I have never heard my parents argue.
No hissed whispers in the front seat of the car. Never a raised voice, never a disagreement over travel directions or family finances. Not once. They remain to this day, a double rainbow of peace and harmony, at one on every subject. They are never apart. I asked my mother to come to the grocery store with me last week and she didn’t want to leave my Dad just in case he needed a cup of tea. (To be fair, as a Brit, I am sympathetic to any tea emergency). So I left her, sitting by his side, doing the crossword together in happy silence. They have walked hand in hand for fifty harmonious years, and I am blessed indeed to have had such a peaceful, drama-free childhood. I can’t say the same for my children.
I left home never having witnessed any mild disagreement or any healthy way of resolving conflict. I had no model of reasoned argument and resolution. Ill-equipped to cope with any hint of debate, I blushed beetroot in my first university class, assuming from the raised voices that a physical fight was imminent. Had they lost their temper? What an embarrassing lack of self-control! I was surprised they weren’t asked to leave the class, and equally surprised that the professor seemed to relish it all.
I continued to avoid relational disharmony at all costs, preferring the superior passive aggression so beloved of British introverts.
Until I got married, and couldn’t avoid it any longer.
My polar opposite in every way, my husband (whom I adore) could start a heated debate in an empty room. According to his personality profile, he is ‘the ultimate devil’s advocate, thriving on the process of shredding arguments, not to achieve some deeper purpose or strategic goal, but for the simple reason that it’s fun”. After our first marital argument, I honestly assumed that was the end of the marriage – how could we ever recover after an argument like that? My husband Steve, always the first to apologise, barely gave it a second thought. For over twenty years now, we’ve been learning the best way to “speak the truth in love”, and it’s still not easy.
Some people have the capacity to speak the truth without being loving – leaving an emotional car wreck in their wake. Personally, I find it easier to be loving without bringing much meaningful challenge. Surely, a little hint will be enough to show my extreme offence? Steve reminds me of the time we left a meeting with some colleagues - as we walked out I said, “Well, that told them. I hope they’re not too offended but they needed to hear that”. He looked at me strangely: “You do know you didn’t actually say anything?” Me: “Oh I did. Maybe not out loud, but it was very obvious”. He shook his head in wonder.
So much easier to internalize anger or raise an eyebrow, than face having to actually TALK about a difference. One definition of love is ‘to fight for another’s highest possible good’ and to ignore a serious issue is not loving in any way. It’s abdication not to gently challenge someone who is genuinely out of line. But in order to bring high challenge, you need to give high support too. Have I earned the right to speak into this person’s life? Have I put in the hours of friendship and encouragement first, with no agenda?
4 practical things to remember when speaking the truth in love:
- Is this an appropriate time and place? Give some warning to an introvert who might like to think it over first, then to discuss. But don’t do it via email.
- Spell it out clearly- don’t hint at what you mean, it’s unfair to expect someone to be telepathic. Stick to the issue in hand. Don’t gossip to anyone else about it, just pray.
- With a partner or other long term relationship, decide on your rules of engagement - what does healthy conflict look like for you both – where’s the accountability, what other issues are coming up, what’s your tone of voice? Can your children witness you resolving a disagreement in a healthy way, without feeling any sense of panic or instability?
- Finally, you can’t control the other person’s reaction. It’s their choice to get angry or sulky. And, if someone has loved me enough to summon the courage to challenge me, it’s my choice too – to get defensive, or to listen graciously and pray it over and let God show me what it’s like to be on the other side of me.