How to use conflict to create intimacy

Jay Dee

How to use conflict to create intimacy

Nov 13, 2018

Does a disagreement always mean an argument?  Does resolving it always mean compromise or someone changing their opinion?  I’ve had this question come up a few times this week from multiple sources. Many people believe that a difference in opinion must result in an argument,

Does a disagreement always mean an argument?  Does resolving it always mean compromise or someone changing their opinion?  I’ve had this question come up a few times this week from multiple sources.

Many people believe that a difference in opinion must result in an argument, then either compromise and/or one person changing their views or hurt feelings and judgement.

I saw it happen on the show The Good Doctor (Season 2, Episode 6 for those who are interested) where Shaun is arguing about which way toilet paper should be hung.

Sidenote: I think the only reason Shaun can hold that opinion is because he has neither children nor a cat.  If you don’t know why, I’m going to guess you have neither as well.

It happened in one of my coaching calls this week, it happens all the time at work, and yesterday it happened in my own marriage as well.  I think this is a strong belief in our culture.

However, can you disagree with your spouse without all the negativity that comes with it?  I think you can.

1. Conflict is good

First, I want to reiterate something I mention often, but might not have been seen by some of our new readers (do you know we get about 100 new readers a month now?).

Often we grow up believing conflict is bad, that it should be avoided or we just try to get through it as fast as possible to put it behind us.  I think that’s because so many of us had terrible examples of conflict resolution growing up.  We saw conflict handled poorly in our family in our formative years, and so never learned how to handle it properly.  As we grow into adults, we then lack the tools and patterns to handle conflict appropriately and so, of course, we “know” from experience that conflict is bad.

In fact, it’s extremely rare for me to come across a couple that doesn’t have communication and conflict resolution problems.  Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just saying “communicate better”.  We don’t grow up learning how, and so we don’t know how to improve it.  A lot of my coaching, at least when dealing with couples, is teaching them how to communicate more effectively and resolve conflict.  With my individual clients, it’s a lot harder because one isn’t participating.  Communication is a two-way street, and it’s hard to communicate with a truck barrelling down the wrong side of the road… (does that metaphor work?  I don’t even know, but you get the point, right?)

Nevertheless, if we can learn to communicate effectively (I’m working on a webinar for this, so stay tuned), and learn to resolve conflict, then we can see that conflict is actually a good thing.  I’ve learned now in my marriage not to run away from conflict, but to run towards it.  I love conflict!  Why? It’s a chance to learn about my wife.  After 17 years of being married, the truth is, learning something new about your spouse is a rare event, and something to be treasured.  Not something to be afraid of.  A conflict means there’s something I don’t yet understand about her or haven’t learned to accept about her.  It’s a chance to show love, and an opportunity to know her more fully.  That’s what intimacy is all about!

So, conflict, handled properly, leads to intimacy.  Handled poorly, it leads to division.

I think that’s a lesson most of us don’t get growing up.  I know I didn’t.  My parents still handle conflict in ineffective ways.  And before someone says “Well, why don’t you show them how?”, have you ever tried to teach your parent something?  Small things like how to use a smartphone are difficult enough!  Try replacing their entire life’s worth of communication patterns!

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” – Matthew 13:57b

It probably doesn’t help that when I’m around my family, I tend to slide back towards the communications patterns I had growing up.  It’s hard not to when everyone around you is using them.

2. Conflict doesn’t mean one of you is wrong

This is the other mindset that people often don’t quite grasp.  I think a lot of people know it intellectually, but they haven’t internalized it yet.

There’s an old construct used to teach this, where you hold up an object (being from Canada, I’ve seen it done with Tim Horton’s cups a lot), and the people standing around you are asked to describe the object.  Provided the object isn’t perfectly symmetrical with many lines of symmetry (like a plain unmarked basketball) everyone will give a different description.

It’s a cup that says “Careful, contents might be very hot”
It’s a cup that says “Made with 100% recycled material”
It’s a cup that says “Tim Hortons”
It’s a cup that says “Roll up the rim”
It’s a cup that says “Better luck next time”

Point is, from each angle, the same thing might look different.  If you get even weirder shapes, you can get even more diverse descriptions.  For example, a cylinder viewed from one angle looks like a rectangle, from another, a circle.  Pyramids look like a triangle from the side, and a square from the top.

And those are with physical objects that you could just pick up and examine and see you are both right.  When you deal with abstract things like opinions, feelings and memories of the past it can be very difficult to reconcile the apparent contradictions.

Add theology into the mix, and, well, there’s a lot of potential for disagreement.  Look at how many perspectives we have on the Bible and how many denominations that has resulted in.  I think that’s one reason why our denomination advises that our pastors don’t perform marriages between members and someone from another denomination.  The differences can cause some serious divisions which may have eternal repercussions.

Now, while one can argue that theology does have an absolute truth, the real truth is that we don’t KNOW what that absolute truth is.  We have strong beliefs, but the whole point of faith is that we believe without knowing.  We truth without proof.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11:1

And then there’s the layer of levels of convictions about particularly doctrines, and the application of said doctrines and principles.

When we deal with the two people in a Christian marriage there is a large potential for disagreements about things that are impossible to prove one way or another.  So, who can say who is right?

Now, I’m not suggesting you should set aside your beliefs because your spouse disagrees with them and you can’t prove that what you believe is absolute truth.  Just that you have to be aware that not everyone will believe what you do. Sometimes not even your spouse.  Yes, it makes it difficult, especially when you’re trying to raise children, but it’s not an impossible situation.

3. Just because you have a conviction, doesn’t mean your spouse does

Sometimes you have a belief that you just know is right.  You know the kind.  Of course, the problem with that statement is I’m sure we all have beliefs that we know are right that contradicts others’ that they know are right.  That’s what we were talking about before.

And, sometimes you both believe the same thing, but the strength of that belief, or how strongly you should adhere to it, is different.

Let’s take something as innocuous as processed sugar.  I think by now we all know processed sugar is bad for you, right?  If not, just play along.  Now, let’s say one spouse is so convicted that processed sugar is wrong that they’re ready to give it up entirely.  Now, the other spouse knows sugar is bad for them, but isn’t so convinced that they need to give it all up.  Or at least not yet.  So, the first spouse wants to keep the kids home from all parties, functions, etc., because, well, what if someone accidentally poisons them with sugar!  The other spouse believes that while processed sugar is not great for you, completely curtailing a child’s social life would be even more harmful.  And really, it’s not that bad is it?

Now, who is right?  I’m sure we all have an opinion.  I mean, let’s say we all know processed sugar is bad, then ideally, we should all give it up completely and ideally all our friends, their children, and the schools, daycares and anything else should as well, right?  Yeah, probably.  Is it likely to happen?  Nope.  Because not everyone has the same strength of conviction, even if they all believe it’s true.  And not everyone feels that conviction should be the priority in their lives.

My bet is most people would land somewhere around letting the child go to whatever functions they want, and perhaps cutting back at home.  In short, I think most of us land in the “Yeah, I know what’s right, but I’m not ready to be that extremely right yet.”  I don’t mean to be insulting.  I’m in the same boat with a lot of things.

What tends to happen though is that we devolve into demonizing our spouse.

My spouse thinks it’s okay to poison our children just because they’re addicted to sugar.
My spouse thinks it’s better to live like a hermit and have no social interactions than accidentally ingest a grain of sugar.

Rather than just saying “My spouse has a different level of conviction about it that I do.  And that’s okay.”

In Christianity in particular, especially when dealing with doctrinal issues, we tend to think that once someone’s a Christian, then their process of growing closer to Christ ends.  We tend to think our own walk ends!  For those of us who grew up in the church, that’s a serious problem, because, well, that would mean it ended when you were in the nursery.

The truth is, our convictions grow over time.  Sometimes they change completely.  I have a lot of stances I hold now that I didn’t when I was younger.  My wife and I, even though we grew up in the same denomination, been together since we were 16 years old, married 17 years (together 21 total), and even left and joined a radically different denomination together in our mid-twenties, we still have differing beliefs on some things.  Usually, they’re simply different stances on where the line should be drawn.

I tend to be more black & white.  She’s more … reasonable and practical.

So, how do we manage conflicts where we’re polarized or have different opinions on where the line should be drawn?

  1. Recognize that your stance is an opinion – unless you have hard evidence, which is rare in arguments, your opinion is just that: an opinion.  Just because you think it’s right doesn’t make it right.  You aren’t God.  You aren’t perfect or omniscient.  Opinions can be changed, or even set aside.
  2. Recognize that your spouse isn’t against you – often we get into a battle mentality and it becomes a you vs them dynamic.  Instead, tackle it as a common problem for you to solve as a team.
  3. Evaluate the real risk – what is the real problem?  Often when we’re arguing for or against something, the actual problem is much smaller than the argument.  Sometimes the risk is so minute, it’s not a real issue.  We all leave the house from time to time in a thunderstorm despite the very real threat that we might get hit by lightning (1 in 3000 chance of being hit by lightning in your lifetime in the US apparently!).  We accept the risk and continue with our lives.  The risk of choosing the wrong colour for the kitchen walls has a far lower mortality rate…
  4. Decide if it’s worth damaging your relationship – There are a few things that are.  I, unfortunately, know a man in my church whose wife left because he started coming to our church.  She basically told him to choose between her and his convictions.  He chose his convictions.  But that’s a rare occurrence. Most arguments in marriage are not about such weighty matters.  Let’s face it, most Christians choose what church to go to based on proximity, worship style and what children’s programs are available instead of doctrinal beliefs. Of course, a lot of my readers also have conflicts around sex which has further complications, but day to day conflicts in marriage are usually about something mundane, like what’s for supper, where you put the keys, how you load the dishwasher, or what activities should we put our children into.  Most of them are not worth the fight.  I’m not saying roll over and let them do what they want.  I’m just saying that you should remember what’s most important.
  5. Look for solutions – Often, when we get into an argument, we stop looking for solutions, and start looking to win.  We lose sight of the objective and go into defensive mode.  All we want is to be declared right.  But even if you get your way, but damaged the relationship, you’re likely still wrong and everyone lost.  I have coaching clients who will table arguments so they can have them while I’m listening.  They’ve recognized they’ve lost objectivity and are arguing about the wrong thing.  The truth is, they could see the solution themselves if it was happening to anyone else.  As soon as I present another option where everyone wins, it’s obvious to them.  They wonder why they couldn’t see it.  Usually the reason is that they stopped looking.  They were defending their pride.  Our nature is to love ourselves at the expense of others, even our spouse.  We all do this by default.  It takes constant vigilance, practice and humility to choose to love.

4. Learn to live together despite the differences

Lastly, if all else fails, you each live in accordance with your own convictions.  I know spouses where one spouse tithes from their income, and the other doesn’t.  One goes to church on Sunday and the other on Saturday.  One is Christian and the other is not.  One will baptize the children and the other will lead the adults to baptism when it’s time.  It can be done, these differences are not so vast that they cannot co-exist.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? – 1 Corinthians 7:12-16

Now, if we are called to live peaceably with a spouse who is not Christian, if we are called to continue in the faith even if they do not share it, should it not be even easier to do so when we both share the same faith, albeit differently?

Yes, it may be difficult for children to see two sets of interpretations, but no more so than having a spouse who believes and another who does not.  Eventually they will have to choose for themselves which interpretation they hold true.

At the end of it all, conflicts are merely two people holding a different opinion.  It’s not the end of the world or the marriage, unless you let it be.  At its core, the solution is simply to love others, including your spouse, as much as yourself.  Because of this, I sometimes think that even in Heaven, we will have conflict.  I’m not convinced that conflict is a result of sin.  Merely a result of freewill.  Even among the God-head, we see differing opinions, differing personalities.  We just see them manage conflict so well that it results in unity.

I think that’s the goal we should strive for in our marriages – to let conflict lead us to deeper intimacy and oneness.

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