Most people don’t like conflict, and deal with it in different ways. My gut reaction is to avoid it. I don’t like knowing that I’ve hurt someone, and I don’t like confronting my own feelings if I’m the one who’s upset. But facing problems together is important for healthy relationships, and oftentimes doing so requires arguing.
Arguing Is Normal
Arguing isn’t the sign of an unhealthy relationship; it’s the sign of a relationship. Close friends, relatives and couples are going to fight, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to do it healthily.
Anger isn’t inherently bad, either. “If a family member or a friend systematically does something to make a person angry, and the angry person does not express that feeling, sooner or later that angry person will blow up over some seemingly small thing, and the other person will not understand why,” writes Fredric Neuman M.D. in “The Proper Way to Argue” at Psychology Today.
Like fear, anger can alert us to potential dangers, but it’s a terrible way to make decisions. It can fuel passion to fight injustice, but it can also turn into wrath. If we share our hurt and angry feelings without letting the anger fester or turn into rage, we give the other person a chance to help us work through the source of those emotions.
The Goal Is Understanding, Not Winning
It wasn’t until I experienced close relationships that I understood just how different others’ thought processes are from mine. At least half of the arguments I’ve experienced occur because of miscommunication and misinterpreting the other person’s intentions.
“Many of our fights revolve around both of us being really bad at conveying how we feel about something,” mentioned one of my friends regarding his marriage. “I suck at talking about it, probably out of fear of being weak, emotional, or hurting my wife. She is bad at it because she is never sure if it’s a legitimate reason to be upset, or just her anxieties.”
I have a similar struggle with anxiety that makes it difficult for me to immediately peg where emotions are coming from. I’m aware that something triggering an emotion might not necessarily be the real cause of it. So when I’m upset, I don’t always know why.
I can understand someone getting frustrated by assuming I’m purposely hiding something or being passive aggressive when I say, “I don’t know.” I can understand someone who is extremely logical being unable to empathize with internalizing things so deeply. But if this person understands I am being honest and am confused, and lovingly works with me to figure out what the problem is or is willing to give me space to figure it out, I feel safe and cared for.
Similarly, I have the habit of doubting out of fear. Though he’s just been busy, I worry he’s not spending time with me because he’s losing interest. Though she says “we’re good” after an argument, I’m afraid she’s still angry. At some point, I have to let those doubts give way to trust, or be in danger of watching the relationship implode.
Don’t Bring Up the Past
“Arguing well, for us, means not using ‘you always’ or ‘you never,’” said another of my married friends. “We deal only with the current issue and not all the things of the past months or years that I’ve been saving up to win an argument someday.”
Bringing up past hurts and re-hashing old arguments is tempting. Sometimes we just want to hurt the person who’s hurting us, even if it means bringing up a mistake we’ve already forgiven them for. After all, if we can somehow prove that everything is all their fault and not ours, we don’t have to be vulnerable.
The point of relationships, however, isn’t to be safe. It’s to be completely, vulnerably yourself with another person and still be loved and accepted. That comes with the probability of getting hurt because we all mess up and make selfish, stupid decisions or say things we regret.
Valuing Sacrifice and Forgiveness
If our main goal is to be happy, our relationships may suffer for it, because then our decisions are made out of selfishness. True love for another person involves love, sacrifice, and forgiveness — not just once, but again, and again, and again. It’s putting the other person ahead of our needs, and it works best if both parties do it. It’s looking at Christ, the epitome of sacrifice, and recognizing we can follow His example even in our arguments, that even through our anger and hurt, we can work through our suffering and humanity together.