Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Peace

Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Peace
by H. Wallace Goddard

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”

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 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.”(1)

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 Corinthians 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.”(2)

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 superceded 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 Corinthians 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.


Taking Your Marriage From Misery to Joy

Mom says I was a pleasant baby. As I grew, I must have become less pleasant. I remember spending a lot of my growing-up years annoying and battling my siblings. I suppose that struggles with life and siblings teach all of us many maladaptive lessons, as they did me.

We’re probably not deliberately malicious. In fact our official theology tells us that children are born innocent (see D&C 93:39). But innocent isn’t the same as charitable, and as we struggle to secure a place in the life and love of the family, we frequently develop some uncharitable and ungenerous characteristics.

When I attempted to inventory some of the maladaptive skills I developed in my youth, I came up with the following list. Consider whether you developed some of these attitudes and abilities in your childhood.

Put my own needs first lest my needs go unmet. (Go for the biggest piece of cake.)
Defend myself. (Don’t show weakness. Return fire for fire.)
See the other person as guilty. (Consider even innocent behavior as aggressive or selfish.)
Zero in on weaknesses in others. (Notice what makes others crazy and be prepared to bombard them when necessary.)
Make fun of and minimize the other person. (Treat others with disdain.)
Color the truth. (Tell stories in ways that make me look innocent, my siblings guilty.)
Argue their wickedness persuasively. (Describe their faults derisively.)
Be aware of the audience. (Take advantage of Mom and Dad’s irritations with the enemy sibling.)
Hurt them and keep them afraid. (Learn the tools of terrorism.)
It’s amazing what awful things we can learn in the course of growing up. I think these tendencies underscore the literal truth of the Lord’s message to Adam: “Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in [a world of] sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts” (Moses 6:55, emphasis added). This world teaches us to look after ourselves at all costs. Truly, the natural child—the one who attends only to his own needs—is an enemy to siblings (see Mosiah 3:19).

Carrying the lessons into marriage

As we grow up and enter adult relationships, consider how maladaptive such oft-practiced thoughts and behaviors can be. Consider each item on my list once more—this time in the context of marriage.

Put my own needs first lest my needs go unmet. (Go for the biggest piece of cake.)
Defend myself. (Don’t show weakness. Return fire for fire.)
See the other person as guilty. (Consider even innocent behavior as aggressive or selfish.)
Zero in on weaknesses in others. (Notice what makes others crazy and be prepared to bombard them.)
Make fun of and minimize the other person. (Treat others with disdain.)
Color the truth. (Tell stories in ways that make me look innocent, my sibling guilty.)
Argue their wickedness persuasively. (Describe their faults derisively.)
Be aware of the audience. (Take advantage of Mom and Dad’s irritations with the enemy sibling.)
Hurt them and keep them afraid. (Learn the tools of terrorism.)
These lessons for childhood survival do not contribute to healthy marital functioning. Their awfulness is reminiscent of the mother who overheard her little girl and a neighbor child playing house. They decided to get married and the little girl began the vows: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You may now kiss the bride.” If we are to have a strong marriage, we must put off the natural man and learn better ways.

A painful and realistic portrayal of marriage was provided by a man who submitted this question to an online family service.

“After 13 years of marriage, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t like my wife. She is everything that I despise in a wife and a person. I’m a religious man, have tried everything the books say, and have taken direct orders from our pastor to implement actions all in an effort to cause a positive change in the marriage. The bottom line is, I see no positive aspects to my wife’s personality, and it taints all of her relationships, especially ours. I really dislike being around her and I’ve run out of solutions. Just short of divorce, is there anything that can be done as a final effort to salvage this marriage? BC in NM”

Is the major problem in this marriage the wife’s shortcomings? Probably not. Later in this book I quote a colleague who says, “When people are upset and angry, they are blind to any position but their own.”

Can anything be done?

The Lord has provided the cure for the childhood lessons we learned in self-defense. Perhaps He intended that we learn these higher lessons in our growing-up years—though most of us learn them imperfectly if at all.

“Therefore I give unto you a commandment [A commandment!], to teach these things freely unto your children, [Note what is to be taught!] saying: “That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory” (Moses 6:58-59, emphasis added).

Without a new birth, we will never be what we should be in marriage. We will drag our sick, troubled, tortured ways into every encounter and every relationship. God invites us to bury the diseased natural man and be born again as new creatures in Christ.

But, can the gospel of Jesus Christ really help us function better in the day-to-day challenges of marriage?

Surprised by the Doctrine

On one occasion an earnest, intelligent, LDS mother sought me out for advice. “My husband is a good man, but I no longer find him attractive. I am thinking about leaving him. But I am not sure if it is right.”

I really wanted to help this good woman find answers to her dilemma. I hoped my training in relationships and my years of marriage would help. I prayed for guidance.

Much to my surprise I found myself talking to her about the Atonement of Christ. All my training in family life protested: “What does that have to do with her dilemma?” But my spirit would not be deterred. An hour of testifying of His inestimable goodness, mercy, and love spilled out. Phrases from the great Atonement chapters in the Book of Mormon came to life. The cup of testimony was brim with joy.

After it all spilled out, I paused, wondering how to apply the doctrine of the Atonement to her dilemma. But her face told me that nothing more needed to be said. The Atonement of Jesus Christ was the answer. Because of His goodness, we are reconciled to God. When we are reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other. His goodness makes us one.

Filled with charity—that sweet and divine gift of heavenly love—she felt a renewed bond with her husband. She chose to stay with him. Gladly. Joyously. Lovingly. Their marriage is strong today.

The answers are in the Principles

The Gospel of Jesus Christ—that great plan of happiness—provides the solutions for our humanness. Having suffered the bitter fruits of badness, it invites us to prize the good fruits of gospel-anchored relationships (see Moses 6:55).

Most marriage programs emphasize a set of skills to help partners express discontents in fair, non-attacking ways. The assumption is that every marriage has its discontents and that those must be processed in non-destructive ways in order for the relationship to function well.

My assumption is very different. I believe that the key to a healthy relationship is being a healthy, saintly, God-seeking person—to be born again—to be a new creature in Christ. When we are more godly, fewer things bother us. And when we run into problems, we are more likely to process them in helpful ways.

Notice that God offers just one single escape clause from our desperate mortal, fallen situation: “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to God [and his or her partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless [Here comes the escape clause!] he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added).

In the upcoming articles, I will discuss the core gospel principles and describe the ways they can take us from our self-serving and self-centered traditions of the natural spouse—the spouse unchanged by the Spirit of God—toward the good and gracious ways of godliness. These are the First Principles of Eternal Marriage. These are the principles that will enable us to draw heaven into our marriages. These powerful principles can have eternal results.

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