My husband, M, recently said to me after a minor marital spat, “We are both passionate, spirited people; we are going to argue. We just have to be respectful and mindful of each other.” While he was spot on in his assessment of our relationship, it reminds me of an ongoing cultural phenomenon that is most apparent in our political discourse. I believe that any healthy relationship promotes room for differences of opinion to be felt and expressed. The most challenging relationships I have experienced in my life are the ones shut down because the ability to effectively and respectfully deal with conflict is failing. I see a lot of failing relationships these days on this very basis.
We have all gotten into an argument or debate with someone that clearly is going nowhere, the ones in which each person is tuned in only to the voices in his or her own head, and the voices get louder as if volume alone will be sufficient to force the other person into listening. After a while, you learn that certain people are incapable of having a reasonable conversation, and intimacy comes to a screeching halt. True intimacy arises from an established pattern of disclosure, trust, and acceptance. Intimacy requires trust that the other person prioritizes you as a person above needing to be right or the “winner” of the debate; you can disagree and know that other person is not going anywhere. It requires graciousness of spirit to listen and care more for the individual than scoring the point.
I admit myself that I often do not have that graciousness. Sometimes the issue at hand is so close to my heart and the frustration level so high that someone I care about cannot agree with me, that I feel the familiar flood of emotions in the situation override my general care for the other person. This seems to most often happen with the people I hold most dear to my heart. I want to reconcile my strongly held beliefs with my belief in their ability to discern and judge similarly to me. But what I remember when I am thinking more clearly is that I love that person, despite their dissimilarity to me and in some cases, because of it. Occasionally, I even can get out of my own way enough to find merit and rightness in another’s perspective, and I am always glad of it.
My relationship with my friend Julie is an example of how people with often opposing viewpoints can have a satisfying and close friendship. We hold political and religious positions that in many ways cannot be more divergent. What sustains our relationship through numerous debates is the respect we have for each other as people. While I disagree with Julie’s positions on many things, I think she is one of the most gracious people I know. She is thoughtful and intelligent and caring and I am often amazed by her ability to listen to my point of view, even when she knows it is likely to differ from her own. She is one of those rare individuals that seeks out other opinions, just to hear them and critically think.
Being fixed in one’s own viewpoint to the detriment of relationship can be a sign of emotional and intellectual immaturity. It can mean that an individual is too threatened by the possibility of another way of thinking or feeling to listen thoughtfully. It can mean that honesty cannot exist within a relationship where people cannot speak their minds without being criticized or shut down. When someone consistently overpowers you with their opinion and thoughts, and allows self-righteousness to override relationship, it can become disrespectful and abusive. It does not allow for natural and healthy conflict to be effectively resolved. Either one or both parties abandon the relationship, or many issues that need to be addressed are stifled and fester. When communication and conflict resolution shut down, the relationship has deteriorated.
I see parallels between the interpersonal and the national political conflicts we are currently experiencing and have touched on this issue in previous blogs. However, the solution can only be found when two individuals choose a different way to handle conflict. We cannot change the way we handle conflict in our country without first dealing with it interpersonally.
I continue to reflect on this topic as I am one of those people who can be self-righteous and judging at times. I hope to challenge myself to deal with conflict in a more open and healthy way, and I invite you to join me, because as we all get control of our inner lives, we are more likely to effect change on a broader scale.