By Threads Media
This article is adapted from Relate: Knowing, Loving, and Forgiving the People in Your Life, Session 4 “Restoring Relationships” (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2011), 70-81. Click on the book cover to learn more about this resource.
As we all know, relationships can be very difficult. But more often than not, they’re worth whatever amount of effort is required. Whether it’s our families, friends, coworkers, or people who have been in and out of our lives over the years, the marks of human influence on us are significant.
We’re created for relationship with God; 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.
WHAT IS CONFLICT AND HOW DOES IT 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 at a 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.
“When Christians are fighting, our battles overshadow anything we try to tell the world about Jesus.”
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 (flight), move against (fight), or move toward (peace).** Here’s how those reactions break down:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Restoration isn’t an effortless process or a quick and easy fix. It requires time, patience, persistence, and much, much prayer. Sometimes restoration comes in the form of a dramatic event. But most often, it takes place on a small scale. It’s a daily decision we make to forgive others when they sin against us, and to seek forgiveness when we do the same. In doing so, we keep bitterness from running the show. It’s a way to cope with disappointment by letting go of hurt feelings. It’s also a way to show them—and the world—what grace really looks like.
* Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson, The Peacemaker Student Edition: Handling Conflict without Fighting Back or Running Away (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008), 7.
** Adapted from Sande and Johnson, The Peacemaker Student Edition, 16, and from the Internet: www.all-things-conflict-resolution-and-adr.com/Workplace-Conflict-Resolution.html.