Category Archives: conflict

The Problem With Disagreement

One of the perspectives I seek out in counseling is what I call “continuum thinking”.  It is my resistance to all or nothing, either/or, polarized viewpoints.

This morning I was thinking about what annoys me so much about a lot of the discourse that takes place on social media, other public or private settings and with couples on the counseling couch. And it is this: the vehemence with which some people will hold their opinions. I have been guilty of this, and if you are honest, you probably have been too.

The continuum I am referring to in this case is based on the intensity that is exhibited during one of these “discussions”.

Disagreeing ____________________ Argumentative _____________________ Abusive

I would judge the level of maturity as declining from left to right on the above chart.

I have observed that people will often hold their opinion as “Truth or Fact” when it is simply their perspective, or they are repeating someone else’s. There is objective truth, but our emotional connection to certain issues will sometimes confuse or blindside us. We must be very careful that we hold our opinions gently so that we do not create relational distance and chaos.

When it comes to social media, there is a lot of hearsay, as well as sound bites that are taken out of context. We can become victim to these repetitions and become part of the problem if we are not careful. Once we put our words out there, they are hard or impossible to retract. They might follow us around for a long time after our opinion has changed. I would ask you to consider carefully before posting anything in anger or haste.

Nan and I have both experienced people that have not been able to accurately place their behavior on the above chart. I have seen some believe they are disagreeing when they are really being very abusive – and others who will label their partners as abusive when they are really just not agreeing with them. This is one of the reasons why an outside perspective can be so helpful. The way a person sees things can be a huge blindspot. We need others to lovingly confront us at times. And it should be our goal to lovingly present our disagreements to others.

Power and Responsibility

There are those who believe that they have a right to express themselves to others anytime they desire. It may be true that they have the ability or power to do that, but I would suggest that along with that power comes responsibility. That responsibility is to keep the positive goal in mind. It is very unlikely that someone will be convinced by negative, argumentative, defensive or hostile communication. Rather they will probably withdraw or become more resistant. If your need is to be heard, then process your feelings alone until you can present them in a receivable way.

I’m feeling pretty passionate about this right now because I have seen some real relational ruptures lately. Friends turn on one another, people leave the church, and couples split up. When this happens we have not displayed the kind of unity that Christ has called us to as a believing body. We have let politics, social issues and specific theologies divide us from our ultimate purpose. How would you respond?

Listening Is Not Agreement


I want to admit a character defect I have fought for most of my life. I am not proud of it, but I have grown because of it. Maybe you can relate to it as well. Here it is:

In my marriage (especially) I had an expectation that Nan not only had to hear me out, but also had to agree with me.

In other words, she had to think like me or she wasn’t being a good or loyal wife. Pretty narcissistic, huh? Pretty arrogant, too. It led to some uncomfortable conflicts and to some misunderstandings as well.

I think this is one of the blocks to good communication, not only in marriage but in other relationships as well. If my belief is that by listening to someone that means that I tacitly agree, I probably will be reluctant to listen. In our case that was the unspoken message I was sending to Nan: I want you listen to me, but I also insist that you agree. But the problem was that she didn’t always agree. And I made it hard for her to listen.

It’s usually not so destructive when the stakes are small – where to eat, what color to choose, etc. But it gets very tense when the big issues are on the table. Where do we live and which house do we buy? How do we raise our children? How do we interpret the Bible and our faith? For example, Nan was raised Catholic for a time and as a result is more contemplative in her spiritual practices than I am.

I am a dreamer (I prefer the word visionary) Whatever. Here’s the rub. In our conversations Nan didn’t always know the difference when I was just dreaming or if I was actually planning. So she didn’t know how to fully engage with me when I was dreaming because my dreams were often scary to her, involving writing big checks or making long distance moves. And she didn’t want me to assume she was in agreement with them. So she didn’t always want to listen to me. I felt alone.

Since those days a few things have changed. I have repented of my need to have her agree. I still want her to agree with me (who wouldn’t), but I have given up my need for her to do so for me to be to be OK with her.

Second, I now let her know when I am just dreaming out loud so she can relax and even join in the fun. And I keep the checkbook out of reach, safely locked in a drawer.

For those of us who are Christians, it can become tempting to use scripture to try to control or manipulate others, and we must guard against misuse of the Bible. That’s just another way to try to force agreement. Even when it’s not intentional, we can come off as legalistic or unloving. When I quote scripture I try to be extra humble and remember that context is everything. I try to let the scriptures be the authority, not me.

“I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”

The Apostle Paul to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:27

Not Another Post About Conflict!


The question of conflict comes up in nearly every couples or family counseling session in some form or another. It is mostly the reason people seek counseling in the first place. In our premarried class we talk about how to do conflict well, and how to prevent it from turning ugly. In our current class (our 33rd) we added a new PowerPoint slide entitled “How we measure conflict.” This is our quick assessment that we use in sessions to determine progress in a relationship.

There are three criteria that we use: Frequency, Intensity and Duration. 

FREQUENCY – How often do you get into conflict? Is it daily, weekly or even less frequently? I am not talking about mild disagreements like what, when or where to eat. I am talking about the kind where it becomes emotional, eliciting feelings of anger, distress or deeper frustration. Are you able to let the little things go so that the rough spots are the exception, not the rule? Are you able to really let them go and not just stuff them until they eventually erupt?

INTENSITY – How angry or upset or forceful do you get? In a conflict do you really lean in hard or wag your finger at the perceived offender? Or do you emotionally melt down into crying or sobbing? Are you able to stay in control of yourself or do you feel like you will burst if you don’t get it all out or if you are not fully understood? Do you increase in intensity as the time goes on? Do you become rageful or hysterical? Self regulation requires staying away from distressful self talk. I have heard experts use the terms “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing” for this kind of inner conversation.

DURATION – How long do the conflicts last? Are you able to say what you need to say in a succinct manner or do you go on and on for multiple minutes or even longer? Do you corner people and “make them” listen until you are through or exhausted? I have heard stories of conflict that lasted multi-hours, followed by days or even weeks of withdrawal. That level of immaturity is bound to impact a relationship in a very negative way.

We can usually tell the health of a relationship by assessing these factors. When they are on the decrease the relationship is usually getting better (unless both people have emotionally checked out and the end is near.) Interestingly, some couples will rate these measurements in their relationship differently. The difference in perception is usually the result of their earlier family or relationship history. Volatile or avoidant family of origin systems will often cause a skewed perspective. Both aggressive and passive behavior is immature and destructive.

One of our pastors quoted a recent study about marriages that went the distance: less than 5% of the content of their conversations were complaints (negativity). However, when the complaints rose to 10% or more, the relationship was at a high risk of failure. I think that statistic holds well for Nan & me.

So how do you see your relationships? Are these key factors on the decrease in most or all of them?