Saturday, August 21, 2010

One Thing We All Hate… And Need (for better relationships)





"I still don't get it. Why can't you tell him?"

"He'll go crazy. You know what Aaron's like."

I sighed but didn't push it. Aaron was my friend, though I spent more time with Ginny, his wife, since we worked together. I sighed again and glanced around the cafeteria. A few Grade Eight kids were hanging out at one of the tables, but other than that it was quiet. I was working with an autistic student in the school, but he hadn't shown up today, so I'd been doing some paperwork when Ginny sat down across from me. She was small, with curly red hair, and a timid air when she talked about herself.

"Listen, Aaron's a good guy. If you think he's flirting too much, then just tell him. He probably doesn't even realize it." I said.

Aaron was a teacher as well, tall and lean, with voice like a low hammer. We'd hung out a couple of times when the schools got together for an event.

Ginny shook her head.

"I can't. He'll think I'm possessive or jealous, that I don't trust him."

So why are you telling me? Ginny was nice, and she was a friend, but it was hard listening to your friends complain when they were so unwilling to do anything about it. Still, I knew what it was to be afraid to be honest with people. When I was twenty-one, I interned as a young adult pastor. In my review at the end of the year, my Senior Pastor's remarks included a comment that I'd never forgotten. "Until Steve is willing to face his fear of confrontation, he will never be the leader he can be." At the time, I really didn't understand it. I'd always thought avoiding confrontation to be something of a skill. And yet, he'd not only remarked on my tendency to avoid it, but that this was somehow a bad thing. When I asked him about it later, he told me that I was going out of my way to avoid certain issues, and that unless I dealt with them, they would never get resolved. That was what a good leader did, he said. He also mentioned that it was impossible to grow in our faith if we were unwilling to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves.

It didn't help that so many people grew up in "quietly tense" homes. The older generations seemed to delight in this idea of "sucking it up" and not saying anything when an issue needed to be addressed. Or blaming the inability to properly communicate on gender differences. ("Who can understand a woman, Steve? They're SO different!") Unfortunately, from what I'd seen of these marriages, even the ones that had lasted twenty five years, it wasn't something I really wanted in my own life. It wasn't like you got a gold star for years of service. For me, it was pretty simple. If your relationships sucked, especially the one with your significant other, than your life did too. It was the reason I was in the process of getting divorced. It also meant that I really wasn't one to talk. Most of the 'confrontations' in our house had been punctuated by yelling and hurt feelings. Still Ginny had asked, so I figured I would try to answer her question.

Honestly, Ginny, there's nothing wrong with a bit of jealousy. It means you care. I don't mean the controlling kind, but jeez, if what he's doing bothers you, you have to say something. Otherwise, you're going to have to put up with it for the rest of your life. And let me tell you, if you can't be honest with one another, marriage sucks."

"Well, you would know about that." She said, flicking her hair.

I took a deep breath and didn't respond.

"I'm sorry, Steve." She said, reading my face. "It's just that, well, marriage is difficult. Relationships are not so simple." She smiled at me like I was one of her students. "You can't just tell someone what's bothering you because maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe we just need to talk about it to vent a little, and then it will be okay." She paused. "I know I feel better. Thanks."

The bell rang, and kids started piling into the hallway.

"I gotta go. Bye, Steve."

I waved, and managed to put a crooked grin on my face, though it fell as soon as she'd left. What did I know about relationships, I thought. I'm the biggest failure here. I still felt like I'd made the right decision about my marriage. It'd been mutual, and we'd both seen how destructive it had become. Maybe Ginny was right though. Maybe I just hadn't learned to 'suck it up' like so many people did in their marriages. Hell, and their friendships, for that matter.

I turned back to my work, but the characters might as well have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. I wondered if one day I'd get another chance to prove my theory about honesty. It was ridiculous to think that I would be single forever, but when you're going through a divorce, it's how you feel. One day, I thought.

***

I think the first time I heard the word "confrontation" was watching a baseball game as a kid. Face to face, the pitcher trying to either throw the ball past the hitter or induce him to hit it to one of the guys on the pitcher's team. I also heard it mentioned as something that happened between countries, but in terms of relationships, well, it wasn't until I was nearly done high school that I heard it mentioned in that context. And when I did hear it, the implication was that confrontations were something nasty, and always led to a fight or an argument, or God forbid, a breakup. Confrontation was bad because it led to conflict, which was also bad. In fact, the two words were nearly always used as synonyms. And in relationships, romantic or otherwise, the best thing to do was to avoid both. It took me a long time to understand that not only were the two words radically different, but that one of them was necessary for a healthy relationship.

By definition, to confront someone means to "to stand or come in front of; stand or meet facing." Conflict, on the other hand, is a "struggle or clash between opposing forces." Confrontation generally precipitates conflict, but they aren't the same thing, and while both have negative connotations to them, a confrontation does not HAVE to be something negative. In fact, a great deal of our relational woes stem directly from our belief that confrontation is bad and needs to be avoided at all costs. When that happens however, we start down a road from which many relationships never recover.

***

The wind swept hard across the water, rustling the waves against the dock so that it creaked loudly in the morning sunlight. I was sitting on the deck of the cottage with my notebook, nibbling on the end of my pen. The pine trees swayed across the lake, climbing the low rise north above the water. It was a breathtaking view, crystallized in the wind and sun, and one I wanted to take with me when we left later that morning. There'd been ten of us, sharing the cottage for three days of sun and fun. Inevitably, especially with the rainy weather the day before, there had been some brush ups and blow ups. Two nights earlier, I'd suddenly become very upset with my best friend because he'd beaten me at chess, and I had missed the two key moves he'd made to win the game. (If it sounds ridiculous, um, that's because it was… ) I went outside for a few minutes, realized that I was being an idiot, and apologized. After that, things were fine. It made me think about how often we brush against one another, especially in groups and families, and how little we are prepared to handle confrontations. Unless you major in something like social work or psychology or counseling, the skills necessary for learning how to confront people will not be something you learn in school. And yet, if we were all just a little better at it, it would make our lives so much easier, with much less tension, and the reason for that is simple. In every community, be it a marriage, a group of friends, a family, or a church, someone will inevitably act in a selfish and unhealthy matter. If it's allowed to fester, it will not only affect the group dynamics, but it will become one of the defining forces within the group or couple as well.

Ginny never addressed the issue of flirting with her husband, never confronted him with it. If they're still married, it will not only still be an issue, it will be, in fact, one of the predominant characteristics of how she defines her relationship. The same is true within families and groups of friends. If there is an issue that you cannot confront, an issue that you cannot talk about, then you have assigned that issue as one of the cornerstones of the way you will relate to the others in the group.

It's not hard to figure why we avoid confrontation. Why I avoided it for so many years. Frankly, it's difficult, and it requires humility and vulnerability. There's also a tendency to think, as I used to, that confrontation requires anger and yelling and tears. It doesn't. The reason people get angry when confronting others is because anger helps drive away the fears that control so many of us. Our fears of rejection. Of being alone. Of being not liked. Our fear of wrecking other relationships or worrying that people will think we're a jerk. Anger helps us, momentarily, to push past these fears. But anger is a double edged sword, and when we use it to confront people, the end result is conflict.

***

Confrontational Tips

So, what to do? The first thing is to practice confrontation on ourselves. I keep a journal every day, just a couple of paragraphs, and challenge how I responded to things the day before. Did I honour God the way I should yesterday? Am I loving people the way I'm supposed to? How did I handle things at work and with my friends? Am I being too cynical? (A particularly challenging one for me.) You will have different questions, depending on what your self-identified weaknesses are and what your goals are in life. (You don't have to journal but I find it helpful.)

But understand this: you have no right to confront anyone about anything until you are willing to confront yourself.

We've all known people who criticize others and make people feel like crap without checking the mirror. The heart of positive confrontations is the humility inherent in identifying the other person's shared humanity. When you are used to honestly confronting your own behavior, you will be better equipped when someone else challenges you. And if you can listen to someone else's honest critique about your behavior, you have given yourself a terrific tool for your relationships that most people do not possess. Why? Because people who can confront themselves have little difficulty confronting others in a quiet, tactful manner.

The second thing is understanding that tone makes a difference. (No anger allowed. If you're angry, you're not ready.) So do words and expressions. "Perhaps", "maybe", "I'm not sure", "this makes me feel", are all good choices. Remember that the goal of confrontation is to solve an issue, and that it is hard to for people to hear negative things about themselves or their behaviour, especially if they genuinely don't realize what they're doing. Having spent a number of years working with the developmentally disabled, I'm sensitive to people who park in the handicap spots without the proper sticker. I will ALWAYS confront them. However, I keep my tone polite, and usually say something along the lines of "I'm not sure you noticed the sign, sir, but this is a reserved spot." Anyone fit to drive can see the sign, but the point isn't my self-righteous indignation or feeling superior because I wouldn't park there, the point is to get them to move and feel the weight of what they're doing, and always in quiet tones. (And yes, they always move.)

In terms of our relationships, confrontation is the only way to wipe out the power of fear that girds so much of our lives. We let our fears dictate the outcome of our relational choices, and we end up feeling trapped or miserable because we refuse to ask the hard questions of both ourselves and the people around us.

In many ways, it is not unlike standing across a lake and staring at the green grass and quiet fields of peace and contentment on the other side. The bridge however, the one we call Confrontation, looks shaky and small, something only Indiana Jones could cross. The reason it looks so small is that like all skills, confrontation takes practice. In time, it gets easier and the bridge widens. But it's still something we'll probably dislike, if not hate. Who likes looking in the mirror? Who likes telling others things that are hard to hear? Without confrontation however, we are inevitably relegated to below standard relationships, and ultimately, a below standard life.

My prayer this week is that you'll take up the challenge of confrontation. Go for a walk and think about some of the fears both in you, and your relationships, that need to be addressed. I know we like to say that relationships are complicated, and sometimes they are, but too often the complications arise out of our tendency to avoid the issues that matter the most with our loved ones. Stop letting Fear run your life, and have the courage to take the first step towards a life that is not only your own, but yours to give away.

-Steve