Reducing Conflict in the Family

Why do families have conflict?    I suppose that all sorts of answers would suit the question, but I think most of them deal with the effect rather than the cause of conflict.  In fact, conflict is so stressful to a home (whether it’s between spouses or parents and children) that if we knew the answer to eliminating the problem we would deal with it a long time ago.

As a pastor I do a lot of counseling and one of the foundational paradigms for effective counseling that results in lasting positive change is that root issues are addressed.   For example, if the branches of a sick tree are cut back the tree will still produce sick branches.  The problem is at the root level, underneath the surface where no one can see it.

The Bible teaches that the root issue of conflict is the sin of pride (Proverbs 13:10).   The chief expression of pride is selfishness and an unwillingness to serve or submit.

Many conflicts  are centered around one’s feeling that they are being taken advantage of and others aren’t carrying their share of the load.   Arguments ensue over the weariness of being steamrolled by a stronger personality.    This not only happens in the business community, but also in the family unit.    And the result is a divided family that is not close or loving.

A sad story is given about the disciples of Jesus that illustrates the presence of division and anger when pride is present.   It’s an event when two of his most loyal men *James and John) were trying to push themselves to special places of leadership and recognition ahead of the other disciples (Mark 10:35-41).    When the rest of the men discovered what the two were doing the Bible records that they were “much displeased”.   ‘

Why were they so angry and upset about the plans of the other two men?   After all, they were friends and had spent time together (almost 24/7) for three years.   It was because they had the same desires for ambition, but hadn’t voiced them yet!   They, too, wanted to be recognized as great men and leaders.   Now, they were fearful of being left out of some
perks because they hadn’t asked first!

The raw ambition of a few caused an angry outcry of many!   They were all struggling with pride in their hearts and it surfaced through attitudes of competition with words of anger.

What if rather than requesting of Jesus to be magnified above the other men that they asked if they could be their servants?    For sure, there wouldn’t have been a response of “much displeasure”.    The others would have been humbled and grateful toward James and John.

Visiting with Jordan during his internship in Costa Rica.

Another even sadder story is given about a conflict between the disciples the night before Jesus was to be crucified.    After Christ has washed and cleaned their dirty feet (the work of a lowly house servant, none of the others did it because they felt it was beneath them) the men partook of a meal (the last supper we call it).   As they ate Jesus warned them that one of them would betray him.

Here was their kind Master that had saved them, loved them, and trained and mentored them talking about being betrayed by one of the group.   What were their thoughts on that terrible night?   Incredibly the Bible says of the group of men that  “they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.  And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.”     (Luke 22:21-24)

The word “strife” means a quarrel or a dispute.   What was the argument centered around?   The text states, “which of them should be the greatest”.    Their Master had just washed their feet and rather than learning about servanthood and repenting of their selfishness they became intensely competitive.    It was because of the sinful root of pride in their hearts.

When one is scheming to get the first, the best and the most the predictable ugly result is an environment of competition and rivalry.   This happens in any relationship that is not governed by the Spirit of Christ Who was “meek and lowly” (Matthew 11:29), which simply means He didn’t focus on his personal rights, but his responsibilities, even if what He was doing didn’t make Him appear to be successful to others.

A person that is unconcerned about how he looks in front of others in terms of his importance, but focuses on ministering and helping isn’t worried about what piece of the pie he gets.   There is no conflict or argument, because he isn’t fighting for his perceived rights.  The source of the argument has been removed.

A time when I was getting testy about something and wasn’t being a servant! (Actually, this is when we stayed in a dormitory in Costa Rica visiting Jordan).

Husbands and wives bicker over the most insignificant matters.   When it is boiled down to an irreducible minimum it is often because one doesn’t feel the other has been considerate of them (or served them properly).    Sadly, I haven’t learned this only from counseling marriages in trouble, but I have been this way myself in my own family.

Brothers and sisters argue and spar verbally with each other (and their parents) because they feel “cheated” out of the best end of the deal.    They are upset because they aren’t being served the way they feel they deserve to be.

Do you want to reduce conflict in your family?    Are you tired of petty arguments and a tense atmosphere?   Then, follow God’s ways and be a servant to those in your home.   It’s tough to fight with someone that isn’t concerned about being proven right, but is more concerned about meeting your needs.

I love what one wag said, “If you treat your wife like a thoroughbred, she won’t turn out to be a nag”.     Sometimes a complaint is simply a cry to be helped and understood.

It’s hard to believe those involved in a divorce suit are the same people who used to have a happy marriage.    Their relationship has transitioned from a desire to serve each other to expecting the other to meet their needs.    Any relationship functioning this way is headed for a wreck at some time!

Many couples, even Christian couples, are what I call “emotionally divorced”.    They live under the same roof, but are distant from each other.   Sometimes they have even shut down any type of meaningful communication because they are both tired of the conflict and arguments.  The truth is, they don’t even like each other anymore.    They only stay together for the sake of the children or a fear of what fellow church members would think if they did want they wanted to do and divorced.

I remember how courteous, careful, and kind I was to Paula in the early days of our relationship.    My voice was never raised even when I felt aggravated.   I kept quiet when I was disappointed about something she did that was trivial.   I opened the car door for her and would call her during the day just to check on her.   I enjoyed conversing with her, even if I wasn’t interested in the subject much because I was interested in her.

Gradually, if a couple is not careful the attitude of service and focusing on what the other needs will bring a numbness and boredom to the marriage.    God never intended for this to happen!    Curtis Hutson said, “If you keep on doing after you get married what you did to get married you will never get unmarried”.   

At some point most of us begin to neglect the small things we did in the infancy of our relationship.    I believe a single phrase would describe our hearts and actions in those early days that we so easily lose – a spirit of servanthood.

Taking the initiative to meet needs and serve in the most humble ways has been replaced by expectations placed on the other and a sense of entitlement.    We didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did.   And I think the culprit was pride and selfishness.    Those who are selfish don’t want to serve, but want others to serve them.    And they become angry when it doesn’t happen.

We have some very dear friends that live in another state and we rarely get to see them.  I was a Youth Pastor during this time of my ministry and worked with their children.

Occasionally we visit at their home and spend a night or two catching up on our lives.    We reminisce, eat together, laugh, play games (my kids enjoy visiting with them, too), talk about God’s goodness in our lives and so many other positive, edifying things.   We have never left that home without being encouraged and refreshed.

One morning after our annual visit together and having packed the minivan, and said our good-byes as we were backing out of their driveway, Paula made a comment to me I still remember.    She said, “Rick, as we grow older I want us to be like Tom and Renelle”.

You see, our friends not only serve us well when we visit with them, but they serve each other well.   They care for each other’s needs and gladly pitch in when some help is needed.    There is not a tension in their home because they aren’t trying to get the other to do for them, but they treat each other with a mutual respect, kindness, and heart of service.   I agree with Paula.   I want us to be like them as we grow older.   (They’re about ten years ahead of us in age so we have been able to observe these traits consistently in their lives for other 30 years).

It makes me wonder, though if a younger couple that knows us well has ever commented to one another, “Honey, I want us to have a marriage like Rick and Paula as we grow older together”.    I think I have some work to do in serving Paula, Jeremiah, Jonathan and Ani, Ashley and Bryan, Jordan, April, Jake, and Aubrey (and my grandkids, too – Brighton and Brody).

Here’s a fun lyric from one of Steve and Annie Chapman’s songs about serving each other.  I would encourage you to visit their website and order some of their music.   It will bless you!   Their web address is steveandanniechapman.com.   They are the real deal!

“It Feels Like Love”

“Well, he knew all along it was one of her dreams, dreams,                                                          And he put a quarter in the music machine;                                                                                   And then he took her hand and said, “You know I can’t dance,                                                But darling just for you I’m going to take that chance.”

She said, “Ooh, baby, I can’t believe it’s true, true,                                                                        I never thought I’d be dancing with you.                                                                                   Ooh, baby, thank you so much,                                                                                                         It might look like dancing but it feels like love”.                                                                         She said, “Might look like dancing, but with you it feels like love”.

And now it’s Sunday in the afternoon, afternoon,                                                                           She knows what he’s doing in the TV room.                                                                            Watching cars go round in circles ain’t her cup of tea,                                                                     But she says, “Turn it up some more, and darling,                                                                         make some room for me”.

He says, “Ooh, baby, I can’t believe it’s true,  true,                                                                        I never thought I’d be watching racing with you,                                                                           Ooh, baby, thank you so much, might look like racing, but it feels like love”.                         He said, “Might look like racing, but with you, it feels like love”.

Well, he learned some moves, he’s not afraid any more,                                                               And she smiles when they glide across that hard wood floor;                                                        There’s a place down in Bristol where she likes to be,                                                                   Sitting next to her man wearing number three.

And she said, “Ooh, baby, I can’t believe it’s true,                                                                         I never thought I be watching racing with you”.                                                                        She said, “Ooh, baby thank you so much,                                                                                Might look like dancing, but it feels like love;                                                                                  He said, “Might look like racing, but it feels like love”

If you would like to read a great book that will strengthen your marriage and help you in your understanding of how conflicts come about between two people that used to get along so well I would highly recommend “What Did You Expect?” by Paul Tripp.

It is an outstanding read on how faulty expectations can cause us to end up despising someone we cared deeply about at one time.    I promise that it will help your marriage (whether you are newlyweds or married for 50 years).

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About familyencouragement

Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Married for 39 years with seven children and eight grandchildren.
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