There will always be conflicts and problems in relationships. Even the best of relationships experience them. Why? Two people in a relationship are always two sinners. We are by nature sinful and self-centred and want our own way. We are blind to certain things about ourselves, our faults that can damage the other person and the relationship. We all need to grow, change, and make use of God’s word and his grace to transform us into the likeness of Jesus, so we can love and serve others well.
Not only do we have our sin, we are two different people, with different personalities, life experiences, preferences, and viewpoints. We will most likely come into the relationship thinking certain things are correct, or the right way to do things, only to find out the person we’re dating has a different view. That can be surprising at first. Those differences might be on relatively neutral and harmless things, like how to wash the dishes or how to spend leisure time. Or they could be on more major issues, like sex or finances.
Problems and conflicts in relationships are not necessarily a sign that the relationship should end. However, if you differ on major issues and can’t resolve them, that’s probably a sign that you can’t be together.
But more importantly than the presence of problems or disagreements, I believe, is how you handle them and whether you and/or the person you’re dating has the skills necessary to do so.
If one or both of you does not have the ability to deal with problems, you then have two problems. You have the original problem, and then you are unable to resolve the original problem. This will eventually break up or seriously damage the relationship.
So what are some essential skills necessary for dealing with relationship issues? I’m no psychologist or expert, but these are a few that come to mind. If you have others, please add them in the comments!
Being able to resolve problems involves being able to understand and admit that we are not always right. Sometimes our ideas or preferences aren’t essential, and we can let them go. Sometimes we are actually wrong. But if we’re so proud we can’t admit we are wrong, we will never be able to go through the process of working out the problem.
Some people can never see where they are wrong, no matter how many times it is brought to them. This is a serious issue, and should be a really big red flag if you’re dating or considering dating them. Humility is the recognition that we don’t have it all together, that we are blinded by sin, and that we need feedback from God and from others to see where we’re off-course and to change.
Empathy is the ability to feel with another person. If you bring a problem to someone or tell them how they have hurt you, and they don’t appear to be moved, or tell you that you are “wrong” for feeling the way that you do, this is a major issue.
Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean thinking the other person is “right”. It’s about being able to put yourself in their shoes and sympathize, even if you have never felt that way. It's being able to see the effect of your actions on them and being genuinely grieved and sorry if you hurt them. It’s essential to relationships.
Respect means a regard for the other person and how they feel or think. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. What it does mean is accepting that they are a separate person to you, equally valid, with equal right to their feelings, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Even if you don’t share those things, you seek to understand and to honour them. You don’t violate the person’s feelings or boundaries because you think they “shouldn’t” feel, think, or believe a certain way. You help that person to live by them, and adapt yourself to them as needed.
This is a big umbrella, but if you don’t have good communication, you have no ability to work out problems.
Communication means two things: listening with the intent to understand, and being open about your thoughts and feelings.
Listening: you should, and your partner should, listen quietly, respectfully, and intentionally, with the goal of understanding what the other person thinks and feels. Again, this doesn’t mean you’ll be in agreement, but it does mean you hear them out and make sure you have correctly understood. Don’t interrupt. Don’t do something else while they’re talking. Allow them enough time to say everything they want to. Repeat what you think they have said back to them, in order to make sure you’ve understood, before replying.
Talking: you should, and your partner should, be able to talk openly, honestly, and without fear about your thoughts and feelings, including if they have hurt you in some way. You should not be afraid that they will shut down and run away, or get angry and defensive and go on the attack. Insults and personal attacks have no place here. Anger and defensiveness have no place. Shutting down or running away has no place. All of those things kill communication, and make true understanding and problem-solving impossible.
Jesus commanded us to forgive if we want God to forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). Human relationships are a constant exercise in forgiveness. This doesn’t mean tolerating abusive behaviour, but it does mean recognizing that we will always be in relationship with a sinner who will disappoint us from time to time, and being ready, quick and willing to forgive. We must extend the same grace God has to us, and that we want to receive from them.
Make sure the person you’re with is a person who forgives, and does not hold grudges or attempt to “punish” you in some way, instead of bringing up the issue frankly and letting it go when you’ve apologized.
As sinners, we’re in constant need of repentance. We are going to do things occasionally that hurt the other person. We must be able to quickly and humbly recognize this, apologize, and change our behaviour. We must ask God’s forgiveness and his help to change. It’s absolutely vital that you’re with a person who’s capable of this as well. Again, there will always be problems. But the ability to recognize where you’re wrong, be sorry, and change out of love for God and the other person, is essential.
You don’t want to be with someone who’s not changing. You don’t want to be with someone who’s not capable of genuine remorse when they do wrong. That’s a recipe for lifelong suffering.
7. Self-sacrifice and compromise
You and your partner must both be willing to put aside your personal preferences and desires and serve one another, for the other person’s good and the good of the relationship. There should not be a situation where one person’s desires and needs run roughshod over the other. When working out conflict, both persons must be able to compromise and sometimes lay aside what they want in order to please the other person.
But, this must go both ways! I’m not talking about a one-sided, codependent relationship where one person does all the giving and sacrificing, and the other always gets his or her way. That’s not a relationship.