Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, when we first heard about the horrors at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a field southeast of Pittsburgh. I remember. But it pains me to do so.
I was standing in my kitchen staring down at the phone, mentally reciting all the reasons my fury was justified. My husband, Art, had made me so mad that morning. It was just another little thing added on top of too many other stuffed things, and the accumulated impact had pushed me into the retaliation zone. When Art called me on his way to work, all the stuffing I'd been doing for months blasted out in a long list of everything I felt was wrong with him. When he didn't respond to my tirade the way I wanted him to, I slammed down the phone.
Then I stared. And fumed. And made hateful lists.
Art called back a few minutes later. "What do you want!?" I said, every word dripping with bitterness.
His voice was surprisingly somber. "Lys, turn on the TV. I think you should go get the kids from school." I picked up the television remote and clicked. I gasped. And when I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I immediately jumped into my car to pick up my children from school.
In the weeks that followed, I watched hundreds of stories unfold on the news. And I intentionally faced up to the cold, hard reality that I had taken love for granted. So very for granted.
A new perspective
I don't enjoy remembering the awful fight Art and I had on that frightful day, but I do try to remember the clearheadedness it gave me about what's really important to me. Many people sent their loved ones off to work or the airport that day and never saw them again. What if my stuffed-and-spewed words had been the last conversation I'd ever had with my husband? That thought made me shudder. And I don't say that in a cheesy, feel-the-emotion-in-the-moment kind of way. I say it in a perspective-changing way. A way that shook me and made me realize how damaging stuffing and collecting retaliation rocks can be.
I love my husband and I love keeping the peace between us. But I feel so safe with my husband that I'll act out in ways with him I wouldn't dare act out with others. With others I am cool, calm and collected. With the man I love I can get quiet in a mean way. That means my outside is quiet, but my inside is anything but. Beneath the surface, I am an emotional stone factory, churning out rocks — rocks I'll collect and collect and collect and collect. Until one day, wham! Something happens and all that stuffing erupts, and I "rock" his world.
I stuff as a false way to keep the peace. True peacekeeping isn't about stopping the emotion. Remember, emotions move — inward or outward — whether we want them to or not. True peacekeeping is about properly processing the emotions before they get stuffed and rot into something horribly toxic.
A new approach
So, how do we process these emotions before stuffing them? Allow me to describe the strategy I use to deal with rocks I'm stuffing.
I ask myself one crucial question — so crucial, might I dare say, that not asking it will lead to conflict escalation rather than relationship restoration. So, what is this crucial question?
Am I trying to prove or improve?
In other words, is my desire in this conflict to prove that I am right, or is my desire to improve the relationship?
When I try to prove I am right, I use the stuffed emotion to justify my rock-manufacturing activity. Hurt upon hurt builds rock upon rock as I amass lots of proof that I am right and the other person is wrong. Then, when my stuffing eventually leads to an explosion, I am armed with a rock pile of past hurts and offenses and ready to make my case. Prove my case. Win my case, at all costs. I react from a place of hurt and anger and say things I later regret.
On the other hand, when my desire is to improve the relationship, I seek to understand where the other person is coming from and care enough about the relationship to fight for it rather than against it. Instead of reacting out of anger, I pause and let the Holy Spirit redirect my first impulses.
Then I tackle the issues, not the person.
Art and I have renamed what we used to call fights. We now call our occasional spats "growth opportunities." And isn't growth a desirable goal in any relationship? Working on healthy strategies is worth it. Even if we do it imperfectly, any progress is good. After all, we are the ones who benefit from healthy processing. Our relationships will improve. Our outlooks will be more positive. We'll start to see biblical truths come alive in our lives, which will strengthen our relationships with God. And we'll learn to identify rough edges within ourselves that need attention.Lysa TerKeurst is the president of Proverbs 31 Ministries and the New York Times best-selling author of Made to Crave and The Best Yes.