HOW TO ENJOY A FAMILY FIGHT
--By Will Cunningham
As I sit in our living room, I'm surrounded by wedding gifts to Cindy & me: The coffee table with its bruised shins; the desk with the drawer that needs fixing; & on top of the television, one of the 5,000 or so brass candlesticks we received. Besides being wedding gifts, they have something else in common: In varying degrees they are tarnished, gouged, chipped, scraped & torn--they are all wearing out. It makes one wonder: Does anything nowadays really last?
The answer, of course, is "Yes"--right relationships last, when we nourish them with care. And you can do your part to make your marriage a lasting one by making this promise as a precious gift to each member of your family: "I will view our conflicts as positive, & I will do everything I can to mutually resolve them with you."
RULES FOR FIGHTING
1. There is a right time & a wrong time for most fights. Seek to delay conflict when you are stressed physically & emotionally. Mutually decide upon a later time to resolve the conflict.
Ask yourself these questions:
When is a poor time for me to conflict with my loved ones?
When am I at my best?
When am I at my worst?
Maybe your spouse is not a morning person but is more communicative in the evening. If so, don't try to resolve problems in the morning.
2. Learn to listen. Most of us are poor listeners by nature. Especially in a conflict, we're like tadpoles with alligator mouths--we do much more talking than we should. Think about your own tendencies when you're experiencing conflict with someone. Do you hear the words the other person is saying? Do you carefully consider the meaning & the feeling behind the words? Or do you tune out the other person & anticipate what you will say when your opponent's lips stop moving? I admit that my tendency is to build my own case in my mind while the other person is talking, & then to jump into the argument the second I have the opportunity.
3. Don't bring up the past. In family conflicts, you shouldn't support your case by digging up things that should be left in the past. This makes your marital conflicts resemble courtroom battles. One of you is the prosecuting attorney, bringing forth every piece of evidence you can find, while the other cringes as the wide-eyed defendant:
"Well, what about the time you wrecked the station wagon back in August of '79?" shouts the prosecutor, jugular veins threatening to explode. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Well, I, uh..."
"Exactly! I didn't think you had anything to say!"
If you're like me, you don't enjoy being put on the witness stand. Your defensive walls quickly go up & you either counter with your own case, or else plead the Fifth Amendment & retreat into stony silence.
Evidence from the past may help win a case in a court of law, but it only clouds the issue in a marital or family conflict.
4. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Give your opponent a sporting chance. Over-generalisation: Everyone is always over-generalising, it seems, when it comes to family fighting! I recently counseled a family whose members were especially prone to over-generalisation. Here's what I heard in the span of 20 seconds:
Dad (to son): You always seem so arrogant in the way you communicate with us around the house.
Son: What do you mean, arrogant? I'm not always arrogant. How come everyone always says I'm arrogant?
Mom: I don't say you're arrogant. Do you ever hear me say you're arrogant? I never say you're arrogant!
Dad (to wife): But Honey, look what position that puts me in. I end up the bad guy when you claim that you never say he's arrogant. You always make me look like the bad guy.
This may seem exaggerated, but it actually took place. In reality, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of over-generalisation. Isn't it usually true that when we conflict with someone, our eyes are blinded to the good things about that person? Therefore, we only see the bad. No wonder it seems to us as if that person always offends us or never does what we ask of him or her. But I am certain no one in the world is wrong, or offensive, or negative, or disobedient, or belligerent or whatever, 100% of the time!
5. Unnecessary Roughness. Control your hands & your tongue. One of the key causes of verbal abuse is found in the different way men & women view the words that come from their mouths. A man can spout a harsh phrase or critical remark & think nothing of the damage that might be done. For him, his words carry no more weight than a pebble. However, the woman feels the heaviness of those words & experiences them as a gigantic boulder. How do you talk to your spouse? Your children?
Fathers, do you pick out character or performance flaws in your children, & then harp on those flaws, thinking your words can't possibly hurt? I'll wager that your children experience those words as huge weights. Husbands, have you ever drawn your wife's attention (for the 47th time) to her vanishing waistline, thinking you were doing her a favour by frequently motivating her to lose weight? Guess what? She's not motivated. In fact, she's de-motivated by your Unnecessary Roughness.
And how about you wives? Do you know exactly the right words to say that will awaken your sleeping husband & teach him just how irresponsible he is? The roughest thing you can do to a man is to verbally attack his ability to lead responsibly.
Verbal roughness has no place in a marriage or a family, at any time. It is absolutely unnecessary.
Any word that decreases another person's sense of significance or love could be called unnecessarily rough--even the use of seemingly harmless nicknames.
Words That Hurt:
"Hey, Dumbo! You look like a taxi going down the street with your doors open." As a youngster, I often heard words like these. I was the embarrassed owner of ears that were of epic proportion. Although my child-size head eventually grew into my adult-size ears, I carried the scars of those rough words for years. I was 20 years old before I felt comfortable with a haircut that showed the slightest part of the lobe. Words hurt--I'm sure you know it from your own experience.
Our words have the power to stop a person dead in his or her tracks. I can't count the times I have listened to couples immobilise each other with destructive verbiage. After such a verbal assault, the couple is never any closer to conflict resolution. In fact, they have widened the gap between themselves.
Why do we hurt each other with words? Are our vocabularies so narrow that we must resort to name-calling, swearing, ridiculing, & more? No, it's not that we're short on words. The problem is that we use especially rough words in hopes of winning a conflict--which is a vain accomplishment anyway. If you set out to win a conflict, you always lose in the long run, & the loss is all the more tragic if you are unnecessarily rough.
6. Don't walk out. "Traveling" is one of the most embarrassing penalties in the game of basketball. It's like dancing alone before hundreds of onlookers at a party. The player with the ball who takes one step too many without dribbling, forfeits possession of the ball to the other team. "Tweet!" the whistle blows, & the referee spins his arms to signal the call. The player turns red, & the crowd heckles: "Way to go, Jones! Take a suitcase next time!"
But traveling isn't restricted to the basketball court. Spouses all over the World are penalising their marriages by committing this violation. When a conflict arises, they travel...right out the door. Instead of hanging around long enough to resolve the problem, they turn their back on their opponent & walk away.
I was a champion traveler in the early days of my marriage with Cindy. Conflict had always been uncomfortable for me. When the fight got too tough, I found it easier to walk away. But my actions left Cindy feeling insecure. How was she to know where I was going, or when I was coming back?
What about you? Do you leave your spouse high & dry when conflict becomes difficult? Do you walk out on your kids when you are fed up with them? Do you take a hike when your parents don't see eye-to-eye with you? Do you hit the road when it looks like you are losing in a conflict? If so, ask yourself if your leaving will move you closer or further away from the resolution. If you answer is "further away," then commit yourself now to not walking out.
You may be asking, "What if I am losing my temper in a conflict? Do I hang around & make matters worse by my angry presence?--No, there is a time & place for a proper time-out.
After saying, "The conflict can be resumed later," the person who is not angry should walk away until the atmosphere for discussion is calmer.
Before you begin to truly understand the rules of conflict, you must develop the following attitude about yourself & the person with whom you are in conflict: As one who has been forgiven so much by God, I have no right to consider my opponent as anything less than an object of my forgiveness. If I have wronged my opponent, then I owe him nothing short of an apology.
Do you want better conflict resolution in your family? If you do, you must realise that all the rules in all the counselling books in the World cannot bring peace to your home. Try as you may to "fight right" with your loved ones, eventually you will run out of steam. You may master every conflict rule we've listed here, but if you do not know the Master of resolving conflict, you will continue to hurt one another. God's Son died to resolve the war between Creation & Creator. And He is dying for us to do likewise with one another.
THOU SHALT NOT...
Take a "petty grievance" inventory of your household. Start by checking your own list of do's & don'ts. Every family member has one of these, whether it is written on paper or kept in the head. It is their "Ten Commandments for How a Family Should Be Run." I'll bet you have one, too. Here are a few entries from the list Cindy & I keep:
Thou shalt not make entries into the checkbook without subtracting.
Thou shalt not wear muddy shoes in the house.
Thou shalt not gamble on a low gas tank.
Thou shalt not leave the toilet paper roll empty.
Perhaps you recognise one or two of these. Undoubtedly, you have some of your own. And you can be sure that each time one of your commandments is broken, another straw builds up on the camel's back. Often, the offender neglects repairing the damage. He or she wanders off without so much as a simple, "I'm sorry". That's usually when the sparks begin to fly.
Most family fights start when one member sins against another. Is there any rule on your list so sacred that, if it was violated, you would stone a loved one with angry words--or reject him altogether? I hope not.
Successful family fights depend on forgiveness. That doesn't mean that you must abandon your "Ten Commandments" list & let others walk all over you. Jesus did not do that. To the woman caught in adultery, He said, "Go & sin no more." Nevertheless, Jesus was tender & compassionate. You & I must be, also!