I was a deer in the headlights. It was the first time I had met with a couple as a counselor in training, and from my vantage point this conversation had gone off the rails. The couple sat back-to-back in my office with their arms crossed glaring at the walls.
“I HATE when you talk to me that way!” she yelled.
“I just asked a simple question about the plan for the weekend. This anger is so typical of her,” he explained to me calmly, though the contempt in his voice was clear.
“You don’t get it. It’s not a simple question. It’s that I can never do ANYTHING right!” she replied.
Sadly, it was a typical dynamic for these two people. The man would make a request that was loaded with criticism, and the woman erupted with anger.
By now, I’ve witnessed hundreds of these types of conversations. And, I’m no longer surprised. Most conflict starts out over simple things, such as the schedule, laundry, or a missed phone call or text. In most cases, the solution to conflict isn’t so much about solving the problem at hand, which is often a minor issue. It’s about taking a different approach.
The key to healthy relationships is to learn how to talk about the situation without putting up a wall.
Here’s how conflict typically escalates: Person A makes a statement that is really agenda-laden. Person B senses the agenda and armors up. In this case, Person A might say something like, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just always be the one cleaning up the house.” Person B detects the passive dig and reacts in a big way.
Both examples escalate because both people are acting from a protective shell. Neither is happy or getting what they need. There is no heart-to-heart connection.
If you find this dynamic occurring in your relationship, I want you to do something surprising and counter-intuitive.
Instead of focusing on the conflict, take a step back and examine what is happening inside of YOU for a moment.
1. Get honest with yourself.
What is the way YOU are protecting yourself in this situation? (And, don’t tell me you’re not. Even cloaking words with a kind tone can be a form of self-protection.) It might be that you criticize, lash out, or attempt to control. Or, you might withdraw, care-take, or attempt to please. Notice what wall you put up when you’re feeling frustrated or disconnected from your loved one.
2. Extend compassion toward yourself.
What is the fear inside of YOU that is causing your protective behavior? You might feel like you’re protecting yourself from the other person’s behavior or reaction. But, more often than not, you’re protecting a fearful or vulnerable part of yourself. It might be that you’re feeling unloved, lonely or invisible. Or, you might fear you’re losing control or being mistreated. Regardless, notice what your fear is, underneath the protector, and extend compassion toward yourself. This is the real root of the issue—it’s rarely the laundry or the schedule.
3. Invite Jesus into that tender part of your soul.
The more you can care for the vulnerability you feel inside with God’s help, the healthier you will become. Instead of armoring up, you’ll learn to speak and act from a position of authenticity and strength. As a result of your strength, your relationship just might become healthier, too. So what if your spouse is annoyed with you? You’ll be okay. It can be lonely to feel misunderstood. But, as you care for yourself, with God’s help, you gain clarity and confidence. You’ll reduce unhealthy expectations of someone else, and learn when to speak up versus when to meet your own needs.
The overlooked key to a healthy relationship is knowing how to get your needs met through the power of Christ’s love for you first.
We do need to receive care from others. But, we also need to know how to care for ourselves at the deepest level.
Sure, you’ll still desire understanding from the other person. But, you won’t NEED it so much. If the understanding comes, you’ll receive it with open arms. But if it doesn’t, you won’t be shaken. Afterall, you are already anchored in love. You know who you are at the core of your being—a beautiful soul made in His image.
The stronger you are internally, the stronger your relationships will be.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. —Psalm 139:5