5 principles for relationships in a contentious society

Lessons from counseling troubled marriages

July 28, 2020

I’ve been in the business of helping save marriages for nearly seven years now and in the business of keeping families together much longer. The amount of similarities between the families I work with and our current cultural climate is striking. We are all seeking to navigate these choppy waters, and some of us are drowning in the process. 

In reality, there’s not much difference between a bickering and resentful family and a bickering and resentful society. In fact, you would have to work hard to convince me the two are not a byproduct of one another. We’re living in a time promulgated with self-derived truth. We find our version of events, enter into the fray, and are unwilling to yield and unable to find solutions. American families have been brutalizing one another in this way for the last 50 years due to dramatic cultural shifts in family philosophy and belief systems. So, it is no surprise to me this chaos has poured onto our streets.  

It is why you’ve heard it said the art of compromise has been lost on our society. There are days this certainly feels the case. But hope is not lost. It cannot be. The alternative is too grim. How we handle the contentious conversations of our day has an immediate impact on our culture in the present, not some distant day in the future. We can no longer kick the can down the road on our relationships in this American family.

I took it upon myself to think through the images and clichés I often use in couples therapy—the things I find myself saying from memory again and again that resonate with the families I work with. My hope is that you can take these principles and work toward compromise in your homes and spheres of influence. The time to act is now. Step out and have meaningful conversations with your neighbors. Show your support for the people who make up our nation by being kind wherever you are. Put others first above your own needs, and never cease to advocate for truth and justice above all things.  And seek to apply these ideas along the way in order to live at peace with those around you.

5 ways to approach tough relationships

You can both be right. There are times in life when we should stand our ground in the face of injustice and evil. Murder, rape, and other criminal activities are just a few examples. When it comes to these things, we should never compromise, never back down, and seek swift and righteous justice. But in most conflict situations, there is a lot of room for compromise. Believing there is some validity to what the other person is saying is a good first step. You may not agree with all of what they are saying, and you may completely disagree with their emotional reactions. However, people can almost always find common ground. 

And it always starts with seeing how the other side could be right. Because when you can see the shoreline from the other person’s point of view, you can begin to swim in that direction. When you can accept this, tension is relieved from the pressure cooker, and the two sides can begin to converse. The trick is talking in the right way. The communication of compromise is hard to do, especially when you’re used to fighting for your side.   

Make “the thing” the thing. This is conflict resolution 101. When I was in seminary there was a fun saying all the preaching students would recite: “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” This goes for conflict as well. It’s impossible to see the shoreline if there’s fog in the air. The antidote is clear communication, which leads to clear understanding. Understanding leads to empathy. Empathy leads to compromise. But if two people are talking about two related but different topics, the communication breaks down at the “understanding” phase. 

I can’t tell you how many people are such bad communicators that they’re actually fighting over two completely different topics most of the time. This is why you have to make sure the thing you’re fighting about is actually the same thing. If not, we get mixed up, confusion reigns, we don’t listen, and we become defensive. Our current cultural climate is a perfect example of this. There’s a lot of talk going on and a lot of emotionally charged ideas and opinions with layers of variations. That’s because problems are never just one thing; they are complex. Thankfully, solutions are often simple, though not painless (more on this later).

So what’s the key to knowing when you’re not talking about the same thing? When your conversation goes round and round, and both sides end up repeating the same thing while just varying the terminology. The reason people repeat the same thing over and over is because they feel like they’re not being heard. If the conversation is cycling into oblivion, you have two options: the person you’re speaking with does not understand, or the person you’re speaking with does understand but does not care. 

More often than not, if it’s a legitimate relationship (basically anything outside of Facebook, Twitter, or social media), the person you’re speaking with does care. This means you have to pause the conversation and move into what I call reflection mode. Reflection mode is a simplified version of the speaker/listener technique, where one person repeats back what they hear the speaker saying until the speaker agrees that the listener comprehends what they’re saying. So, if my friend says, “I like cats.” I say, “What I hear you saying is you like cats, is that right?” They say, “Yes.” If I say, “What I hear you saying is you like rats, is that correct?” They say “No. I said cats not rats.” The conversation remains emotionally low, and we keep going in an attempt to understand whoever is speaking in that moment.  

Work to understand, instead of working to be right.  What happens when the speaker responds, “I said cats not rats, you piece of trash. You’re so dumb”? Remember when I said it’s possible the person you’re talking to doesn’t care? If compromise is going to happen, you have to work to understand instead of working to be right. Things get volatile really quick when you have a person who only cares about being right. And that’s when you need to start looking for the nearest exit. Don’t feel bad about leaving. Express your concern and love for the people, your passion for the topic, and then politely excuse yourself.

We currently have a number of differing worldviews waging war in the hearts and minds of American society. Diversity of thought is a good thing, but you have to be open to other people’s experiences and feelings about an issue in order to understand one another. That’s how civilized conversations work. Discounting your spouse’s experiences will only lead to further frustration. Shaming your neighbor for speaking his or her mind about a topic will not win them over to seeing things from your point of view. In fact, it is guaranteed to escalate the conversation to a bad place. So if you find yourself using manipulative words or shouting another person down, go ahead and quit. Because even if you get the other person to be quiet, you most certainly have not won over their heart or mind.

Living justly leads to making sacrifices. Fairness and justice are not synonymous. Life is not fair, and no one should ever expect it to be. Before I was married my grandmother doled out some serious wisdom. She said, “There’s no such thing as 50/50 in marriage. Just focus on giving it your 100, and the rest will come together.” She was right. I’ve tried my best to give my marriage 100%. And I’d say it’s paid off really well. Furthermore, I’ve worked hard to not concern myself with what I’m doing versus what my wife is doing or not doing. This really makes a difference. Saying something is not fair is not grounds for compromise; it’s the foundation for entitlement.

Justice, on the other hand, is something completely different. And unfortunately, it is often deferred. It should make us sick when this happens. Despite this, we should never stop living righteous lives in the face of injustice. And we should never cease to implement justice when we have the ability.

So let me bring these two together for you. Because life is not fair, and because justice must be done, sacrifices will have to be made. Adequate solutions are never pain-free. The path to healing and living together under one roof will come at a cost. There is no other option. You will have to die to yourself on multiple occasions. You will have to give ground in exchange for peace and harmony. This is how marriages work. This is how families find peace.

One last piece of this “just sacrifice” puzzle is important for you to understand. You cannot find peace with a person who is not willing to live justly. You cannot burn down the house in order to save the family. I would never advise a friend or a family member to make a deal with the devil. And neither should you.

Don’t give up. All is not lost. Hope is still the best medicine. Your marriage is not over. Our society can move forward. There are greater days ahead if we want them. Show me a man without hope, and I’ll show you a man without a future. And as Christians, we of all people have the greatest reason to persevere in the midst of difficulty because we have a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3). 

Don’t allow the news cycle to tank your aspirations. Step out of your home and build relationships. Step out from behind your keyboard. Ask people how they’re doing. Go out of your way to acknowledge someone while you’re walking through the grocery store or standing in the checkout line. Live a righteous life, and look for the best in others. But don’t just stop there; work for the best of others. If we give up now, we leave a vacuum, and there is no telling what will fill it. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” While we’re in this contentious society, let’s affirm the dignity of everyone we encounter by showing them the same grace we’ve been shown in Christ. 

Cary Corley

Cary has experience in group counseling and individual therapy. He has worked at the Dallas Children‘s Advocacy Center and in the private practice sector. He obtained his B.A. in psychology from the University of Alabama. He holds a M.A. in Biblical counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Doctorate in Counseling … Read More