James and I are celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary this month. That's not easy considering the fact that we got married after only three months of dating.
At Berkeley, he pursued me: Driving me to and from school, taking me to interesting places and out to eat (a lot), calling me, bringing me Chinese magazines and books to read, and most importantly, listening to me. When I shared my feelings, thoughts, and needs, I felt understood and accepted. Getting so much attention, I felt loved.
A month or so after seeing each other almost every day, James proposed on the phone, saying, "If everything turns out fine, I would like to marry you." I answered without thinking, "But I don't know how to cook!" He assured me that we could eat out every day -- so we got married. I thought we would live happily ever after.
Not having argued during dating, we were shocked by each other's strong reactions regarding the right and wrong way of squeezing our toothpaste. Although James quickly solved the problem by buying another toothpaste, there was a dent in our relationship. One small thing led to another, and our marriage was going downhill.
Our situation got worse after our son was born. Both of us were busy. Calm and objective in the office, I became easily irritated and frustrated at home. We had no time as a couple; and when we were together, we frequently ended up arguing about child-rearing. We both wanted the best for our son, but we had different ideas. When James rationalized things, I got mad. When I attacked and blamed, he retreated and withdrew. Our interaction spiraled downward with negative thoughts, actions and words. We could not function as a team. When our marriage and parenting did not work, I felt alone and isolated. I became depressed and secretly contemplated a divorce.
Thank God that my pains led me to Jesus Christ in 1989 and we were given a second chance. Our family has come a long way and we have learned the hard way that a relationship cannot be put on auto pilot and be forgotten. The feature article, Turn Relational Conflicts into Blessings, has suggestions as to how to handle conflicts constructively.
Fast forward to now, James and I love to spend time with each other in ordinary or not so ordinary days. For example, between December 2010 and January 2011, we were on the road for 24 days in Germany, UK and France (yes Paris!) to teach, lead groups and coach couples and individuals in Discipleship Training Conferences. We didn't know we could be so happy and fulfilled together living off of two carry-on suitcases, two backpacks, and one toothpaste.
By the grace of God, you too can develop a strong marriage and family in love!
So, What Breaks Relationships?
When things go well, we like to take credit for it. When things do not go well, we want to blame it on someone else. I used to blame James for my unhappiness. This photo is a reminder of how our interaction affected our child (who was five years old at that time). While adults can smile at the camera on cue, children will show their real feelings. More often than not, relationships are broken because of:
- Unmet Expectations
- Unrecognized Differences
- Unresolved Conflicts
- Unforgiven Offenses
Turn Relational Conflicts into Blessings
Conflict is as natural to the human experience as thunderstorms are to springtime. When left unchecked, conflict can generate heat and discomfort, disrupt interactions and destroy relationships. Between a couple, discord can lead to divorce. Between countries, hostilities can lead to war. But when differences are openly acknowledged and addressed, conflict can be a powerful source of energy and lead to creative solutions that encourage growth, deepen intimacy and strengthen bonds between people.
The world is made up of individuals with different ideas, wants, needs and beliefs, and conflict may occur when our differences meet. Like so many other aspects of human interaction, it's how we deal with controversy that affects our relationships -- with others and ourselves.
Dr. Wei-Jen Huang said, "Facts seldom cause conflicts. It's each person's value system, point of view, perspective, and interpretation about such facts that produce conflicts."
Some relationships appear to be without conflict. This can mean that everyone is in tune with everyone else. But what's more likely is that some people are not being honest and real with others, or that some individuals regularly and routinely acquiesce to others. This is true with a couple, in a family, or in any group. When conflict appears to be totally absent, it is best to take a look under the carpet.
For some, the inability to face conflict comes from old, deeply imbedded fears, such as the fear of being wounded or absorbed by another. Or some may fear that there is no resolution to the disagreement. In avoiding conflict, individuals may lose themselves in a forest of fears where no one says what they truly feel or want or believe.
Without resolution, conflict converts to stress that causes all sorts of ills and disease and may ultimately release itself in explosions of rage, withdrawal, acting out, addictions and general unhappiness.
However, with resolution comes the release of fear and tension, clarity and remarkably creative solutions or ideas. A feeling of closeness may result or, at the very least, a deeper understanding, acceptance and respect for one another.
If you are reluctant to engage in conflict resolution, consider the following:
- Because people are different, conflict is natural.
- It's more important to find clarity and unity than to be right.
- No one is right in God's eyes; outside of Christ, we are all fallen creatures (Romans 3:23); and it is God who made us different and unique (Psalm 139).
- Conflict is about speaking up and telling our truth (what seems so real and true to us).
- Conflict is about being open and honest with others.
- There is usually a win-win-win solution somewhere. This solution can only be formed in Christ.
- Resolving conflict keeps us from living in fear.
- Resolving conflict helps us clarify, sort and value our differences.
- Resolving conflict can bring us closer together.
- Resolving conflict is respectful of ourselves and others.
Resolving conflict is a commitment to clarity, to listening with an open mind and an open heart, and to respecting and valuing one another and our differences. Following are some guidelines for working through conflicts. In some instances, it may be helpful to have a third person to help guide you through the process.
1. Agree that no one will leave the discussion session and that each person will be respectful. Commit to stay with the process until you reach an agreed-upon solution. If you need to take a break, agree on a time to resume.
2. Have each person name the problem or conflict and describe feelings, thoughts and needs. Be as specific as possible. Take turns to listen actively without being defensive.
3. Each of you have contributed to your unplesant and unhealthy interactions. Own your part in creating (or maintaining) the conflict/problem. List past attempts that were not successful in resolving the issue.
4. Take time for silent reflection. During this time, allow each person time to reflect and consider each aspect of the concern. Affirm that there is a way to come to resolution. From this place of silence, tell each other any thoughts, concerns or considerations that arise. Braintorm solutions with an open mind. Do not judge or criticize any suggestion until all ideas are on the table.
5. Discuss and evaluate each possible solution. Stay with the issue until a resolution emerges. Allow for all the time it takes. Pick one solution that both of you want to try (with specific actions from each person). If you can't find a resolution, you may need to accept that you disagree, or get professional help to continue working toward resolution. In any case, set up another time to review and discuss your progress.
Because conflict is natural to the human experience, the best way to deal with it is to create the kind of connections in which differences are acknowledged and supported as part of the ongoing and spirited process of being in a relationship. We all want to be understood and accepted!
Do you know your problems become smaller if your God becomes bigger? As Christians, we also need to stay in relationship with God the Father, Jesus Christ His Son, and the Holy Spirit so that we can rise above our human limitation.
Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications