Conflict in relationships

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A friend once forwarded to me a certain message about conflict in a relationship. I tried retracing the message but couldn’t find it. I’m not sure who the source is, but I remember the short story. It went like this. A man and his wife are in the house on a relaxed day without much activity. The man is reading the paper. The woman is preparing a meal. There is a knock on the door. The man knowing that his wife’s hands are full decides to get the door. He puts his paper down and marches towards the door. Halfway there, he walks into a stool that is holding a very expensive vase from his mother. The stool topples and the expensive vase breaks into smithereens. The man has also hurt his leg. The wife hears the crash of the vase and the cry of her husband and attends to the situation immediately. She sees the brittle pieces of the vase scattered on the floor. She sees her husband wincing in pain.

Reaction one

The husband barks, “Who put that damn stool there? I almost broke my leg!” The woman sips in his bile and she retorts, “Why can’t you watch where you are going? Are you blind, for heaven’s sake?” They get into a brief but intense fist fight of words. Meanwhile, the visitor at the door is still knocking. They don’t want an embarrassing situation. So they quickly clean the mess so that the visitor does not know what they were fighting about. Amidst the tension, they shush one another irritably and one of them heads to get the door. The visitor comes in to a clean house but the tension is palpable, you could cut it with a knife.

Reaction two

The same incident with the stool occurs in the exact same way. The wife speaks, “Oh dear, are you okay?” Her husband is in pain but replies as calmly as he can, “Clumsy me! It’s my fault; I didn’t see that stool. I’ll clean up this mess; you go get the door.” The wife feeling compassion for her hurt husband replies, “No, it’s my fault. I moved the stool there without informing you. I will clean up the mess. You go get the door.” The visitor comes in and finds a mess but a happy home.

The main issue with conflict is not what you deal with but HOW you deal with it. To have a reaction like the second one is not an automatic thing. It takes training oneself, dying to self and intentionally choosing to make your relationship work. During conflict, our natural reactions are to attack the person or avoid them altogether. But there is a better way to fight. To fight well and resolve conflict in a healthy manner, you must understand a number of things:

  • The standard for conflict resolution
  • The causes of conflict
  • The right reaction to conflict

My wife and I conduct a Dating Clinic that handles the causes and the reaction in detail. We won’t deal with those two. For today we will only cover the standard for conflict resolution. And for this we will look to our authority; our creator. Why do you need God’s standard for your conflict? Greg Smalley in his book Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage: 12 Secrets for a Lifelong Romance says this:

“I don’t want to trust my own interpretations and perceptions of what my wife does; I want God’s perspective because ultimately He is the Source of truth. When my heart is closed, my view becomes distorted, I lack God’s insight, wisdom and truth.”

Knowing God’s standard will help us see the gravity of resolving conflict. Smalley adds:

“It’s not how many arguments you have, it’s how you manage them that makes all the difference. The goal is never to avoid your problems and keep peace at any price. It’s making restitution, and seeking favor with your spouse. Look out for your spouse’s needs first—and don’t delay!”

The standard for conflict resolution

From the scriptures we see clearly that God has certain absolute standards for us during conflict. As you read through them, I pray you sense the urgency God places on us to resolve conflict. I pray that the urgency pushes you to act.

Ephesians 4:26b Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. (NIV)

Paul writes to the Ephesian church on the standards for Christian living. He mentions this one line that often goes unnoticed. It is just half a verse long. The message in it is clear: Resolve conflict as soon as possible. The analogy of the sun seems to insinuate that today’s conflicts must be solved today; we ought not to bear them as we go to bed in the night. My wife and I adopted this strategy early in our marriage when we fought about money. We often hear people say that they want to think things over for a few days before they deal with them. While thinking things through is necessary, one must be honest with their motives. Often we are simply running away from dealing with the issue because we are conflict averse. Certain personalities may prefer to delay resolving the conflict, but we must realise that even our personalities are called to bow to Christ’s standard.

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (NIV)

Solomon gives us another one from the LORD. It has to do with our response during conversation. Have you been triggered to anger by what someone said? The lesson is crystal: When angered, respond in love. Those who cheered at the Ephesians 4:26b verse ought to listen carefully here. It’s not enough to solve conflict immediately. It’s equally important that we solve it humbly and calmly. Personalities predisposed to quick tempers and quick responses are called to bow to God’s standard as well. As we resolve conflict we are to respond in love when angered by the other person.

Romans 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (NIV)

Saint Paul dishes out another one. He addresses the problem of living with difficult people. Often our natural reaction is to give up on difficult people. God has a different view. Many people would focus on the first part of the verse alone: if it is possible. They would then proceed to say, “Aha, you see! Even the Bible affirms that it is not always possible. I’m done here!” But before you adopt that line of thinking, I want you to also read the rest of the verse that you may not particularly be drawn to: as far as it depends on you. The option of impossibility is inextricably married to our effort. And for us to understand the effort we must see that God is saying that we should use all our power, resources and abilities to resolve conflict. Yes, that’s right. Use them all before you say it is impossible. Have you used all the resources, abilities and power at your disposal to resolve your conflict or have you given up too soon? What exactly are the resources, abilities and power that we are talking about? They could be the following:

Money: Have you used your finances to help resolve a conflict? Sometimes talking about difficult issues at a nice restaurant or in a nice getaway garden is easier that in the same old environment.

Time: Have you set aside time to specifically address the issues you face or do you never have the time? We make time for what’s important. When we say there is no time to meet and talk, we are innately saying that we do not value this relationship.

People: Have you consulted older and wiser people? Have you invested in mentor couples? Have you sought their view on a difficult matter? Have you solicited the help of a counselor if need-be? We were made to function in community. There is room to solve matters on your own. But when it becomes impossible to do so, you must realize it is not the end of the road. Consult people.

1 Corinthians 13:5c Love…does not keep a record of wrongs

The term forgive and forget is common. To forgive is to forego the right to get even. To forget is to erase from memory. The former can be done by dying to self. But can the latter be possible? We know that offences are not easily erased from memory. In fact the worst of offences stick in our memory pretty well. The Bible’s standard on remembering past injustices done against us is not to wipe our minds clean and act as if it never happened. Rather, it is to willingly, intentionally and humbly choose to not count the offence as evidence against the character of the offender in future. The lesson is to destroy archives of past misdeeds and treat each offence as a new one. Do we say a matter is buried but revisit it later? Do we use past hurts against us as weapons in current arguments?

Matthew 5:23-24 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (NIV)

Jesus himself gives us another standard. We often don’t appreciate the gravity of this text. Let me try put it in perspective. If you read the book of Numbers you will see that gifts given at the altar were often fulfillments of vows or offerings of thanksgiving for God’s goodness. In the desert the gifts were offered by the priests at the tabernacle. When Israel settled down, they offered them at the temple. The temple was located in Jerusalem. There was only one temple. People would travel long distances to offer the gifts. Supposing you were a Jew from Nazareth. It would probably take you well over two days on the road to get to Jerusalem. You would probably have to pass by Bethlehem to buy your sacrifice from a farm called Midgal Eder. After you rest from your trip and prepare yourself to offer your sacrifice, it would probably be the third or fourth day. As you get to the altar, you remember that you and your partner had a fight and that things are bitter between the two of you. And it applied to all relationships, not just spouses. Jesus says, leave your sacrifice at the altar and go back to reconcile with the person you’ve fallen out with. You must understand that this is in a time without phones and the Internet. You can’t call home. The only way to reconcile is to traverse back home another three days. And once you get home and reconcile, take another three days back to the temple to offer your sacrifice with a clear conscience. This is the lesson: Inconvenience yourself for the sake of resolution of conflict. Jesus is affirming that your relationships are more important than your religion. Resolve your conflict before you get to the pulpit to preach. Resolve your conflict before you offer a sacrifice to God. Ensure you have reached the peak of inconvenience before you say the matter cannot be solved.

These standards are high. But they are there to let us know that we’ve got work to do in our relationships. These standards also point to us how seriously God takes dissensions and factions in the faith. It was in John 17 that Jesus prayed for the believers who would follow him and his main desire was that they may be one. He reiterated in John 17:22 that the oneness should be in God so that the result would be the world believing that Jesus was truly sent by the father. That is mind-boggling to me! That the unity of believers will bring about the world believing in Jesus’ authenticity. That unity mustn’t be merely viewed from an ecclesiastical point. It should start from a personal point; a man and his wife. And if a man and his wife keep that unity, they further help fulfill the image of Christ and his bride. And if they do that, the Gospel is seen in our man-woman relationships. You must see that the resolution of conflict can have eternity matters at stake. The standards also keep us humble and teachable as we navigate through this life with a partner, till death do us part. They remind us that we too fall short and they keep us in a rightfully lowly position. Which of these standards is God challenging you to work on? What other biblical standard are you aware of?

Upcoming conflict class

Due to public demand, we are having another class on handling conflict in relationships this Thursday evening. The venue is CITAM Valley Road. The cost per couple is 1000 KES. Gate charges are 1500 KES per couple. Singles who wish to attend will pay half prices respectively. To confirm attendance one should send a message with their full names, emails and phone numbers to info@penstrokes.co.ke

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Ernest Wamboye is a disciple of Jesus Christ, a husband, a father, an author and a speaker. He has been married to the lovely Waturi since September 2012. They have a passion for youth ministry. Together they minister to young adults on the gospel and pre-marital relationships. Ernest has authored two books, The Human Temple, a novel, and Lust and the City- a guide on sexual purity.

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