Conflict in Relationships
There is no doubt that we are living in a time that heightens levels of conflict and contention in our relationships. Having just finished a one-day conference on this topic, Dr. Dan Allender and Cathy Loerzel talk today on the podcast about their recent, personal experiences with conflict, particularly in this pandemic era. In this season, the ways we engage and relate to conflict look different. You’ll hear Dan and Cathy talk about the reality of this conflict, what we can learn from our styles of relating in conflict, and how, underneath it all, is a deep-seated war with desire.
- Purchase access to the recording of the one-day conference “From Conflict to Connection: A Conference for Couples”
- Listen to a podcast episode on “The Reality of Marriage in COVID-19”
- Read a blog post by Jay Stringer on “Good Enough Parenting in a Time of Crisis”
Dan: We are undoubtedly living in a day that is full of insane conflict and just contentiousness and anger and division. And no one better to engage this wild day with than my dear friend, colleague, and boss Cathy Loerzel. Cathy, welcome, you’re the Executive Vice President of The Allender Center at the Seattle School. It’s quite a long title, but also very impressive. So welcome. And are you ready to have a conflict?
Cathy: I am. I’m always ready, Dan. Thanks for asking.
D: Well, how should we step into the conflict of our era, into our personal conflict, and into all the conflicts you happen to run into, certainly as a leader. So, we’ve got a lot to address. But tell me, what do you know about conflict?
C: I wish I could say I don’t know very much, but I know quite a bit about conflict. It seems to be part of what I eat, breathe, and deal with on a daily basis. You think being in quarantine for almost a year I would have less conflict because I just don’t have as much as people I’m dealing with outside of my home. But indeed, that is not true. Turns out conflict is alive and well on Zoom as it is in the classroom.
D: Let’s just say we cannot live in an era quite as intensely bound to conflict. And from my standpoint, the three words that keep coming back to mind when I think about the reality of conflict is it just seems so petty and loud and shrill. And I don’t know if those words ring at all true to you, but I’m looking at my own conflict with Becky. I’m looking at conflict with friends and what I see surrounding and inhabiting a great portion of our world. Those words feel very, very true. I’m just curious what you do with them.
C: Yeah, they feel true to me as well and I think what I’m learning as I’ve been removed from, being in more of an external environment that I’m having more space alone to deal with my own conflict. And so I’m actually starting to see the underbelly of petty, loud and shrill in a different way than I would have if I had to continue to be in an external environment. I think the way that’s playing out for me is by being more aware of my underlying fear and then how that plays out in terms of when I feel petty or when I feel defended or when I feel more fearful it becomes louder. When I feel like I’m dealing with loss, it feels more shrill, so it’s been an interesting process to gain more access to the underbelly of my structures of conflict.
D: Well, and I will go there in a moment, but you know, one of the points of conflict or fights that I had with Becky today was I have a bowl that I’m utilizing similarly to the clothes that I wear. I don’t tend to have to change my clothes a lot. I’m not in public and generally, you know, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt is enough. And I have a bowl. I have one bowl that I have my soup in. I have my oatmeal in, and it wasn’t where I thought it was and I just sort of shrilly and loudly over something as petty as like, where did you move my bowl? Well, the worst part of this whole story is I’d put a bunch of papers in the context of the bowl and it covered it. And she’s like, the bowl is right in front of you. I couldn’t see it. She knew where it was. And in the middle of this egregious interaction, I’m not going to say the words I spoke, but I lost it. And, you know, I’m going, what is going on for me that the mere absence of a bowl where I think it’s gonna be that I’m using again and again because I think somehow that’s a good use of space and time has erupted into an interaction that really is ugly. So, I would love for you to take me into either my story or what you’re seeing with regard to your own as to whether these things are normal or whether I may be which I think I may be one of the least mature of God’s creation, but what are you seeing?
C: Well, I’m curious of how that engagement would have been different a year ago than it is now.
D: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be using the same bowl. I wouldn’t feel like I need to preserve the universe out of the chaos it’s in by not having too many bowls. It’s crazy, even talking about it just feels like, oh, good God, are you making this up? But no, it’s real.
C: It’s real, and I think that’s a good premise to start with. We’re all losing our minds to some degree at this point and how that plays out nobody knows. It’s different for everyone. And for those of you who are living in a part of the world or the country where you feel like your world has gone back to normal during the COVID era, ah, bless your soul. That’s fine. That is not the world we live in right now. That’s not the word that Dan and I live in in Seattle.
D: Not the world anybody lives in. So if you actually think that you’re coming back to normal, we have another podcast for you. It’s on delusion.
C: Yes, but I was just talking to someone who was like, yeah, we went bowling the other day and I was like bowling? Are you serious? Like you put your hand into a thing that other people put their hand into, like to put your shoes. Anyways, it was baffling to me, that’s beside the point. But there is something to what we’re living in that is fraying the edges of what we have known to be normal and that the normal things that we have to even us out for at least for me are no longer available to me. And so it’s made conflict become ah, whole different thing, like, you know, Dan Allender. I mean, we all have our bowls, and we’re at this place where, because the world seems to be closing in on us just a little bit more. The oddest things set me off and I can’t describe like I don’t know when they’re coming. I don’t know what my reaction will be. The other day we were in meetings and all of a sudden my internet started to go out and my computer started to kind of freeze and it was enough for me to almost turn it off and just be like, I’m going back to bed. I cannot handle the fact that my computer is failing me right now and immediately what do I do? I call my husband because clearly anything with the computer that he bought for us, it’s his fault.
D: It’s his fault.
C: So I’m yelling, shrilling at the top of my lungs. Will! Will! What is happening with the computer? Why is it doing this? I thought you fixed this and he’s like, you know, coming in, and it’s like coming into a war zone at that point, he has no idea how I’m going to be. And I’m like, I’m ready to kill. And it’s a bizarre space because literally 10 minutes before that, I felt calm. I felt fine. I felt okay, like I could manage my life. And then all of a sudden, everything got turned upside down and I’m undone and ready to blame someone else and then also ready to just crawl into my bed. Put the covers over my head and say, I’m done, I can’t do it. So I think, and there’s something about that that I’m grateful for, because it’s exposing something that was always there, it’s just been exacerbated because of the period we’re living in. So I think there’s a lot to learn about how we handle conflict. What happens in us that’s more raw, we’re more vulnerable, we’re more on edge. And I think if we can actually take the opportunity to learn from what they’re telling us, there’s actually a lot of opportunity. There is possibility and hope but man, is it hard to recognize.
D: If I can put it as bluntly is this: It’s only hopeful if what you really want is for your soul and your being to become more like Jesus. If you really just want less conflict or less struggle, this is not going to be a good era for you because the things that were there, yes, I could be petty and loud and shrill, but the reality is it’s even more so in a highly traumatized environment world situation where I’m actually seeing what’s there. But seeing it more in drama and in a way that’s just frightfully more clear. You know, for me, I’ve gone back again and again to this section of scripture, James 4. Because James is addressing the question, verse one. What causes fights and quarrels among you? I don’t think he was actually likely thinking about, you know, an adult man flipping out over a bowl that’s being hidden by the papers he put there, but he might. He might actually include that. And he says, don’t they come from your desires, the battle within you, you desire, but do not have so you kill, you covet, but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. That has been a container for me in the midst of heightened conflict with Becky, heightened conflict in the context of our work at The Allender Center, just heightened conflict around me and to be able to go, what’s going on? So I at least want to spend a bit of time talking about those categories that we’ve got desires that are waging war within us, and we fail to ask. But when we do ask, we don’t receive because the purpose for what we’re asking for would actually end up killing us if we were to receive from God what we’re demanding. So at least two step back. What are you encountering with regard to the reality of desire and the war? Because you used the word a moment ago, kill. So I mean, you’re pretty darn close to what James is talking about.
C: Yeah, I mean, so for me there has been a long war with desire in and of itself. I’ve set my world up over a long period of time so that I’m always moving and I’m going from one part of my list to the next to drop off kids to making sure that everyone’s fed and have clean clothes, you know there’s an order and a pressure to the world that’s always been part of the structure of my life, and that’s kept me from actually having to link into what I truly desire. And so my desire ends up going underground, and I think when desire goes underground, it becomes demand and I would even say in that James passage there’s a sense of I think connecting to our true, tender desires is very different than connecting to the demand of I’m not getting what I want, right? And so I think when desire isn’t actually connected to or attended in those small ways, it moves quickly into demand. And then you’re demanding someone else to meet that desire for you. And when it doesn’t happen, you’re furious, right?
D: Yeah. I mean, but what are you saying about the struggle with desire at the core?
C: Yeah. I think desire brings with it a lot of vulnerability. And when we’re really clear and connected to our desire, it means we need things from other people, from God, from ourselves. We need care. We need attunement. We need containment. Like we need all those things and those are places that we have not often been cared for well by other people.
D: Well, I just want to scream. Desire sounds so good. But when you say that truly every desire opens up really a heart of desperation. It isn’t minor when we begin to say, you know, I really like a break from this crazy era. When you really name desire at its deepest level, you’re going to open up realms of vulnerability that inevitably open up the question of will we ever have anything normal again? Will there ever be a release from, you know, the permutations of COVID? Will there ever be a return to being in our offices together? I mean, the moment we begin to open desire, we open up a cornucopia of questions and doubts and struggles that really are tied to that issue of, I don’t want to desire. I do desire. I can’t help but desire. But it puts me in conflict with myself, let alone almost inevitably with you, because our desires will never be equivalent. They’ll never be equal at the same level for the same thing, whether it be in marriage or friendships or, frankly, anywhere.
C: Well, I think when we really get into what’s true about our desire, what we truly long for, it brings us back to the fact that we’re created for Eden, and it brings us back to the sense of what do we do with just how beautiful and how broken the world is? And so ultimately to truly link to our desire also means bringing us to the inevitable space of grief. And most of us just want to avoid grief because it’s too painful. We haven’t had good people who could bring us into grief and actually allow us to weep and to mourn the loss, but also bring us back into hope. It’s a tricky space that most of us have not had good experiences, and so we avoid it.
D: Yeah, well, we’re right back into when we deal with the past with regard to desire we’re in the realm of regret. When we deal with desire in the realm of the future, we’re in the realm of worry. But the reality is there’s this constant gnawing of loss and the present, so between regret, worry, and loss, why in the name of God do I want to engage desire other than to trivialize it and make it ultimately very material or far more effectively just kill desire or kill those who disrupt my desire and in that sense we’re in this important category of what James is inviting us to engage and that is we covet deeply enough that we envy others whom we perceive to have what it is that we both need and demand. But also when we don’t get what we want, there is a violence again, I just look at what happened this morning and go, I just spoke words to my wife, who I love more than anyone on the earth and I treated her so poorly over something so petty and there’s damage. She is a deeply kind and forgiving woman, but I heard her. And that doesn’t just get erased because she knows my intentions are not harmful. And yet what I did was wicked. So when we begin to address this killing and coveting, you know, James is pretty clear. We’re talking about a war. There will be war between you and every human being where desire opens disappointment, some degree of division, and in that you’re going to have to engage the reality that it’s much easier not to ask. And so we get to that second premise, we don’t ask for what it is that will open our heart to all the realities that we’re naming. Where does that show up for you? Where you fail to ask.
C: Yeah, this has been a deep conversation between me and my husband because when I get into the realm of what I truly desire, I actually freeze and I and I lose, so I’ll bring you into a story. I’ve been doing a lot of conferences, a lot of teaching and have known I’ve needed to rest, and I needed space to recover. I had a Saturday and he was like, well, you know, you have the Saturday off, what do you need? And I’m looking at him, and it’s literally like my whole body went blank and he’s like so, you know, and then he kind of looks at me and then loses interest a little bit because I’ve frozen and then it’s like, well, listen, I’m going to go down to my office and, you know, pack this thing up and then also get a haircut, is that okay? And then I’ll be back in a few hours. So you know, I’m like, okay, that’s fine. And so now he’s gone. And now I realize I’ve lost my window because when he gets back, it’s going to be the end of the day, I’m now going to be cooking dinner and, you know, we’re then going be into getting the kids down for bedtime and bath time and all that stuff. And so now, inside, I’m like, I had a minute where I could have maybe connected to a desire or a need and ask for what I needed. Couldn’t do it, needed more time. Everything shut down in me. And now the window has closed, and now I’m back into despair. So I tell that story because it’s tricky for some of us to really even understand how to ask or what we’re asking for. And I think that even in that set up between the two of us, he’s giving me space, but it collapses pretty quickly, and then I’m left to go back to my old kind of patterns, and then I can be mad at him for not giving me space to figure out what I need, right?
D: Well, we’ll talk about this a little bit later, but you know, when we did this marriage conference on conflict and connection, you know, the reality is, every couple has a dance for how they deal with conflict or another way of putting it. How conflict keeps them from engaging desire and you know, for you, it’s hard to ask. It’s not hard for me to ask, but so seldom do I ask for really what I want,
C: What do you ask for?
D: Oh, I ask for the opportunity to read.
C: And that’s not what you want?
D: Well, I think it is kind of what I want. But in those moments where I just want space, I just want to be left alone. I actually am wanting to be left alone because I don’t want to have to tend to the turmoil. The noise that’s happening inside of me and Becky has come to learn that many times when I isolate when I say I want to isolate. The reality is I actually want to engage what’s causing me to isolate so you know there are people who don’t ask, period. You’ve put yourself or in that there others like me who seem very facile in being able to articulate what they want. But a lot of times, what I want isn’t really what I want. So this whole issue of we don’t ask much like, you know, the older brother in Luke 15. He refuses to ask his father for the fatted calf, and it is such a priceless, heartbreaking but beautiful engagement of the father inviting the son to ask. So dangerous. And therefore, when we do ask, as that James passage invites us to engage, we often ask for something that if we were to get it, would actually do us harm. So we ask with the wrong motive. I don’t think what God is doing in this passage is saying, you know, you should only want me. Everything else is illegitimate, your deepest desires for me. Just ask for me. I think we can legitimately ask for a day at the spa, time to read a book, or just help in cutting up vegetables. But the reality is so often what we do ask is out of the idolatry that is so severely bound to our own sense of shame. To our demands to actually be full without really acknowledging what our hearts were meant for. So what I hear in that portion of the passage is, God doesn’t give us what we often demand. Not because he is stingy, but because he’s so gracious, so gracious, to not give us what would in turn, bring us and other people harm. But it just puts us in this large category of, my God already we’ve said, why can’t you just guys get along? Why can’t you just be simple and clear? Ask for what you need to be able to say yes and so on and so forth. So when you think about your dance and the orientation you and Will have to conflict, how would you describe it?
C: I think oftentimes for us conflict comes in hot and it’s a sense of we’re both waiting for the other person to fail. I’m waiting for him to fail me. He’s waiting for me to fail him. And so you go in tentatively and you go in expecting it not to go well and man oh man is that a set up. And so oftentimes it won’t go well. One of us is triggered. We fall back into our old patterns and normal ruts of how he is in a fight. How I am in a fight. We both feel vindicated by how the other person has treated us. And then we go back to our corners.
D: Well, and you both come in hot.
D: So, hot, but in some ways setting each other up, demanding the other fail, but willing to fail by coming in hot. And eventually you both fail.
C: [laughs] Yeah, that’s nice.
D: We’re a little different.
C: Are you guys?
D: I come in hot and Becky comes in cool. And again oftentimes in marriage you’ve got one person who’s sort of the obvious bad guy and the other who’s so often, so much better. But often what’s under the better is a level of unwillingness to engage. So Becky will stonewall, and I’ll just come apart at the seams and eventually, when I’ve spun myself like a dervish, I’m exhausted. She’ll then finally speak but it’s really about where we both find safety. You know, my world, when I grew up the intensity of arguing, fighting was the place of safety in an interaction with a mentally ill mother. For her, safety was in keeping her mouth shut, because if she opened it, she would get devoured by two very angry parents. So safety, as crazy as it may be, I find safety in conflict and he finds safety when she escapes it. But often what occurs is we create these demilitarized zones where we kind of know that if we talk about x, y, or z we’re gonna be in a level of conflict that we don’t want to be in. And so we do conflict avoidance. So I may come in hot, but there are a lot of things I avoid, a lot of things she avoids and which, from my standpoint that ground, the DMZ, becomes the soil evil uses to in one sense plant seeds of disappointment and despair and ultimately division. So we, after 44 years, you know, we’ve got enough areas where we’ve just not had the courage to engage at least 20 years ago, 10 years ago, that we’re engaging and, like plenty of times, those air context when you have not addressed something, ah, lot of pent up explosions occur that really express that sense of failure and grief and anger that just spin stored over so avoidance to explosion would be more our style.
C: Yeah, well, we go right in.
D: A bit like sumo wrestlers.
C: A bit.
D: So again, the question that I think needs to be posed before we end is: Are you aware with the people that you relate to: spouse, partner, friends, work associates, you are in a dance, and it’s a dance that is a struggle, a war with desire and that dance maybe deeply different as Cathy’s and mine seem to be, but the bottom line is it’s still a war with desire. It’s still a refusal to ask, and often it’s asking without God providing because of the reality of our own demand and idolatry. So what we want to engage is what needs to happen for us to truly do better and will start that next week.
D: Well, we had a significant conversation with a bunch of folks about marriage and conflict. And, uh, like, how is your conflict with Will? After we did the conference?
C: I left the house immediately and went to be alone by myself for two days. It was great! [laughs]
D: That’s hilarious. I literally escaped from Becky for a couple hours, but honestly, I think we were both more tender. She listened to the material, loved what we were engaging and just said, You know, there are a couple things that, as a result of what I heard, we need to step into. And I felt this moment of going No, no, no, no! But it was really — She took notes, which is really weird. To have your wife take notes about your own conference, but we used those notes to begin the process of engaging the things that she wanted to address. So, look, we want to tell you that this event we hosted on February 6, which we called Conflict To Connection, it really is a conference for couples but beyond couples. And if you missed it, you can still access the recording if you register by April 6, so you can go to theallendercenter.org/marriage for details, if you want to learn more about dealing with conflict!