As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time and energy helping people address conflict in a fruitful way. “Conflict is a gateway to connection!” I tell them full of enthusiasm and confidence. I encourage my clients to embrace the discomfort of conflict, leaning into it for the sake of more meaningful relationships.
And yet, in my own life, I have often struggled to practice what I preach. I am a recovering people-pleaser and a perfectionist. Rock the boat? No thanks. I’d rather throw myself out of it and into a school of stinging jellyfish.
To this day, the idea of confrontation makes me feel squeamish and nervous. It makes my heart race and my voice shake.
Conflict is messy. We bring our twisted, tangled selves into relationships with other, equally knotted up people. At the same time, the point of conflict is the beginning to every great story, the spark of light that sets everything in motion. If we can see conflict as an opportunity for growth, then it’s not quite so scary. If we can let God shine a light on the dark places in our relationships, we can finally see well enough to throw out what’s old and broken and keep the hidden treasures we thought were lost.
Give it the time and space it deserves
Even as I’ve been thinking about this article, there’s a conflict in my life that has yet to be resolved — and that’s okay. In the first weeks of my daughter’s life, one of my closest friends said something to me that made me feel small and insecure. It made me doubt myself as a mother when I was already fragile and weepy from all the hormones.
When I read her late-night text as I nursed my newborn, it awakened my deepest fears and made me angry. But this is a conflict that can’t be solved over the phone, and it definitely won’t get resolved in a text exchange. It’s not as simple as hugging it out and making up over coffee. Some conflicts need space to settle before we can move forward — sometimes each side needs time to cool down and reflect on what’s important, what values are at stake for them.
Set a deadline
Procrastination isn’t just for laundry and homework. If you’re like me, giving yourself time can quickly turn into conflict avoidance. It’s easy to think that “if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist” — but that’s a far cry from true peace.
If you’ve ever put off an assignment or work project until the last second, you know that a kind of low-level anxiety hums constantly until the project has been turned in and put to rest. The pressure of unresolved conflict works the same way. So while you allow yourself time and space to process your emotions and get clear on your intentions, set a deadline for when you’re going to reach out and seek resolution.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you go out with anyone who will listen over a pitcher of margaritas and bash the person you’re in conflict with. (I’m also not saying I haven’t done that a time or two when the sting of a hurtful situation left my ego particularly bruised.) What I am suggesting here is finding someone you trust — be it a close friend, a significant other, a spiritual director, or a therapist — who can give you an unbiased ear to let it all out so that you can move forward with clarity.
When I’m hurting, it’s easy to feel like the person who hurt me is my enemy. It’s oddly comforting to believe that this person is out to get me. It’s harder to believe that maybe I misunderstood their intentions, or that possibly they, or I, or both of us were just plain hungry or tired or overwhelmed. For the most part, the people who care about us don’t intend to hurt us.
For example, when my husband is upset with me, it’s usually not because of something I did to intentionally make him feel like an afterthought. It’s often because I’m so overwhelmed with the responsibilities of daily life that I’ve forgotten to make him feel loved. The most merciful thing he does in moments like this is to assume that I’m trying my best, to remember all the ways I’ve loved him well before, and to call me out when I need to get my priorities in order.
It would be easy for him to stay quiet and let bitterness and resentment grow. It would be easy to give me a taste of my own medicine and withhold love. But if we value our relationships, we must be willing to do the harder thing and be merciful. Sometimes that means reconciliation and rebuilding on firmer ground, sometimes it means cutting ties and offering closure.
Reflect on it
When there’s tension in a relationship, emotions can make it tricky to navigate with a clear conscience and a clean heart. Be intentional about giving yourself time to sort it all out.
We experience conflict when a situation threatens our deepest values. Instead of reacting out of defensiveness or pain, it helps to get in touch about why we’re feeling the way we are — why is it so hard for us to accept this action, at this time, in this place. That kind of reflection takes attentiveness to what’s going on inside of you — you’ll need to give yourself time and space to figure out what it all comes down to for you. But when that is clear, you’ll be freer to respond in a helpful, truthful, and courageous way.
Journaling can help, as can simply taking a 10-minute walk regularly. If you’re the praying kind, ask God for the humility to own your part and ask forgiveness. Ask for the courage to be honest about the ways in which you were wounded by the other. Ask that you might find clarity about how to best move forward — if that means seeking reconciliation or severing the relationship.
Conflict is sure to arise in any close relationship. It’s simply inevitable. The closer we get, the more clearly we can see each other’s flaws and weaknesses. The beauty of relationships is that they help us grow in knowledge of ourselves and each other. Seeing it that way, conflict is not something to fear, but an opportunity to love more deeply and truly.