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Destructive Conflict: Recognize It. Stop It.

“Danger. Pesticides. Keep people, especially children and pets away from the area being treated,” read the signs posted along the path. I swung wide to the left, being careful to lead my dog away from the toxic environment as we continued our afternoon walk. For the remainder of the walk, I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if people came with warning signs, too? ‘Danger: Toxic Person.’ ‘Warning: Destructive Conflict Ahead.’”

In a sense, they do. Destructive conflict flows from unhealthy people and relationships. Where there is destructive conflict, you will often find a pattern of cruelty, neglect, deception, control, indifference and even abuse in the relationship. What differentiates destructive conflict from healthy disagreement is that it involves a pattern of unhealthy communication. Destructive conflict flows from individuals who consistently fail to admit their weakness, lie, rationalize, deny, apologize instead of changing their behavior, blame others instead of “owning” their part of the problem and who are defensive instead of open to feedback. Similar to ingesting poison, a steady diet of destructively conflict can kill you—emotionally, spiritually and even physically.

Just ask David .

Destructive Conflict

He is still working to overcome the damage caused by destructive conflict. Raised in a home where conflict deteriorated into emotional, verbal and even physical abuse, he grew up thinking the way he was treated was “normal.” “While in college I accepted Christ,” says David. “He helped me to forgive my abusers and brought healthy relationships into my life. Unfortunately, my abusers didn’t change; and for years I could not deal with the emotional fallout.” To overcome the damage caused by years of unhealthy conflict, David attended anger management classes at a local church, worked with a mentor, and continues to see a Christian psychologist, who is helping him apply biblical truth to his sense of self and his relationships. “My abusive family members haven’t changed,” says David. “I have.”

How to Deal with Destructive Conflict

Leslie Vernick, licensed clinical social worker and author of The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It, works with individuals like David. She identifies three steps, based on Matthew 18:15-17, we should take when dealing with destructive conflict:

Speak up. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15 NIV). “God calls us to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers,” points out Vernick. She says pursuing peace might mean risking conflict in order to bring about a genuine peace (Ps. 34:14; Heb. 12:14 NIV). Speaking up is very different from venting, which can have negative consequences. We should speak the truth to someone in love after we have spent time praying and preparing for our time together. Approach that person in gentleness and with humility (Gal. 6:1 NIV).

Stand up. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16 NIV). God calls us to stand against sin, evil, deception, abuse and wickedness. When others are blind to their sin, God calls us to enlist the help of others. With a supportive person or church by your side, say, “I will not continue to live in fear,” “be lied to” or “be degraded.”

Step back. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt. 18:17 NIV),” says Jesus. In biblical culture, Jews did not have close, personal relationships with pagans and tax collectors. Vernick says when someone refuses to respond to our concerns, the relationship changes. “You cannot have fellowship with someone who refuses to respect your feelings, doesn’t care about you, won’t respect you and who isn’t honest.” When we step back from the relationship, it helps minimize the damage and gives the other person time to reflect on his behavior and the relationship. It sends a message that a pattern of sinful, destructive behaviors is unacceptable to us and to God.

She points out that even when we find it necessary to step back from a situation, God calls us to love. The apostle Paul says, “We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us” (1 Cor. 4:12 NIV). And in Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm (NIV).”

As we learn to identify destructive conflict and apply God’s Word to our situations, we can minimize its damage in our lives. What’s more, we move from victim to victor, honoring God in even the most difficult of circumstances.