“It takes two to keep your marriage the same; it only takes one to change it. When you change, the relationship changes.”
– David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage, p. 199
There are few things more heartbreaking than conflict within a marriage/ committed relationship. Conflict with parents and family of origin is difficult but conflict with your partner is upsetting because we didn’t pick our parents or family of origin but we did pick our partner. In our romantic relationships we may hope that things will be different or better. When they don’t turn out to be, life can feel hopeless. Will I ever be loved?
And then there are the more imminent concerns such as living with the person with whom you are in conflict, the proximity of children, shared finances, shared community, cultural expectations. When a marriage/committed relationship isn’t working, there is a lot on the line. A lot.
Many couples can’t see their way out of it. They run around and around the same mountain, asking (or not asking) for what they think they want or need and complaining or withdrawing when they don’t get it. The truth is, when there is conflict in a marriage/committed relationship there are only three options: the status quo, divorce/break up, or change. If one and two are off the table, how does one go about number three?
Maybe the more important question is, what the hell does number three even look like?
Change is difficult precisely because that place to which one must travel in order to achieve change has no precedent in your life. It’s a distant shore, an uncharted land. With relationship change the relationship that existed before change begins cannot be the relationship that exists after change has ended. Obvious, perhaps, yet this is the exact thing to which people looking for change in their lives are blind. They want their relationship to improve without changing the fundamental problems that are causing the conflict.
An easy solution to relationship change is the belief that if only your partner would change then everything would be just fine. But that’s not change; that’s just validation of your own entrenched coping mechanisms (we’ll get to this). For change to occur in a relationship, both people must change, and that includes you.
The flipside to this frustrating reality is that if you must change for the relationship to improve, that means that you have the power to change the relationship. If you change, your partner is left with only two options – leave the relationship or change too.
The beauty of the process I lay out in this article is that if you follow its precepts, and really do the work, that unknown different way of relating naturally materializes. You change and the world changes around you. This requires faith, faith in the Unknown, faith that things will work out as they are supposed to, faith that in not trying to control those around you those around you are freed up to look at themselves and do the same work you are doing.
To understand this “fourth way” of relating, this non-violent resistance in intimate relationships, requires a look at coping mechanisms, the fundamentals of non-violent resistance, and how our faith life plays a role in change.
All humans deal with interpersonal conflict in three main ways (well, four, but we’ll get to the fourth in a moment): they move against, move toward, or move away from the person with whom they are in conflict.
Moving against looks like domination. William tells his friend Charlie that Charlie calls him too much. There is conflict. In order to cope with the perceived threat to his self-worth, Charlie, whose main coping mechanism is moving against, yells back, uses caustic words to belittle William, and even goes to the furthest extent of becoming physically threatening in order to control the situation.
Moving toward looks like accommodation. Betty asks her adult daughter Sue to help her with a number of chores even when Sue has a family of her own and does not have the time. Sue, who is afraid that her mother will ridicule her for not organizing her time properly (a moving against tactic) drops many of her own responsibilities to help her mother even through it compromises her welfare and that of her kids.
Moving away looks like isolation. Many people who struggle with addictions, especially pornography addiction, cope with conflict in this way. John’s wife becomes angry with John because he forgot to pick something up at the store. John feels inadequate and insufficient and instead of directly addressing the conflict, or accepting that he isn’t perfect, he retreats to his home office to “work” (i.e. use porn).
While all of us respond to conflict in all three of these ways there is always one of them that is predominate. The ultimate fear that drives the behavior is that if the conflict is addressed by listening carefully to what others have asked, stating what one wants, or standing one’s ground there is the danger of losing the relationship. This fear is based on how past relationships have gone in a person’s life and is formed at a young age when the child’s idea of how relationship works develops.
For example, if a mother yelled at her son every time he acted out as a child (again, moving against) the child would begin to cope with these conflicts predominately in one of three ways depending on his disposition. If he tends toward moving against there would be a lot of arguments and even more acting out on the part of the son. If he tends toward moving toward there would be a lot of “good” behavior on the part of the son, maybe even taking on some of the mother’s responsibilities to prove his value. And if he tends toward moving away, he would retreat into his own world each time there is conflict, hiding in books, movies, friends, or even porn.
What becomes interesting is when, as adults, we take our coping mechanisms into our romantic relationships. I hate to appear the pessimist here, but behind our process of “falling in love” is the subtle hooking up of our primary coping mechanisms, which means the subtle hooking up of past relationship dynamics with someone unrelated to that past. When a relationship “feels right” it’s usually because it’s a familiar dynamic. And maybe this time, as our unconscious hopes, things will be different.
Well, fast forward when conflict arises. And please note: conflict always arises; it’s part of being human. The illusions created by our hopes and dreams of our relationships being different begin to evaporate as reality sets in: Did you pay that bill? I need more time with you. Why is the sink still broken? You need to be making more money. Why were you looking at her like that?
If we aren’t mindful of the way we deal with conflict, and even if we are, we settle very rapidly into our old patterns of behavior. She moves against and I move away. She moves against and I move against. I move against and she moves toward.
Crisis comes when one or both of the parties in the relationship simply cannot live in the dynamic with integrity anymore. The disparity between how a person feels on the inside and how he is behaving on the outside becomes too great. He is tired of moving against, toward, or away whenever there is conflict; he would rather listen, speak his mind, and have his mind be heard.
The trouble is, people who want change often trade one coping mechanism for another. Someone who tends to move toward may finally have had enough with accommodating everyone and will begin to move against. Or someone who tends toward moving against may suddenly move away, especially if faced with someone who suddenly starts moving against him. This isn’t change in a fundamental way; this is just change in coping mechanisms. The pressure within the relationship simply found a new outlet.
The only option if real change is to be achieved is through non-violent resistance. If you stop moving against, moving toward, or moving away from the person with whom you are in conflict the greater the chance is that the person with whom you are in conflict will look at her own coping mechanisms and decide on her own to change for herself because she recognizes how much her behavior has prevented her from maintaining meaningful relationship just as your behavior has prevented you from maintaining meaningful relationship.
Fundamentals of Non-violent Resistance
Non-violent resistance is the fourth option to the three coping mechanisms. And one would not call non-violent resistance a coping mechanism because non-violent resistance is the opposite of a coping mechanism – non-violent resistance is about recognizing the oppression that one is under in a dysfunctional relationship and finding a new and creative approach to dealing with that oppression without perpetuating the oppression by moving against, toward, or away.
And yes, when you are in a dysfunctional relationship it is oppressive to have your partner move against, toward, or away whenever there is conflict. Against is clearly oppressive, but toward and away are also oppressive in that they deny the opportunity for both parties in the relationship to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and provided equal standing.
There are four main tenets to non-violent resistance within intimate relationships. If you follow these four main tenets moment-by-moment, each and every day of your interactions with your spouse/partner, you will watch your relationship organically transform into what God intended it to be:
- You Have a Right to Be in the Center
- Remain in the Center
- Focus on Your Own Growth
- Remaining in the Center is an Act of Compassion
When I write “moment-by-moment” I mean that this is a spiritual practice that can only be achieved in the now and developed over a lifetime of mindful decision-making. For example, there may be conflict between you and your spouse. Your spouse may move against you (e.g. yelling). You must recognize that it is conflict. You must recognize that you are triggered to engage your main coping mechanism as developed from childhood. You must chose to remain in the center instead of moving against, toward, or away from the conflict regardless of your spouse continuing to move against, toward, or away from you.
Ultimately, this means that you must become comfortable with the outcome of the conflict whatever it may be as you recognize that you cannot control another person’s behavior; you can only control your own.
Number One: You Have a Right to Be in the Center
The first thing all oppressed people need to accept is that they have a fundamental right to be in the center. And when I write “center” I mean that we all have a right, when in a relationship, to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and provided equal standing. It doesn’t mean that we will get that from everyone in our lives but it does mean that we have that right if we choose to accept it.
Much of this gets back to self-worth, which also gets back to our main coping mechanisms as developed in childhood. Coping mechanisms developed when we, as children, were in relationship with our caregivers. Caregivers do not always have the ability or wherewithal to see, hear, acknowledge, or provide equal standing to a child. If a child learns that he is not important enough to be seen, heard, acknowledged, or provided equal standing his self-worth suffers and when there is conflict the child moves against, toward, or away from the bigger, more powerful caregiver for fear of losing that relationship. This is the nature of conditional love.
Well, the first step in non-violent resistance in intimate relationships is to accept the reality that you deserve to be in the center; you deserve to have a place at the table; you deserve the right to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and provided equal standing in your relationship. For many people this may be the first time in their lives when they have begun to accept this reality and act on it. The trick to non-violent resistance in intimate relationships, however, is not to trade one coping mechanism for another but instead to remain in the center.
Number Two: Remain in the Center
Practically speaking, remaining in the center means not only having and holding boundaries, but also learning what your boundaries are. It also means, depending on your main coping mechanism, respecting the boundaries of others.
For instance, for someone whose main coping mechanism is moving toward or away, remaining in the center means to state a boundary regarding what you will or will not do in a relationship and no matter how much your spouse or partner moves against you holding your boundary calmly, firmly, and mindfully. One pictures the lunch-counter sit-ins in the South during the Civil Rights era. While I hope no one’s intimate relationship ever becomes this violent – and if it does one might want to consider holding a boundary as firm as physical distance – those non-violent protesters recognized their right to be at that counter; remained in the center without moving against, toward, or away; took the brunt of the segregationists’ physical abuse and humiliation; and allowed their counterparts’ violent behavior to reflect on them.
For someone whose main coping mechanism is moving against, remaining in the center means listening to your spouse or partner’s wants, needs, or desires and even if they contradict with what you want, need, or desire respecting them without bowling them over. In other words, in life and in relationships you get some of the cookies, not all of them.
As I stated, such a practice requires a great deal of mindfulness. And I use the word “practice” intentionally. It is a practice, both emotionally and spiritually (we’ll get to this in a moment), to be conscious of your daily interactions with others and the ways in which you are triggered to engage in your main coping mechanism when in conflict. When you are triggered, you have a choice to remain in the center instead of moving against, toward, or away. You have a choice to listen to what the other person has to say, respect his or her boundaries, and hold your own.
Number Three: Focus on Your Own Growth
Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn in life is that you cannot control someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior. One might think that you can, but you can’t. You can influence them, but you cannot control them. And the best way to influence them, as I have noted, is to remain in the center. A commitment not to move against, toward, or away when in conflict allows the other person the opportunity to look at her own tendency to do the same and decide to change on her own. As a core mantra of non-violent resistance points out, “what you resist persists.”
The truth is, when you are in conflict with your spouse, and you are triggered to engage in coping mechanisms, you are not coming up against your spouse; you are coming up against you. As noted, our main coping mechanisms developed when we were in our childhoods. These coping mechanisms provided us with the psychological security that those people closest to us wouldn’t leave us. To challenge these coping mechanisms and not engage in them is to challenge our own fears of abandonment.
To maintain relationships this way is to live in fear not in love. Remaining in the center requires that we challenge our worthiness to be loved. It challenges us to discover and be ourselves and allow other people to decide whether or not they want to accept us. To remain in the center accepts the reality that some people may like who we fundamentally are and others may not. It also accepts the reality that having people in our lives who love us unconditionally is freedom.
This means that when engaging in non-violent resistance within an intimate relationship the focus is not on your spouse or partner, the focus is on you. This is with the understanding that you cannot control another person’s behavior, only your own, and that through your personal growth not only do you benefit, but your spouse or partner benefits because, in you growing, it provides the opportunity for her to grow too.
Number Four: Remaining in the Center is an Act of Compassion
Change is scary. Tap into your own fears as you practice remaining in the center and you’ll tap into the fears of your spouse or partner as the familiar dynamic she was accustomed to, a familiar dynamic that provided her with psychological safety, disappears. This fear may cause a desperate exchange of coping mechanisms in order to manipulate you into returning to the old dynamic.
For instance, as you change, your partner’s moving against coping mechanism may be exchanged for a moving toward. A man who discovers that his dominance in a relationship no longer keeps his spouse moving toward him (accommodating) may revert to crying and begging, even threats of suicide, in the hope that his spouse or partner won’t change. All of these behaviors demonstrate fear, which has nothing to do with the spouse or partner who is striving to remain in the center; it has to do with her counterpart’s insecurities about being lovable.
Now, there are two ways to respond to your spouse or partner’s experience as you practice remaining in the center. You can take pleasure in the fact that she is scared and panicked, or you can have compassion.
Taking pleasure in her fear, apart from being cruel, limits your own growth for the very reason that doing so is a moving against tactic. It may not be directly moving against, but acting in such a way that you know will cause her pain, while not being direct aggression, is passive aggression. Passive aggression isn’t focusing on your own growth; passive aggression is focusing on hurting another person, a moving against tactic.
Remaining in the center requires compassion as remaining in the center is an act of compassion. Just as you engaging in your main coping mechanism prevented you from finding and promoting unconditionally loving relationships so too has it for your spouse or partner. Therefore, when you stop engaging in your coping mechanism and remain in the center in order to grow up, it allows your partner a unique, if not exceptional, opportunity to do the same. To have compassion for someone is to do for her what you would like her to do for you.
This is the essential quality of parenthood and, as you mindfully remain in the center, you are compassionately re-parenting yourself. And, in a sense, when you remain in the center, you are re-parenting your spouse or partner as well. You’re not doing the work for him or her, but you are providing him or her with the fertile ground in which to grow.
A good parent holds loving boundaries with his child. And when you consider that our coping mechanisms date back to childhood, being forced to relinquish our coping mechanisms and respect and hold boundaries requires that we go back to a very young place in our emotional development in order to gain those skills that weren’t gained at a younger age. This is unfinished business but business that needs to be finished with a partner in order for both of you to truly grow up and individuate. This, in my opinion, is the beauty of marriage, not necessarily that you have a date on Saturday night.
How Our Faith Life Plays a Role in Change
Violence (moving against) nor accommodation (moving toward) nor isolation (moving away) fundamentally change anything. Violence leads to more violence; accommodation and isolation allow violence to perpetuate. This is reality. The only option we have if we want true change for our relationships, the world, or ourselves is through non-violent resistance.
A fundamental aspect of non-violent resistance is the acceptance that the outcome of our commitment to non-violent resistance is ultimately uncertain. We know that violence, accommodation, and isolation don’t achieve change, but we also accept the reality that, as Mahatma Gandhi taught, we can only be the change we wish to see in the world. The rest is up to Uncertainty, Possibility, the Unknown.
How one chooses to embrace the Unknown is up to him or her. As I point out in God’s Invitations: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality, there are many options. I can’t get into all of them and I don’t know all of them. I am, however, a Christian, and so too are most of the people who are reading this. So exploring the Unknown in terms of Christian belief only seems fitting.
It’s easy as Christians, or any followers of religion or ideology, to become beholden to the “rules.” And if we follow the rules then we will be right with God and our community. The problem here is that if we follow the rules and then things aren’t right with God or our community there is the possibility of abandoning both out of disappointment and anger.
This is often the case with our intimate relationships. We did things right. We pursued a person of the opposite sex. We waited before marriage to have sex. We maintained that man is the head of the household. We had children. We went to church. We stayed committed. We remained faithful. Yet we still fought. We still engaged in a tug of war over wants and desires. We were still miserable. Where was God?
Well, God was there. God is always there. But ultimately the outcome of any of our relationships is not up to us. It’s up to the other person as well and we cannot control the other person. The other person has a mind of her own. The other person may not choose to improve. The other person may not choose you. That’s reality.
Christian faith in terms of non-violent resistance in intimate relationships is about recognizing your right to be in the center, remaining in the center, focusing on your own growth, and having compassion for yourself and others. It’s about doing the work and trusting that God will work things out as God will work things out, whatever that may be.
Christ did not lead a life of certainty. He was the Messiah, yet he was not the Messiah that the ancient Jews had been expecting. He was not the Messiah who would lead a mighty rebellion to reclaim the thrown in Jerusalem. He was the Suffering Servant of God who died on a cross for the sins of the world. Everyone abandoned him, even his own disciples, yet he remained true to His call; He remained true to what He could control, and He let God do with the rest as God saw fit.
If we are truly to take the Gospel as our model, it is not a message of rule following. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount directly contradicts the rule following of the Jewish majority at the time. The Gospel is about the heart and the heart is not about control or domination; it’s about personal growth (sanctification) and compassion.
Individuation is an ability to be true to yourself and your values despite the climate in which you are set and there was no one more individuated than Christ. Christ had a call. And Christ, despite countless temptations, followed his call to the cross. He didn’t deviate left or right, but non-violently resisted the Romans, the religious Jews, and even His disciples. He didn’t participate in their violence for the sake of justice and as a result He changed the hearts and minds of billions throughout history.
As Christians, we all have the same call Christ had. Few of us, thankfully, will be called to die on a cross for the sake of non-violent resistance. However, we are all called to non-violently resist when found in oppressive relationships for the sake of our own growth and out of compassion for others.
None of this means that we must put up with physical or emotional violence. It does mean that we call violence for what it is and not participate in it. Sometimes not participating in it is a matter of getting well away from the person who is physically or emotionally violent. Sometimes it may mean divorce. But it never means to be violent in return. That just brings more suffering to yourself and the world and it also doesn’t allow the oppressor’s violence to reflect on him.
My hope is that couples can learn to trust the container of marriage, which means remain married, committed, and focused on the work. I see truth in the Biblical prohibition against divorce. Not because it’s a matter of rule-following, especially to please God, but instead because marriage is the most fertile opportunity given by God for us finally to achieve internal freedom from difficult childhoods. Apart from physical and extreme emotional abuse, running from marriage is essentially running from yourself.
But, again, it takes two people to maintain a relationship. If one wants out and is disinterested in facing him or herself, there is not much one can do about that. And if the marriage dissolves, the person pursuing non-violent resistance will take his maturity with him, and the next relationship will benefit.
With this view, love and marriage is about much more than making us feel good. Love and marriage is about sticking it out as both of you work through childhood issues and get to a point where relationship isn’t about the past anymore, it is about the person who is right in front of you; relationship isn’t about fear; it’s about joy and contentment. To get there when conflict reaches critical mass requires non-violent resistance if real change is to be achieved. And it requires a deep faith in God that transcends our current circumstances. God is faithful, and God will work things out as they will be.