Do you know how wars start?
I’m not just talking about the wars fought with guns and tanks, I’m talking about the wars fought between people. Before we can understand why relationships go sour, couples separate in anger and why little misunderstandings can turn into feuds that last for years, we must first understand the exact moment a conflict starts.
Conflict starts when the other person strikes back.
This is contrary to the wisdom of the playground, the place where we first learned to shirk our personal responsibility.
Here is the most common response from a child who has been accused of fighting.
He started it.
The problem is you and I buy this narrative hook, line and sinker.
We buy it because we live in a culture that glorifies revenge as justification for violence toward others. Everything from politics to professional sports to Hollywood movies reinforce the idea that when someone hurts you, you have the right to hurt them back. It leaves us with a false sense of hierarchy, and a mistaken belief that on some fundamental level there is a difference between the person who strikes first and the person who strikes second, but there isn’t.
In the mind of an attacker, every act of violence is justified.
Even when we can point to an initial act of physical violence, there is always a perceived act of wrong-doing that precedes it. How often do we hear about a rapist who has been himself sexually abused? How many abusive husbands had abusive fathers? How many people that we consider terrorists are simply retaliating against the violence that was brought to their own country?
What if every single act of violence is also an act of revenge? In fact, when we zoom out far enough the terms “attacker” and “defender” get blurred to the point of them becoming one in the same.
We didn’t start the fire,
it was always burning
since the world’s been turning.
So how do we stop? How do we break the chain?
Let’s Talk About Jesus
Whatever wrong-doing you think you’ve endured, Jesus probably had it worse. He fed the poor, helped the needy and wanted people to experience heaven on earth. What did he get in return? He got beat up, hated on and chastised in every conceivable way.
How did he respond?
Did he start a smear campaign and write nasty blog posts about Pontius Pilate? Did he strap suicide bomber vests on the twelve apostles and terrorize Roman citizens? Did he escape from captivity, don a black trench coat filled with uzis and systematically murder each of his captors?
No. That’s because Jesus didn’t buy the wisdom of the playground. He understood that violence breeds more violence and if he were to strike back against his attackers he would be no better than them.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38)
This same wisdom of non-violence is what made leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela so successful. They ignored the urge to operate at the same level as their oppressors, and in doing so exposed the injustices that were taking place, allowing real change and real progress to occur.
How Does This Apply To Relationships?
The better you are at ending wars, the happier your relationships will be.
After you’ve been in a relationship for a while you have history, and in that history are all the wrong-doings you feel the other person has committed at your expense. Maybe they squashed your freedom by not wanting you to take that weekend trip with your friends, maybe they complained when you wanted sex, or maybe they just forgot your birthday that one time and you got really upset.
Your perception, either conscious or unconscious is that you’ve been wronged. Now enter the revenge narrative we’ve been conditioned to believe. Since you’ve been done wrong, what should you do?
Get back at them, of course.
I always do the dishes, why don’t you do it for once?
You are secretly taking revenge, but they have no idea why. You might not even know why, all you know is that it feels justified. Now your partner feels hurt so what do they do?
What?!? I take care of the kids all day, the least you could do is help with the dishes.
Et voilá. War has begun. Depending on how much resentment is built up, this situation can even escalate to physical violence or the couple breaking up in anger. All because we couldn’t stop pointing fingers and saying “she started it”.
What Can We Do If We’re Not Jesus?
Let’s be honest here, we’re human. When we get provoked it’s hard not to retaliate, so what are some practical ways to navigate this problem that don’t involve simply “being like Jesus”? I’m glad you asked.
Here are a few communication games my wife and I play to help break this pattern.
The Violent Communication Game
The violent communication game, formerly known as the “non-defensive game” is an exercise in reprogramming the habit of defending yourself. It’s a play on non-violent communication, which is the practice of speaking to your partner in a non-triggering way (you can also read about my experience with NVC).
The violent communication game is the opposite.
One partner starts and says something they think would trigger the other person in a blunt, direct manner. For example, my wife might say something like this.
You don’t really love me, you just use me to feel better about yourself.
My only job in responding is to not be defensive, so instead of responding with a justification for why I really do love her, I work to see the truth in what she says and affirm her statement.
I can see how that’s true. In fact just this morning when we were with our friends James and Lindsay I saw how I made a mean comment just to get a laugh at your expense.
Then we take a deep breath.
I’m building up the habit of not defending myself, and in doing so allowing my partner to actually be heard and be given a voice. It’s quite remarkable what transpires when we stop needing to defend ourselves.
What I’m Withholding
This is another extremely powerful way to release the subtle ways in which we hold resentments against each other before they fester into verbal abuse. We turn off our phones, relax into a space where we can fully be with each other, and take turns sharing what we are withholding from each other.
Sometimes they are little things, sometimes they are big things, but whatever gets said, the agreement is it’s heard and received from a space of non-judgement. At the end of the exercise we always feel lighter, often having shed resentments we didn’t even realize we were carrying.
For some couples doing this for the first time, it can be hard, because we might be holding in big secrets. Before sharing, the key is to be in a loving space, and as soon as the mood goes sour, stop the game and return to love before resuming.
What’s Between Us?
This is a game we made up last year at IntimacyFest, and it’s become a big hit ever since. It’s about speaking into the feeling of separation between two people, and it can be done in a romantic relationship, friendship, business partnership or just two strangers meetings for the first time. Here are some examples.
What’s between us is I’m resenting you for not inviting me to the movies.
What’s between us is I’m insecure that you make more money than me.
What’s between us is I’m attracted to you.
What’s between us is I judge you for being shallow.
This game is a direct way to address the elephant in the room between two people so you can feel closer and more connected.
I’d like to talk about a statement made by Byron Katie, which was the inspiration for this article.
Defense is the first act of war.
If we only understood and lived the profound truth of this statement the effect it could have on our lives would be astronomical. Conflicts would be short lived, wars would be nonexistent and most importantly, people would finally return to the power of personal responsibility.
Response-ability. It’s cheesy but it’s true. No one can take away our ability to respond with compassion, and the extent to which we can exercise that power is the extent we will be free and happy in our relationships.
Defense is the first act of war. We have, and have always had the power to stop wars, and we don’t have to be Jesus to do it.
We just have to stop defending ourselves.