Resolve conflict as a team by choosing to put the long-term health of your relationship ahead of your personal agenda.
I was mad. Possibly even seething.
Here’s the thing, what should have been a normal, run-of-the-mill Wednesday at work had become anything but. Thanks to my fiancé, Ted.
It all started the evening before.
On that particular night, I'd opted to share with Ted the cover art for a video project I was producing for my boss. Because he was a skilled graphic artist, I wanted his expert opinion on what our in-house designer had come up with before the file went to the printers.
A stickler for details, Ted immediately noticed an inconsistency.
"Well, with that serif font," he advised, "you really want a curly apostrophe, not a straight one. You should have him change that."
I may not have known what a serif font was at the time, but I could suddenly see that the straight apostrophe didn't look right. So first thing that Wednesday morning I shot an email off to our designer, asking him to make this small change.
His reply? In short: "Nope. Can't."
This is where things first took a turn toward the worse.
I forwarded this response — email address and all — to Ted. It never occurred to me that he might email the designer directly. But that's exactly what he did. My knight-equipped-with-the-mad-Photoshop-skills decided to take matters into his own hands. He mocked up what he felt the cover should look like and hit send.
I think Ted anticipated I would thank him for coming to my rescue. After all, once this designer saw how much better the cover looked with the new apostrophe, of course, he'd make the change. Problem solved. Situation fixed.
It didn't quite work out that way. Rather than birthing appreciation, Ted's act of intended heroism resulted in our first major fight.
You see, the in-house designer went on to forward Ted’s email to his superiors and to mine. Yikes! As the email trail lengthened, I panicked. For me, the situation had unnecessarily escalated to a place where not only was my reputation at risk, but my job itself. And who was to blame? Ted. I quickly went into clean-up mode at work, and I refused to talk to him.
It wasn’t until that evening that I finally faced Ted. I spoke about my anger. He spoke about his hurt. As the minutes ticked by, we both came to see things from the other’s perspective. For me, that meant gaining a better understanding of Ted’s motivations. For Ted, that meant realizing he didn’t have to fix everything for me.
Yet it wasn't until much later, as in years, that I would look back at this first conflict of ours and shake my head. Not at Ted, but at myself. While Ted may have overstepped his boundaries, my reaction is what escalated this into the fight it became. Instead of attempting to quickly and calmly work through the situation with Ted, I inwardly fumed and refused to talk to him. That is, until he directly confronted me.
Because the truth is, I was afraid to directly face conflict. I didn't want to experience the discomfort that came with addressing it.
Conflict Isn't the Enemy
When you're dating or even engaged, it's hard to imagine that this person you really, really like — or even love — might make you mad. And I mean really mad. Even seething.
But if it hasn't already happened, I guarantee it will. Just give it time. You're not the exception. As my apostrophe story illustrates, I've been there.
Does conflict mean you should rethink your relationship with this person? Perhaps. It depends on the nature and consistency of it. For example, Ted was engaged twice prior to me. One of the primary reasons he didn't marry his second fiancée is because they regularly had trouble communicating. This often resulted in conflict. It was a consistent issue that didn't improve with time and effort.
Most likely, though, if no red flags are flying, conflict simply means that you're in a relationship with another imperfect individual. And where there's a relationship — at least an authentic, bringing of yourselves to the table — conflict is sure to brew. It's inevitable.
What I think many of us, including me in those early days of Ted’s and my relationship, don't realize is that as uncomfortable as it is, conflict isn't the enemy. Let me say it again, slowly this time: Conflict is not the enemy. Instead, it can be an invaluable tool that can strengthen and deepen your relationship. That is, if you learn to face it as a team.
Make Your Motto "TeamFirst"
What does it mean to face conflict as a team? Simply put, it requires that you and I die to ourselves. Yeah, it's as drastic, and as painful, and as humiliating as it sounds.
In his letter to the first-century Christians, James posed a rhetorical question of sorts to his readers. He asked them what caused fights in their relationships (James 4:1-3). He then went on to answer it for them. What did he pinpoint as the problem? Selfishness. Our need to have things our own way. Our natural inclination to think of "me" first and foremost.
But what would happen if, in our arguments, we decided to rebel against that? What if we approached conflict with a team-first, rather than a me-first, perspective?
Take a moment to think about the word "team." What does it mean to you? For me, a team is more than one person coming together for a common purpose or goal. A team works together for their united good, not merely their individual interests. Members of a team put the long-term health of their relationship and its mission ahead of their own personal agenda.
What are some practical ways we can do this in dating relationships and on into engagement and marriage? Here are three ways.
1. Adopt an "other-first" attitude.
Consider what your first response tends to be when someone hurts or offends you. Surprise? Indignation? For many of us, including me during this "Great Apostrophe Scandal," it's to focus on what's been done to me. How I've been wronged. Why the other person needs to apologize to me.
Yet Scripture challenges us to constantly shift our focus away from ourselves. In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts us to count others as more important, putting their interests above our own. How can we apply this to our conflicts?
By adopting an "other-first" attitude (which is a crucial part of having a team-first attitude). What this means is we choose not to focus on how the other person has acted poorly, but to carefully consider and take responsibility for our own attitudes and actions. It doesn't mean condoning or facilitating sin, or being a mere doormat. It means humbly owning our sin. By doing so, we put the good of the relationship ahead of our individual need to be right. We also lay the groundwork in our own hearts for grace and understanding — groundwork that's fertile soil for a relationship that thrives into and throughout married life. A relationship of "Team Us."
2. Put yourself in the other's shoes.
After we've admitted our part in a conflict (in most cases, it takes two to tango), then we can consider what may have motivated the other person. The best way to do this? Calmly ask. Get their side of the story. And, when they talk, actively listen. This means we may need to repeat back to them at times what we've heard. For example, "So what I hear you saying is …" This allows us both to confirm that what's being heard matches what's actually being said and that there's no misunderstanding. It allows us to get beyond the behavior and to the motivation, to the heart of the matter.
There's a key to this, though. It's this: We need to approach this with an attitude that's bent on believing the best, not the worst of our loved one. If we bring negative assumptions and suspicions to the table, it's going to hinder us from true reconciliation.
3. Speak positively even if you don't feel like it.
When we're in the midst of conflict, it can be easy to speak poorly of the other person. I did this with Ted. While I refused to talk to him, I didn't refuse to talk about him.
After I received the email he sent to the in-house designer, I sent an email of my own. In it, I apologized to the graphic artist, his boss, my boss, and the head of my department for Ted's actions. But I didn't stop there. I also mentioned how embarrassed I was by Ted and his actions. Ted, who was also copied on my apology email, later told me how hurtful this had been. As I wrote my note, not once did I even consider that my words might be painful for him. Why? Because I wasn't thinking about Ted and his belligerently correct curly apostrophe. I was only considering myself and my aversion to conflict.
In the New Testament, James instructs us not to bad-mouth each other (James 4:11), while Peter tells us that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). When we choose to speak well of the other person, even when they've hurt us, we're seeing the bigger picture. This doesn't mean we lie; it means we determine not to unnecessarily gossip or carelessly taint their reputation. Especially in the height of our anger.
Team Effort Is Worth It
There's no question that learning to face conflict as a team takes work. It's not something most of us are naturally inclined to. And it's certainly not always easy. But when we choose to put the long-term health of our relationship and its mission ahead of our personal agenda, it's well worth the effort. Not only are we strengthening and deepening our relationship, we are choosing to reflect Christ. And, as Ted and I have learned, that's far more important than any straight or curly apostrophe will ever be.
Copyright 2014 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.