Healthy conflict can deepen our relationships. To work through conflict, let go of anger, and reach forgiveness, consider 3 questions before speaking.
Independence Day holds a special place in my heart. Beyond the national significance, this day is an anniversary of my own declaration. In 2014, I freed myself from grudges, from blame, from resentment. On July 4, 2014, I learned to forgive. I learned true forgiveness and it set me free.
My parents could exhaust you with stories of the fighting between me and my sister. I thought her the cruelest person. She knew my greatest insecurities, my softest spots, and she jabbed daggers in. It took me a long time to realize she knew my weaknesses because she knew me completely. She may cut me down for her own amusement, but she would have also brought a dangerous wrath on anyone who even threatened me with a papercut. This was our sisterhood. We loathed and loved in equal measure, but, in my unforgiving eyes, the loathing seemed to cut deeper and the loving never seemed to grow stronger.
In 2014, I still was hurting from wounds I collected over the years. I still was carrying each wrong and each hurt. We had never learned to work through conflict. We knew how to fight but not how to resolve conflict. Even with my hurts and my lack of knowledge, in 2014, I recognized that I needed to change, because I deeply wanted a relationship with my sister.
I don’t mean that we didn’t have one. She is my sister. We had a relationship. The emphasis is that I wanted that relationship, and I wanted it to be healthy. I wanted to have my sister in my life. I wanted us to grow old, sit in rocking chairs, and bicker playfully with each other. To get there, I needed to do two things: 1. forgive her completely and 2. change the pattern of our future conflict.
See, in the days before, forgiveness looked like this: Katie would hurt my feelings, and I would swallow my feelings and try to forget. That’s it! I would choke it down and never have a conversation. I would say I forgive, but what I was really doing was pretending it never happened. That’s not forgiveness.
Yet, with my sister, forgiveness seemed impossible. Throughout the years, she had rejected me, scorned me, mocked me, and belittled me. She cut where it hurt the most. I could remember the hurts in more detail than the joys of growing up together. She seemed like my enemy. How could I forgive her?
Then July 4, 2014, Katie had a bad day. She got ugly drunk. She was hurtful, not only towards me, but towards the people we loved the most. Katie probably saw this as one of her lowest points. She wouldn’t be wrong. It was a terrible day. It ended with her leaving the house.
I don’t know what it was about that moment. I don’t know if something just clicked. I don’t know if I finally recognized that my sister hurt as much as she hurt others. I don’t know if it was the realization that she had cut herself off from her family that day, and I knew she was going to hate herself for it. I don’t know if I finally just realized I loved her more than I hated her, but, for whatever reason, I sent her a message.
I sent her a message telling her that I knew she didn’t ask me to but that I forgave her. I told her I loved her. I meant every word. Not too long after, she replied that she loved me too.
That was the day I learned how to truly release all the resentment and hurt I felt. I learned to forgive even if she didn’t deserve it or beg for it. I forgave her completely and without expectation. I didn’t condone her behavior. I didn’t forget what happened. I simply forgave her with no strings attached.
Forgiveness was just the first step; it was the beginning. But, from that moment, my sister and I began to build a wonderful relationship. We began to work through the issues. Together, we learned how to move through conflict in a healthy way.
Healthy conflict was uncharted territory. We knew conflict, just not the healthy kind. My sister and I were the essence of conflict. Polar opposites, we were made for conflict: I was an emotional child and my sister loved a reaction. Katie thrived on poking my buttons; I never failed to disappoint. She would patiently and subtly nudge at my insecurities until I exploded in anger and tears, then she’d sit back to watch the show.
Our experience with conflict was messy and chaotic. It did not allow for healing. It led me to believe conflict was bad, and I strove to avoid any type of confrontation in all my relationships. But less than two months that relationship-changing Independence Day, I learned of a thing called “healthy conflict.” I learned that conflict was necessary to foster healthy growth in a relationship. In a sermon at church, my pastor asked his congregation to consider three questions before engaging in conflict with someone, three questions to answer in order to grow a relationship:
1. What is your motive?
When I fought with Katie pre-Independence Day 2014, it was to win. We duked it out with words that could crush the other’s spirit. We fought for dominance. We lived in constant competition. The world was black and white. One was wrong and one was right. One was a loser and the other a winner. It was a cutthroat life, where only one could be victorious. But I was in my twenties in 2014, and I was tired of that routine. It wore me down and left me scarred. I considered my relationship with Katie, and I realized that I truly wanted a relationship with her. I wanted to be a part of her life, and I wanted her to want me there. Hard as it is to set aside the urge to win when you come from a competitive family, I decided my primary motive was to heal our relationship.
When working past the hurt, after the moment of forgiveness but before the moment of moving forward, enter a discussion with the goal to reconcile, not to win.
2. What is your mindset?
Katie and I knew each other so well, yet, when I was consumed with resentment for all the harm she had caused, I only saw her as cruel and malicious. I saw her as someone who wanted to control and overpower me. I saw her as someone who wanted to make me small.
When I saw her on her lower day I realized her hurt I recognized the pain she was suffering. I had been assuming the worst about her, but, when I forgave her and started looking for the way to a relationship, our conflict started feeling less like the frictious humidity of a catastrophic storm growing and more like a gentle, cleansing rainstorm that supports the growth of the green world below.
Stop assuming the worst about others. If you truly believe the other person wants the worst for you, your relationship is doomed. See the best, desire the best, and keep seeking it. Be willing to wait for it.
It took some time for me to find the best. My sister had to trust that I wasn’t going to judge each action. My sister had to trust that I wasn’t going to be quick to anger or hurt over what she said. Once she could see that my heart was in it and that I truly wanted to build a healthy relationship, it became easier for her to also want that.
3. What is your method?
Oh my, can I overreact. I was someone who bottled up each hurt until it boiled over. So when I boiled over, it was- of course- an overreaction. I would explode over a tiny hurt. I would lash out. I wanted to hurt that person back. I wanted to prove I was a victim. An argument would commence and I was in it to redeem my wounded pride.
This isn’t the ideal method for healthy, healing conversation. Rather, when I finally made progress with Katie, it was because I calmed myself first. When she would make a hurtful comment, like the evening she joked about how I should die over a family dinner, I waited to calm down. I waited until a day or so later. While we were driving around town, just the two of us alone, I said, “Katie, I don’t think it’s funny when you joke about me dying.” Do you know what she said? She said, “Huh. I didn’t think about it.” And she never did it again. That was it! I had always thought her jokes were meant to hurt. I always assumed the worst. But truly, she just liked a reaction, and she often said outlandish things just because she could. Here, I had learned that was all it was. She meant nothing unkind. She was simply ridiculous.
Instead of talking to someone in anger while your pride is still smarting from the hurt, wait. Go to the person and talk to them one-to-one. Speak with them calmly, humbly, gently, and be patient with them.
Forgiveness is an intimidating mountain for some to surmount. However, it’s not the only challenge if you are trying to forgive someone you love, someone you want in your life.
When I went in with the motive of developing a strong relationship with my sister, I truly dreamed of us as old biddies arguing over nonsense, like who was our mother’s favorite, who had the better gift idea for dad, who was our brother going to invite to dinner. I imagined arguing while hard of hearing. I imagined her still ornery while I gasped dramatically at her outlandish comments. I imagined us still in conflict, but playfully, happily, teasingly. I imagined us together, thick as thieves.
Instead I got four years. Four years of a healthy relationship. I got four years of us spending more time loving each other than hurting each other. I got four years of peace with my sister with only silly nonsense bickering before she left this earth. I got four years of us being better sisters, talking more, laughing more, advising more, loving more. It wasn’t the sixty years I had assumed we had. It will never be enough, but I am so grateful. I am so grateful for my Independence Day 2014 when I learned to forgive, when I decided I wanted to build our relationship. I am so grateful for those four years.
It’s never too early to forgive and heal. It can be too late. I could have been too late. We truly never know when we can lose someone. Who out there do you love and miss? Who out there do you want a relationship with, but you keep postponing the conversation, the healing, the forgiving? Who are you keeping at arm’s length? I urge you to forgive them, talk to them, work with them to grow your relationship. Life is too short to miss out on the love found in a strong, healthy relationship.