Nancy and I have some friends who have been married for a few years longer than we have been. They are earnest, good people. But they are human. A few years ago the husband was dragging home from work every day at dinner time. He was ready for peace and order. But things were not always in order at home. He nagged his wife. “Why can’t you have dinner ready when I get home? Why can’t you have the kids do their chores? Why can’t you have the place straightened up?” The day came when his good wife had had enough. “You know you have some faults, too.” He pondered that. “Yes, but they don’t bother me like yours do.”
The trouble with most conflict resolution is that it starts in the wrong place. It takes us when we are tired and irritated and puts us toe-to-toe with the enemy. But by the time that irritation and judgment have filled my mind, I am not in a good place to solve our problems. I am not even in a good place to know what the problems are. And I am not in a good place to show the respect that you deserve.
I have a friend who likes to say that “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” That idea can be extended. You can no more win a fist fight than you can win an automobile accident. You can no more win a family argument than win a house fire. When we choose to fight, we all lose. That is why Satan recommends fighting so highly.
So, what is the gospel remedy for conflict? “Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). God recommends that we be messengers of peace. Three steps to being agents of peace come to mind.
We can see each other with charity
Irving Becker has said that “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind” (Reader’s Digest. (1975). Pocket treasury of great quotations. Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader’s Digest).
Often we allow a combination of irritations to fester. Judgment and discontent infect the injuries. Poison fills the system. Disease is a normal part of a telestial world, yet we are all choosing to be something more than telestial.
We cannot overcome irritation by ourselves. That is why Mormon encourages us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” (Moroni 7:48). Divine love springs only from divine wells. We may love as he loves only when we are filled with him, when we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).
I don’t have the right to correct anyone I do not love. When I love them with Christ-like love, I feel inclined to bless, help, encourage, and support them.
We can take responsibility for our own feelings of irritation
Elder Christensen has recounted a powerful story about irritation.
As a newlywed, Sister Lola Walters read in a magazine that in order to strengthen a marriage a couple should have regular, candid sharing sessions in which they would list any mannerisms they found annoying. She wrote: “We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off. . . I told him I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange! After I finished, it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me. . . . He said, “Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey.” Gasp. I quickly turned my back because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face. . . . Whenever I hear of married couples being incompatible, I always wonder if they are suffering from what I now call the Grapefruit Syndrome (Joe J. Christensen, Ensign, May 1995, pp. 64–66).
I used to invest a fair amount of energy encouraging Nancy to keep our kitchen counters clear and clean. As the years passed, it gradually occurred to me that my obsession with tidy counters is not her problem. It is mine. If something is irritating me, I can take care of it. I do not have to make my preferences into universal commandments.
I have noticed that I am far more likely to be irritated by other people’s faults when I am tired, frustrated, or lonely. I can become, as George Bernard Shaw says, “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making [me] happy.” If I am humble enough to accept my own contribution to the storm, I can take action to minimize it. I can ask for heavenly help. I can slow down and breathe deeply. I can isolate myself if I am unusually antagonistic.
One trap that prevents peace is the need to be right. We condemn others for their ignorance. But any divine mandate to be smart is superseded by the command to be loving. It is better to be good than to be right. “Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid” (Harlan Miller).
We can act in ways that encourage growth.
Many psychologists have observed that Americans express many kinds of irritation in one way: anger. “Why can’t you ever think of anyone else?!” “What is wrong with you?!” “Why are you so selfish?!” Such statements do not invite peaceful sharing.
Rather than complain, “You are so wrapped up in your life that you never make time for anyone else!” I can invite, “I feel lonely. I miss doing things with you. Could we do something together this week?”
Love also sets people up for success. If I know that Nancy likes time to think about decisions, rather than stand tapping my toe, pressing her for decisions, and wondering why she doesn’t learn how to make decisions, I will anticipate the need and will provide her time to reflect.
While it is true that people must bear the painful consequences of unwise decisions, we need never rejoice at another’s suffering. We can always offer the healing balm of understanding. A misbehaving family member may have sorrowful encounters with the law. Yet our charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).
When an elderly woman was asked at her fiftieth wedding anniversary what the secret of her long and happy marriage was, she responded that she had decided at their marriage to forgive her husband ten faults for the sake of their marriage. “I never got around to listing the ten but every time he did something that made me mad I thought, ‘It’s a good thing for him that that is one of the ten.’”
Love, forgiveness, and wisdom bring peace to our families. Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.