Conflict: Being Ripped Apart and Smashed Into

The Conflict Within

“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves.”               James 4:1 (The Message)

When we experience conflict within the context of an intimate relationship, we should not so easily conclude that the other is the primary cause. But that is the default setting for most of us: It is always easy to blame someone else for my discomfort. To see the other as the intruder, the threat, the danger, is primal. Indeed, if this were the totality of reality, it would only make sense to see the other as the potential enemy.

But most others are not automatically a danger to us. Blaming someone else for any conflict takes no thought. It requires absolutely no maturity or love or reflection. To be blunt, it’s kindergarten, it’s childish. It reduces the human experience to sequences of stimulus-response interactions. It requires no higher reasoning processes to speak of: “I hurt and you did it!”

Having said that, sometimes others do, in fact, deliberately hurt us! I do not want those in abusive relationships to imagine for one minute that they brought the abuse on themselves or it is their fault. For many who are in such bondage, the tendency is to look inward, and frequently they blame themselves for the beatings they take. If you are in a relationship in which the power differential between you and the other is significant, it is likely more important for you to shift your focus away from your culpability and, instead, find safety. The focus of this article is primarily toward those relationships that are for the most part egalitarian, those in which such abuse of power is unlikely or rare. In these relationships much of the hurt is, more often than not, unintentional.

We — you and I — possess a formidable capacity for harming others. Others may be right, at times, to fear us or distrust us or avoid us. The problem for most of us is that we can only see the enemy as “out there.” It takes a significant event in our lives to enable us to see the enemy within. A mentor of mine, Dr. Gary Rupp, would say that everybody is wounded, but not everybody is broken. The difference, he noted, is in the tears: wounded people cry because of what was done to them; broken people cry also for what they have done to others.

Recently, author and psychoanalyst, Dr. Jody Messler-Davies addressed the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society regarding this phenomenon of the darkness within us. She suggested that it is far more common for the analyst/therapist to focus almost exclusively on the patient’s woundedness with scarce attention to the patient’s brokenness. It is easier for many clinicians to collude with this notion that their patients are victims only, rather than spending time with the equally painful—or even more painful—reality of their also being perpetrators, at least on some level.

It would be helpful if we could come to the problem of relational conflict with humility and honesty, two ingredients that spiritual director and Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr believes are essential for growth and community. If I could put this more directly, perhaps I might say that until a person begins to grapple with his or her own capacity for wounding others, that person will be virtually incapable of resolving conflicts with others. If I cannot acknowledge the conflict within me, I will never be able to deal effectively with the conflict I have with another. If you think you are always right, may God help the people in your life! And may God grant you the grace to know those parts of you hidden from your awareness.

The Problem of Evil

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-4, NIV)

In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the second land in which Lemuel Gulliver finds himself is Brobdingnag, the land of giants. He is tiny in comparison to these large beings, and finds himself absolutely disgusted by their physical flaws, which he can see only too well given his point of view. The Brobdingnagians see their ordinary flaws the way we might see ours, but to Gulliver, they are huge and repulsive. He is particularly put off by the size of the pores in their skin, which he can scarcely tolerate.

Whether we look at ourselves from a psychological perspective or a theological one (or both), we as individuals are conflicted within. Freud posed the id, ego, and superego as competing drives within each of us that can often lead to psychological distress. British psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn saw our internal conflicts as created by both disappointing and meaningful experiences with important others in our early lives, especially mother and father. Unlike Freud, who saw this intrapersonal conflict merely as the result of one’s biology, Fairbairn (and many more after him, including most contemporary psychoanalysts) recognized the psychological as well as physiological need for relationship with others, especially caregivers, as the breeding ground for our internal conflicts: am I loved or not? Will others be available or not? Do I have to ignore my needs in order to have a relationship with significant others? What will I have to give up or accommodate in order to get you to love me and continue to love me? And then, how will I feel about you and about myself? Analyst Bruce Herzog talks about multiple “relational templates” each of us possesses as a result of implicit procedural learning about how to do people. I hope you get the idea that our fundamental nature as relational beings can set us up for all types of disappointments.

I have been developing many of these thoughts during a Lenten and Easter season, and so, you may find that many of the ideas in this article emerge from my Christian identity as much as or even more than my professional psychological one. For many who observe Lent (or undergo psychoanalysis or intensive therapy), we become like Gulliver in the land of giants, but rather than seeing flaws in others, we find ourselves seeing our own, as if we are looking into a lighted magnifying mirror and discover unkindness, suspiciousness, hatred, lying, promise-breaking, etc. Those of us from a Judeo-Christian worldview may see these qualities as symptoms of evil in a fallen world. In this article, I will use the very non-politically-correct idea of evil to discuss such harm we knowingly or often unconsciously inflict on another.

One of my seminary courses entitled, “The Problem of Evil,” explored not only the unfortunate turns of events in a person’s life, but much worse: gratuitous evil, evil upon evil for its own sake. Philosophers and theologians have divided evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evils are catastrophes such as hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and even viruses, cancers, and other life-threatening diseases that devastate and destroy. Moral evil, however, is “man’s inhumanity to man” and is evidenced by wars, crime, totalitarian regimes, many forms of poverty, abuses of power from the highest institutions in the land to the tiniest family unit. There is no shortage of “evil,” natural or moral. For now though, we are concerned with moral evil: humanity’s capacity to imagine and perpetrate harm against other humans.

I have found myself working with couples in which some of this “evil” occurs right before my eyes: cruel accusations, twisted words, vile name-calling, despicable threats. In those moments of free-for-all “evil,” each of us feels justified for our hurtful thoughts, words, feelings, and actions: we are all blind to our own evil, our own capacities to see the other as enemy and to feel right about any tactics we use to protect ourselves. We feel righteous about our doing evil. So it is with this reality of the pervasiveness of evil and the potential each of us has for it that we come to the topic of conflict. In order to address conflict with a loved one in the most productive manner, we must first and foremost see who and what we are: We are conflicted within; hence the conflict between.

Unconventional Weapons

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
2 Corinthians 10:3-4

If you have ever found yourself in a quickly-escalating argument with someone you love, you might have noticed that each volley between the two of you upped the ante. You were engaged in your own interpersonal arms race. At times, some couples find absolutely nothing off-limits. Weapons of mass destruction are used without discretion. The other’s vulnerabilities are exploited, threats of present and future pain are launched, and vicious name-calling — peppered with vulgarities that would make a stevedore blush — poisons the air like nerve gas. Afterward, when (and if) the anger fades, each wonders if recovery is even possible. The “event” is replayed, and sometimes you may wish you used your extra-special zinger that you just remembered (and you file it away for the next battle), and sometimes you are alternately ashamed of yourself and deeply wounded by the one you love. Is it true, as it seems, that as in the history of human warfare, the one with the most destructive weapon wins?

For some couples who avoid conflict and explosive reactions, their weapons can bite just as powerfully. If you have ever felt the cold sting of the silent treatment or an emotionally absent partner, you know how deeply those strategies can devastate a relationship. Perhaps the style of combat you and your partner use is your own unique construction of methods you each learned from your respective households in which you were raised, not to mention the tactics you witnessed with friends or co-workers.

These weapons do not work. Not if love is the goal. Not if deepening the marriage is the goal. Not if the goal is being understood or feeling known. Weapons, by definition, destroy.

You know that; you just may not know how to respond any differently.

We look to spiritual leaders and mental health professionals to help us learn this life-altering lesson: how do I deal with conflict without destroying that which is precious to me? But what we discover, all too often, is that regardless of how bright, educated, and dedicated, unless our helpers practice what they preach we may find their help of limited value. We sometimes find these “godly” and/or “highly trained” individuals firing grenades at those who have differing perspectives: the take-away lesson being, “do as I say, not as I do.”

I was a pastor before I became a psychologist, and after almost two decades in church leadership where my heart was deeply saddened by the various divisions within the church and attitudes of exclusion many denominations displayed (we’re right/you’re wrong), I then found myself hip deep in psychoanalytic wars, in which the same behaviors and attitudes were demonstrated among various schools of analytic thought. I remember sitting alone at home one night, thinking, “This is great! Just great! Out of the frying pan, into the fire!”

It was then that I became painfully aware of the very human tendency, even among committed people-helpers, to protect our own perspective at almost any cost. At the very least, this sets a terrible example of old, tired, and ineffective patterns of conflict resolution. If my therapist or pastor, when push comes to shove, simply retaliates when feeling threatened, what good is that? I had given my life to two helping professions, only to find that they, too, had been seduced by the myth of “redemptive violence”; the way “good” wins over “evil” is by playing by the rules of evil and by overpowering through the use of violence, even if it is “merely” verbal violence. So the question still remains: how do we deal with conflict without destroying the other?

In his book, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Franciscan priest and author, Fr. Richard Rohr, exposes the mythology behind redemptive violence endemic in most of world history (pp. 133-153) . We have been taught through history, literature, and mythology that good triumphs over evil not by being good, but by being bad; that to win, the good must transform itself into something even badder than that which is evil. To win over evil, then, good must out-evil evil; at least that is how the story seems to go.

But it does not work; not if you want an intimate relationship or peace of heart. Rohr suggests that the model for dealing with conflict (and evil) is seen in the crucifixion of Jesus:

“The cross moves us from the rather universal myth of redemptive violence to a new scenario of redemptive suffering. [italics mine] On the cross of life we accept our own complicity and cooperation with evil, instead of imagining that we are standing on some pedestal of moral superiority…..What the mystery of the cross teaches us is how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves (p. 203).”

This is the essence of empathy: in that moment when hatred blossoms in your chest toward your spouse, you can see both of you as victims as well as perpetrators. What I hate in that moment may be something in me that I cannot yet acknowledge. What I hate in that moment may be some evil from which my spouse has yet to find freedom.

Conflict and Miracles

“If our marriage is going to work, we’ll need a miracle.” I hear this almost daily, and daily I am struck by the incredible vulnerability of our human situation. Sometimes this vulnerability shows up as years of wounding and being wounded by those who are closest to you, wondering if forgiveness and change will ever come. Sometimes it is the seemingly unrelenting anguish of anxiety, confusion, depression, or trauma: will I ever find peace? Will it ever be better? Sometimes it is an addiction or habit or ingrained way of thinking, an early template for knowing “how to be” in this world that seems to hold us prisoner. And sometimes it is an illness or physical limitation that has put an end to “normal” life. Do we merely cope the best we can in these situations, or dare we hope for something more?

The question of miracles — most often brought up in the context of physical healing, less often in a discussion on conflict resolution — has taken center stage in my thinking for some time now; this notion of God’s supernatural touch may even be the most helpful next step in dealing with conflict. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NIV; for more on miracles, see There’s No Telling What Will Happen Next!).

In November of 2011, New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig Keener published the monumental two-volume, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Keener challenges the prevailing Western “antisupernaturalistic” perspective that begins with the bias against divine or supernatural involvement in the world. He does so partly as historian and partly as investigative journalist, exploring not only how the ancients experienced the touch of God, but how literally hundreds of millions (that’s right, millions, with an M!) of people today across the world give accounts of such intervention that parallel those accounts of old. In short, he argues for an “open heaven,” then and now.

As many of you know, I am hardly neutral on this subject! I have been a Christian since childhood. I spent a great deal of my life in seminaries, both learning and teaching, and as a local church pastor. But I must say that I was not raised to expect that miracles would happen today. Not that I grew up in a liberal denomination which challenged these notions; on the contrary, I was nurtured in a very conservative church that staunchly defended the miracles of biblical times. When it came to miracles today, however, that was a different subject. There seemed to be an attitude that while we should pray for people, we should expect only the normal course of matters to unfold. Even now we can hear echoes of this view when people ask God to “be with the surgeon’s hands” or “give wisdom to the doctors.” Please do not misunderstand: it IS important to ask these things of God (I certainly want people praying that God gives me wisdom when I am working with suffering people), but do we not have a right to ask for more? Is not such a prayer a sign of retreat from the boldness of asking God what we really want: to heal ourselves and our loved ones?

We often make safe prayers, I think, to protect ourselves from disappointment. Many godly people have a sense that God has abandoned them; many who have given up the notion of God do so because they have been profoundly disappointed by God (see Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud, 1997, and his latest, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why, 2014). Indeed, it is a risk to believe again once we have felt so devastated, to dare to have faith against the backdrop of our sense of a silent God, when our faith seems as dead as Lazarus in the tomb. But then again, God does know a thing or two about resurrections.