When I am in a conflict with someone, my mind swirls and it’s hard to find a firm place to stand. I vacillate between believing terrible things about myself, and believing terrible things about the other person. I rehearse tragic conversations in my mind, and I can’t seem to stop. When I’m in a conflict with someone, it tends to occupy every square inch of empty real estate in my mind, and it’s exhausting.
Imagine yourself as a circle, where the edges are the fixed boundaries that define your space. Imagine the person with whom you are in conflict the same way, a circle with fixed boundaries that define their space. Now, map out the two circles on a sheet of paper, in a way that demonstrates how you are interacting with that person. Are the two circles on opposite sides of the paper? Are they overlapping? Are they right next to each other?
If the two circles are on opposite sides of the paper, it means you’re not really interacting, either in person or in your mind. There may be a conflict, but it seems to be out of sight, out of mind. People call this conflict avoidance, but I think that’s a misnomer. It’s conversation avoidance, not conflict avoidance. The conflict is there. And over time, unresolved conflict shows up in weird ways, in sore shoulders and sickness. It sabotages future relationships, because that unresolved conflict remains.
You cannot resolve conflict when the circles are far apart.
But if the two circles are overlapping, there is an unhealthy degree of intrusion. The person with whom you’re in conflict has entered your space (and you have entered theirs), and now you are both taking up real estate where you do not belong. You may be constantly interacting, both in person and in your mind, but you’re not getting anywhere. Overlapping circles may look intimate, but they actually become prisons forged not from love, but from the need to control each other. I do not think the edges of your circle are meant to be permeable, granting access to another human being. Even in your most intimate relationships, you need to remain you, and they need to remain them.
You cannot resolve conflict when the circles are overlapping.
In his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the difference between what he calls human love (where two people demand to invade the circle of the other) and spiritual love (where two people allow Jesus to remain in between them).
This is what he writes about human love:
“Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into his own hands. It loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by any means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule.”
And this is what he writes about spiritual love:
“Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the one he loves. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself.”
“Spiritual love will meet the other person with the clear word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ.”
Because I believe that Jesus is the actual Prince of Peace who is always working to help people build something new out of something that has been broken, I find it helpful to imagine Jesus as a third circle which represents a new space where two people can meet. Jesus is the host of this new space, where each person can remain fully intact and not spill over into each other. I visualize this sometimes when I am spending time with someone with whom I feel conflicted. There is Jesus, in between us, so that my space and the other person’s space remains separate. Jesus can stand in that place that I cannot. And from that place, I can interact without losing myself, or forcing myself on someone else.
It takes courage to stand in a new place where you do not try to overlap someone else’s space. It takes courage to meet someone else and say the true thing, then leave him or her with Jesus when necessary, so that Jesus may be with him or her without you forcing yourself upon them. It takes courage to let Jesus both affirm and challenge you where you need it most.
What would it look like for you to respect the line that has been drawn between you and the other person, when you realize that line has been drawn by Jesus himself?