I hate pink elephants. You know that tangible, cut the air with a knife, tension you feel when there are unresolved issues in the room? The Pink Elephant is the issue causing that tension. And because the tension is more comfortable than discussing it, the elephant stays stinking up the environment. There doesn’t have to be a group for a pink elephant to be present. She can be there between just two people crowding the room because they won’t talk effectively about her.
I don’t hate pink elephants because they are uncomfortable to be around. I hate pink elephants because they’re proof that strife is dividing people. There are several reasons to avoid conflict. Few, if any, are good ones. If an issue is large enough to create a pink elephant then it’s time to face it head on. Unresolved conflict in personal relationships creates distance. It’s like that big, fat elephant is standing between you. The longer you wait to deal with it the fatter she gets, the more distant the relationship becomes.
We were asked by a friend who is a professor at a large university, to speak to her Marriage and Family Therapy class about how we handle conflict in our marriage. Jonathan and I had a great time sharing stories and the invaluable tools we’ve learned to enhance our relationship. Preparing for this encounter while playing with my daughter and a pink elephant rattle of hers, reminded me of how destructive unresolved conflicts are to relationships.
When Jonathan and I first got married and began to live together I expected him to gather up the trash and put the trash can out on the curb the night before the garbage truck came by. This was something my dad always did. I never told Jonathan this; I figured it was understood. So when the can was full or trash day came and I was out lugging it to the curb myself I began to grumble. I would start to think he was a slacker, expecting me to “do everything” and work full time too! I continued with this small under current of resentment for a while and finally brought it up to him. He was baffled at why I was upset and once I got over myself long enough to have a discussion I realized I had an uncommunicated expectation that wasn’t being met. I expressed my desire and he was happy to oblige me.
This is a simple and fairly unimportant conflict but it shows that even in the smallest things the opportunity to judge someone’s character and take things personally is easy. If judgments and resentment continue, especially with larger issues, you can imagine how easy it is to become adversaries with a person you want to be close to. When we take things personally and think the other person is “bad” we tend to start closing off parts of our heart to “protect” ourselves. Intimacy is handicapped and the relationship hobbles along or crumbles in failure.
Now I want to emphasize that it is not the ISSUE that brings the handicap. The injury doesn’t come because that pink elephant went galloping around the room squashing people. All the elephant does is reveal what’s going on in the relationship. In the trash example above it wasn’t the full trash can that caused a rift in my relationship it was the thinking that my husband was a slacker, that he was using me to do his work. The thinking and believing that our spouse, friend, or sister is less than they should be causes us to become disconnected. If I had been fully connected with Jonathan I wouldn’t have jumped so quickly into negative thinking about him. I didn’t take time to understand him. I leaped straight into judgment.
Unresolved or un-discussed issues, drive a wedge between loved ones. Pretending they are not there or hoping they will go away on their own is a fantasy. The whole point of close relationships is to be – - close not wedged apart. Most of what keeps us from dealing with relationship issues is fear:
- fear of rejection or abandonment,
- fear of disappointment,
- fear of failure (you don’t get what you want or the relationship ends), or
- fear of punishment.
Another deterrent to resolving issues is dishonesty. I venture to say that if someone says, “Our relationship is so great! – We never disagree,” that someone in that relationship isn’t being honest. Dishonesty isn’t always deception. Sometimes it’s as simple as at least one party not knowing themselves well enough to express their own opinion so they only mirror the opinions of those around them.
The only reason to have a confrontation is because the person and relationship matter to you. Confrontation isn’t a fight and shouldn’t be seen as a negative but rather a positive sign of a relationship. No two people are the same, if you are around someone long enough you are bound to disagree and have conflict. This is normal; it’s how we handle conflict that shows how much we value the relationship and determines our level of intimacy.
Overcoming fears, being willing to risk and be vulnerable, and sharing your desires is a huge undertaking. Why bother?
- The satisfaction of knowing you are living free and honest from your heart and
- The potential of deeper love and intimacy.
We all have a huge need to be known and loved. So combating conflict or hunting pink elephants directly impacts how much love we have. The rewards of a truly intimate relationship far outweighs the risk. Yes, there could be pain and disappointment or even loss. But how authentic of a relationship do you have if you hold back your truth?
Here are some tips that Jonathan and I try to use when dealing with conflict:
- Confront yourself first. Sometimes this is the only necessary confrontation. We need to examine our thoughts and feelings and know ourselves. We need to come to a place of truth. One time I was all ready to confront Jonathan on an issue I was having with him. But after I took this first step of examining how and why I came to think and feel what I was, I realized it was MY thinking that needed to be straightened out. Then my feelings lined up too. I still shared my experience with Jonathan but there was no blame and he was able to share in what I was going through and encourage me.
- Know yourself. Make sure your identity hasn’t gotten misplaced in the issue. You are who you are. No one and no thing has power to define you except God.
- Check for a disconnect. Outside this issue how is the relationship? Your connection is more important than the issue. Knowing this helps keep you focused on the goal.
- Know your goal. Our goal is always a more intimate, authentic connection. If your goal is to “win” the confrontation you might want to go back to “Check for a disconnect.”
- Timing is important. The sooner issues are dealt with the better. But conversations are not always appropriate “right now.” If it can’t be discussed immediately then schedule it. I typically want to discuss things right away, but Jonathan needs preparation to turn his attention fully to the issue. It is very empowering to agree, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow at 7.” The Bible says “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This is not a power point to force a conversation for an earlier time. You are responsible for your anger and are fully capable of letting it go before “sundown.”
- Know your judgmental thoughts. Seek understanding not justification for your judgments.
- Know your limits. On your best day the only thing in life you have control over is YOURSELF.
- Own your mess and clean it up. Apologize, change your thinking that led to the mess and don’t do it again.
- Speak honorably. We treat others with honor because we are honorable not because they are acting honorably. Romans 12:10
The purpose of this post is not to outline the step by step process of confrontation and conflict resolution but rather to help bring to light the value of hunting pink elephants and provide some personal tips that may not be in those outlines. There are plenty of tools available. Conflict management theory is used by businesses and organizations as well. If you want more details on the process of confrontation I will include some links below as well as other resources.
- Loving on Purpose- Website chalk full of relationship help. Videos, blogs, books, audio and dvd teachings.
- Boundaries and Boundaries in Marriage by Cloud and Townsend. Both of these books give steps to manage conflict including working with someone who is resistant.
- Strategies for Effective Conflict Resolution – Focus on the Family
- Conflict Resolution – Mind Tools – this article discusses theories and strategies
- The Hidden Costs of Conflict Avoidance – The Hekman Group
- Learn Assertive Communication in Five Easy Steps – About.com
- Signs of Conflict Avoidance – Livestrong.com
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