We have done a disservice to our children in terms of relational health. We have, in a myriad of ways, taught them not how to handle conflict or to reconcile relationships, but to avoid conflict and deny its existence.
On the playground, when conflict arises, we often tell them, “Then if you can’t play nicely with Johnny on the monkey bars, go find a different game to play.” Sure, it avoids the conflict with Johnny, but that is precisely the problem. Not only does it avoid the conflict, it teaches them to avoid dealing with conflict.
When our children fight on those long wintery indoor days, at each other’s throats and feeling every ounce of being cooped up, we tell them, “Play nice together or play by yourself.” What’s the real incentive there? To play by yourself. At that moment, that’s the reward. They are already cooped up, frustrated, and sick of playing with another, so if they can act out just one more time, they will be free of their perceived problem, the other person. It teaches them that the way to handle conflict is to frustrate the other person until they leave. Again, casting out the other person and dissolving the relationship is seen as conflict management.
But it isn’t.
It’s conflict avoidance.
And we do it all the time.
But real, honest, reconciling relationship and conflict resolution is hard work.
And if we learn as kids to handle conflict this way, we will continue practicing that as adults.
A life of relational transitions
This is why we as adults often live in a world of relational transitions.
Conflict with our spouses treats us to ignore them when we are mad, never solving the conflict. We stuff our feelings, our perspectives and our offenses until it’s too late. What started out as a small crack in the groundwork of our relationship has now created a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon.
That’s why divorce is such an easy and acceptable relationship management tool. In many cases it is the adult version of, “If we can’t get along I’ll just go do something else.”
It’s also why employee dissatisfaction in companies continues to climb. We endlessly job hop or transfer departments because when new conflict arises, we’ve learned that it’s easier to just go play by yourself than work on fixing the broken relationship.
What we learned as kids we practice as adults, until we discover a better way.
Toward true relational health
Jesus, in Matthew 5, gives us words of wisdom that teach us true relational health, not the false notions we’ve been taught as children.
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.
If (when) there is an offense with another person, Scripture points out how to handle it.
1.) Don’t pretend that everything is OK. When you become aware of a relational rift, do everything in your power to make it right.
2.) Offer an apology and seek to understand the other person’s perspective on the situation. Entering the conversation with an, “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality will do nothing to mend the situation.
3.) Heal the wounds caused by your words by asking for forgiveness and taking positive steps to reconcile, restore and rejuvenate the relationship. God doesn’t want us at the altar (in worship to him) if our earthly relational lives are a mess. We can’t honestly worship God and pretend everything is OK if we know others around us are hurting or angry with our actions.
Firm foundations for relational health
These steps, though clear, are hard to do. It requires a great sense of humility. We have to lay aside our preferences, our entitlements and our desire to be right. It forces us to see the other person not as “wrong” or as an “other” but as a person created in the image of God who needs to be blessed and whole. It requires that I recognize my own actions, words or thoughts, intentional or otherwise, have offended, wounded and scarred another individual.
All relational health starts here. It requires that we cast off the lessons of our youth and embrace a new way to approach handling conflict.
Instead of conflict avoidance or conflict denial, it enters into attaining real relational health.
Conflict will happen. Disagreements will arise. Disputes will challenge us. But how we choose to handle them will shape our relational destinies. Do you want to live a life of relational transition, always bouncing between jobs, friends and emotional rollercoasters, or practice true reconciliation, true humility and true restoration?
One causes chasms between us and others and leaves a wake of destruction.
The other provides healing and hope; teaching us more about Christ and others, and how to live in abundantly blessed relationships.
Justin Hiebert is a Mennonite Brethren pastor in the Denver metro area. He studied Youth Ministry and Christian Leadership at Tabor College and completed his M.Div. at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He blogs at empoweringmissional.com, where this post originally appeared.