He or she may be spending more money that you think they should. If you were judging motives, you might say, “You are selfish and just spend money on whatever you want even though you want me to be frugal.” Or, “You don’t know how to handle money.” That is not going to help you focus on the real issue. What you might say is, “I feel frustrated about our finances. Would you be willing to discuss some ways that we can stay more in line with a budget?” Or, if there was a direct offense, to say, “I feel hurt that you spent money on that big screen tv when we agreed that we would talk to each other about big purchases. Can we talk about this?” That can make all the difference in the world.
- Deal with offenses quickly (Ephesians 4:26)
Conflicts are not like fine wines or cheeses—they do not get better over time. In fact, just as a reminder of this truth, on one of these plates is a hamburger I bought earlier in the week. It’s just been sitting out for a few days, and it is growing more disgusting by the minute. Leaving an offense in a relationship will only spoil the good that is there. The next verse, Ephesians 4:26 says, “26“In your anger do not sin”[d]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold.”
If there is one cardinal rule in dealing with anger it is to do so quickly. Notice that the verse assumes that it is okay to be angry. In fact, the original language assumes that you will get angry. But when you are angry, do so in a way that is without sin. How do we do that? By dealing with it soon.
A godly approach deals with offenses quickly, before bitterness can set in. And I think that in most cases taking the verse very literally, to deal with issues before the sun goes down on that day, is the best way to go. Jesus said, 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[a]will be subject to judgment…23“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. He is saying that even worshiping God is not as important is dealing with conflict in a relationship. Go and deal with it quickly.
When Christy and I were engaged, the person who did our premarital counseling had us take a temperament test to see where we were alike and where we were different, and therefore where we were likely to have trouble in marriage. When he got our test back, he was alarmed. And he alarmed me. His concern wasn’t an area of difference but an area of similarity. The test revealed that we were both good conflict avoiders, that we tended to avoid hard conversations and stuff anger. I remember him saying, “Whenever I see this combination with two stuffers, I get really nervous. In fact, I don’t want us to talk about anything else in our weeks together. I want us to focus on this right here.” He got my attention. I felt like he was putting a death sentence on our relationship before we got off the ground. But, his fear is well-founded. Anger is natural but is also incredibly dangerous. It is like acid in relationships, and we need to deal with it before it causes damage.
Christy and I have had to learn to deal with issues quickly, and not brush them under the rug. And that takes a commitment from both of us. When I can tell that something is bothering Christy, I lean into that. I try to find out what is going on, even if she initially retreats. If I can tell she is bothered about something I try to pursue it.
One thing that really helps is to think very literally about not letting the sun go down on anger. When Christy and I are good about praying together at night, conflicts come out. It is hard to pray with someone you are mad at. There are times where one of us have said, “I can’t pray with you right now. We need to talk.” There are lots of great reasons to pray together at night as a couple, but this is one of the biggest. Don’t go to bed angry. Deal with it that day.
Otherwise, the passage says, the devil will get a foothold. Satan is always looking for ways to destroy relationships, to destroy unity, and destroy your life. If he can get a wedge in between you and someone else, then he’s won a battle. And that is what happens when you don’t deal with anger quickly. He can replace affection with bitterness, unity with disunity. I believe one of Satan’s main preoccupations is working to destroy Christian relationships including marriage and disrupt the unity of the church. So, as Christians, we have to be all the more vigilant to keep short accounts with each other. When there is an offense, deal with it quickly and don’t give Satan room to work. Close him out of your relationship by speaking the truth in love and not letting the sun go down on your anger.
- Fight Fair
In sharing what you need to share, keep biblical ground rules in mind. You getting angry doesn’t mean you have a ticket from God to throw away biblical ways of relating to your friend or spouse. When we used to have the Cold War with the Communist countries, we used to do things called Arms Reduction Treaties. Even though we were bitter enemies, we would agree to not use certain weapons. Nuclear arms were out of bounds. We will not use them if you will not use them. Even in the heat of battle, in wartime, civilized countries will agree that certain weapons are out of bounds because they will destroy both sides. So we say we're not going to use biological warfare or we're not going to use mustard gas or we're not going to use flame throwers. Even though we're fighting a battle, we will agree that some weapons are too deadly, too devastating to be used in the fight.
In your marriage, you need to do the same thing. You need to agree to eliminate certain deadly verbal tools -- weapons in your conference. In Ephesians 4:31-32, God gets specifics about which weapons need to be set aside so that we don’t destroy each other: Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, jutt as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Eph 4:31-32 NLB)
To fight fair, here are six ways of hitting below the belt to avoid:
1) Bitterness, that’s when you allow anger to sour your relationship. It is your responsibility to avoid bitterness. Once you allow an offense to go that far, it becomes very hard to deal with. It means that you start with a commitment to not hold a grudge but to work through the hurt.
2) Rage, those are heated outbursts where we often do and say things we would regret. That includes threats like the threat of divorce in marriage or the threat of violence. Don’t ever make threats like that. They dissolve bonds of relationship. As a manager I never even joke about firing someone, and as a husband or wife we should never ever make threats about divorce. That is so harmful. And if you find yourself in a fit of rage, take some time to cool off a little bit before you enter into a conflict resolution discussion.
3) Anger, this is talking about settled in anger, where we are speaking out of anger rather than out of love. As we’ll see in a minute, it is okay to get angry, but we need to make sure we are speaking out of love and not anger.
4) Harsh words, there is no excuse for using harsh words or belittling our friend our spouse. Sometimes people use harsh words to intimidate, or people use cuss words to make a point and shout someone down. That’s out of bounds.
5) Slander, that means not telling the truth. Where I tend to mess up here is not so much with an out and out lie, like just making up something she did but that I know she really didn’t. But I can exaggerate.
6) Malice, which means trying to harm the other person. When we get really mad, it may feel good to retaliate, to make the other person hurt like they hurt us. They say something demeaning to us, so we say something demeaning to them. They talk behind our backs, so we do something to get back at them. Malice is never godly, but people do it all the time.
The words we use in conflict are so important and we have to be extremely careful. God knows how you talk to your mate, to your friends, to your children. He knows. The Bible says we will give account for every idle word. I am going to give an account for every idle word that I've said in anger or hatred. And you will too. The Bible says no harsh words, no fits of rage, no words that maliciously hurt.
He says instead of all that, we are to be kind and compassionate and forgiving…I am confident that if we can keep the ground rules of a clean fight, or disagreement may be a better word, then we are far more likely to see those conflicts resolved in a way that leads to greater intimacy.
- Be quick to forgive and to seek forgiveness
We just read Ephesians 4:32, but I want us to read it one more time: 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Being quick to forgive is hard to do because it is not fair. Forgiveness is giving up the right to get even, and what would be fair is getting even. That’s why it is hard to do. We want the person to pay a little bit, to hurt some. If we just forgive them, they get off to easy. Yet the only way conflict can be resolved is forgiveness. Without, we are stuck.
Some of you have been hurt really badly, and you are holding on to those hurts. That’s natural. But God is asking you to do something very hard in conflicts…to be quick to forgive…to let it go.
To motivate us, Paul says we should forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave us. Next time you are having a hard time forgiving someone else, consider how much God did so that you could be forgiven. In the Old Testament, God tells us how…he realizes we are prone to mess up, so he gives us lots of grace, lots of rope. We should show the same grace to others. When people we love mess up, we should have such a track record that they expect us to forgive. That’s the way we view God, and that’s the way we should treat others.
And the flip side of forgiveness is seeking it, being quick to forgive but also quick to seek forgiveness…being quick to confess wrong. Matthew 7:3 Jesus speaking, "Why do you look at the speck in another's eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? Take the log out of your own eye first and you'll be able to see clearly." Our first reaction in a conflict should be to ask, “What is my role in this? Is this really my problem?”
Often in an argument, there comes a moment of truth. A time where part way through a confrontation, I realize that I am at least in part the one who is wrong, or at the very least have not responded to being wronged as well as I could have. Most of the time, two people in conflict or both partly wrong and partly wronged. Someone has to break the ice and admit it.
And that can be tough! As I think about it now, I can remember times in conflict resolution where I’ve realized that I am the one who is primarily wrong. Maybe I’ve misjudged the other person, or I realize that I am the one that was the chief contributor to what went wrong. It is the moment of truth. I have a choice to make. I can be a jerk and fight the other person, like Christy, to convince her that I really am the one who is right. Or, I can be godly, and fight my own pride and ego. I’ve got to tell you, fighting Christy is a lot easier much of the time than fighting my pride and owning what I need to own. It takes a whole lot more bravery to confront my pride and humble myself before her than to stay haughty.
The three words, “I am sorry,” aren’t magic words, but you’d think they are in an argument. When someone is willing to own what they need to own in a conflict, then the energy begins to dissipate around the conflict. But someone has to be the first to give in.
And when you think about it, it really is not that big of a deal to do. To come out and own your part of the conflict just feels hard, but once I do it, I always wonder, “why was that so hard?” It’s just three little words: I am sorry. But those three words are often the turning point of any conflict conversation.
One of the saddest truths in relationships is that it is the people we love the most that we hurt the most...sometimes in ways we don’t even realize. The only way you and I will truly admit our wrong and repent in a way will lead to us really changing is realizing the pain we cause other people…when we see that, we’ll be motivated.
There are lots of ways we hurt each other in relationships, but once we realize what we are doing, the only godly thing to do is repent and seek forgiveness. I remember years ago asking Christy what I did in our relationship that hurt her, and she had things to talk about. I was hoping she wouldn’t, but she did. One of the things I did was do this little smurky laugh if I disagreed with her or if we were in an argument, and every time I did it she died inside. It was like me telling her she was stupid. And what was worse as she was talking is that I realized that part of me did it because I liked it. I didn’t mind hurting her to win the argument…and that is what really broke me. Until we realize the pain we cause others, we won’t be broken, we won’t really seek forgiveness, and we won’t change. One of the things I’d challenge you to do this week is ask someone you want a deeper relationship with that same question.
I’m going to ask Bekah to come up and share a very powerful song of the brokenness that comes when we realize how we can so easily hurt the ones we love. I don’t want you to just hear the song, but ask God what you need to be broken of. Ask him to convict you of anything you are doing that hurts those you love the most. Ask him to break you.
See these plates? They are disposable. You and I can choose disposable relationships. It is cleaner. We don’t have to be broken about our relational sin, we don’t have to work out conflicts, we don’t have to forgive…we just move on to a new relationship. The only problem is, one day we just end up eating alone. We end up with nothing.
If you and I want real, lasting relationships we have to learn to clean up the plates…we have to learn to work through conflict. Let me give you some homework this week. Choose a person to have a conversation with, and talk about a source of conflict in your relationship. Begin to work it out. And if you find you just can’t, then get help. Don’t be stupidly so proud that you won’t go to counseling for help. You keep your pride but you also keep a shallow marriage or relationship.
Conflicts will either choose to bring us closer together or farther apart. Commit to do whatever it takes to learn to do this conflict thing right. Learning how to resolve conflict is tough work. It means that we have to confront our own pride and hardness of heart. It may mean addressing some bad long-term patterns that we have established. But it is worth whatever effort it takes to change.