Connection in Conflict

As much as my natural instinct is to avoid conflict at all costs, there are times when I’m grateful for it. Maybe more accurate would be that I am grateful for the relationships that make conflict necessary.

Yep. Conflict is necessary, though not all conflict fits that description. When conflict happens as a result of attempting to use force to determine who wins and who loses, that’s completely unnecessary—and counterproductive—conflict. That’s true in marriages, workplaces, churches, countries.

Conflict that erupts because we are different and we care enough to be invested in each other’s lives? That’s the sticky, clumsy, messy nature of genuine connection. And it’s scary as hell. And it’s heart-wrenching when it breaches containment and spreads beyond what we know how to heal.

I’ve seen it in my own relationships, and sadly, I’ve had a lot of relationships that have never known it. Lack of conflict doesn’t indicate compatibility or closeness. It means we don’t know each other enough, share enough of ourselves, for our differences to matter. It’s way safer that way. It’s also lonely.

Knowing and being known isn’t a yes-or-no question. It’s a question of depth, of breadth, of how many of the different parts of me can I share with the trust that it won’t mean my dismissal from relationship.

If you know anything about the Enneagram (a personality types system through the lens of how people relate to themselves and the people around them), you may know that 9’s are also called Peacemakers. I’m a 9, and the basic motivation for our peacemaking is because we don’t know how to handle the stress of peacelessness. If we 9’s are not at peace inside, it’s torture. If there is conflict around us, it disturbs our inner peace, so we hide. We avoid conflict because any amount of it feels life-threatening.

Yet, we can grow. I have grown, and it’s been hard and amazing, and life is richer and bigger than it used to be. I’m learning not to disappear into my mental fortress when my wife is unhappy. I’m learning not to disappear from presence in my community when life together feels chaotic.

But there’s an intermediary step. Another aspect of us 9’s is our limited energy. My mental/physical/emotional energy is limited, and engaging drains it, or at least some types of engaging drain it. It’s actually occurring to me as I write this, that it’s not being engaged that requires so much energy, it’s the initial connection. If I have enough energy to boost myself into engagement, staying there isn’t so hard.

But that too has been a process. Neurologically, different emotions inspire different basic stances: approach and withdraw. Emotions mediated primarily through the left side of the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain right behind your forehead) manifest in approach states. That means they inspire us to engage more. Emotions mediated through the right side manifest in withdraw states. They inspire us to disengage. Fear and sadness lead to disengagement. Happiness and anger to engagement.

That’s right, anger. I hate anger. I’m afraid of anger. Anger in other people. Anger in myself. I hate it and much of the time it’s really hard for me to see anything good about it. It feels satisfying sometimes, in the I-have-total-justification-to-think-I’m-better-than-you-because-you-did-something-I-don’t-approve sort of way, but let’s be honest. When we’re not in the middle of feeling that, we think that’s terrible. And maybe more importantly, when we are in the middle of experiencing that, it leads to disconnection 100% of the time.

At the same time, if I don’t feel I have the energy to engage, anger might be the only thing that propels me to lean in rather than shut life out.

So running away from my own anger is just as destructive to relationships as running away from other people’s anger.

It hasn’t been pretty, but I’ve been learning not to run away from my own anger over the last few years. It’s especially not pretty because I haven’t had a lot of practice allowing myself to be angry, so I can be pretty obnoxious when I go there. And I try not to blame people, so I just talk about being frustrated with the situation, but people still feel the blame.

I had a breakthrough recently. I had just finished a class that lasted all day Friday and all day Saturday, so I was exhausted. Worse, that weekend was our church community’s annual retreat, so I missed most of it. I drove an hour from my class to join the retreat. A matter of about two hours later, my daughter used the last of the diapers my wife had brought, and we still had to make it through that night and part of the next day.

So, instead of getting to maximize the little time I had to participate at the retreat, circumstances colluded against me, and I had to drive an hour roundtrip into the nearest town to buy diapers.

It was the work of the Spirit.

To go back to a phrase from my childhood, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I happened to be listening to a book on marriage on audio while I drove. It’s called Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). I have come to be fully convinced and committed as a therapist-in-training to EFT and all the foundational concepts that lead to its incredible success rate.

One of those concepts is that trying to ‘manage’ anger by silencing it, pushing it aside, and just white-knuckling it while it boils beneath the surface is not a good idea. Anger is a problem to be solved and banished. It is a sign that some other (or many other) emotions are present but too unknown or vulnerable for us to face. The way to respond to anger is not to dismiss it or give in to it but to explore it.

The realization that I need to do that exploration while I drove hit me hard. I had repeatedly tried to talk myself out of being angry as I was driving to buy diapers. But it didn’t work.

I tried to reason with myself that it wasn’t anyone’s fault (but if she’d brought more diapers…), that it was unfortunate but ultimately not that big a deal (but this retreat is something I look forward to all year, and I already missed so much…), that being angry about it wasn’t fair to anyone and it would be much more pleasant just to accept reality as it was (what if I don’t wanna…). I wasn’t listening to myself very well.

But dismissing my anger wasn’t going to work. It never does. Not for long anyway. I needed to explore what was underneath it. I had to be honest about what I was feeling, everything I was feeling.

I began to ask myself why missing that time was something I didn’t want. I began to ask myself what I had hoped for that time. I was beginning to allow myself to mourn the loss of connection with people I cared about during that time, of sharing memories, of building relationship, of laughter and smiles and stories. I let myself be sad.

And the anger didn’t need to be pushed away anymore. It melted away in the warmth of the sadness. I stayed present with my sadness for several minutes. And then I let it go. And I was fine. The anger never came back.

Anger can be a powerful weapon. That’s what it’s for, protecting us and the people we care about from threats. But what if there isn’t a real threat? It uses its destructive power anyway, and anyone unlucky enough to get too close feels its sharp edge, including ourselves.

I wish I could say I started practicing what I learned in that story every time I’ve gotten angry since then. Nope. But I try to remind myself. And I’ll get better and better. Being vulnerable and honest with ourselves and with the people we care about is necessary in every relationship. The more risky it is to show our deeper feelings, the more likely it is that’s precisely where it’s most needed.

But we’ll need patience. With ourselves and each other.

I realized I haven’t connected this discussion with faith or spirituality or Scripture. I could tack on some prooftexts just to make sure there’s a Scripture reference, but that would be me using the Bible for my own ends, not actually listening to the wisdom of the Spirit. So I won’t. I believe these insights fit squarely in the witness of the Bible as a whole, of who Jesus showed us he was in the Gospels, of who the Spirit forms us to be as it works in and through us. We are called to patience and gentleness, to forgiveness and love, to honesty and being strong through the vulnerability of weakness. Never domineering or aggressive.

Conflict doesn’t need to be aggressive or divisive. If we approach it through the Spirit, through the ideas that have shaped me, nearly against my own will, conflict can be the means of deepest and strongest connection. It works best when we are willing to sacrifice for love, to be open and vulnerable for the sake of truth.

Connecting in conflict can be a way to be like Christ, to express love, to sacrifice for the good of each other. When we engage in order to give ourselves rather than to make someone lose, that’s when everyone wins.

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