Resolving Conflict Through a Posture of Curiosity
“We should not fix our desire on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”
From St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation
Conflict in marriage is not only normal, but can be a most poignant and truthful teacher. It truly does have “the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.” But that doesn’t make it easy, seamless, or particularly enjoyable. The good news is, conflict in partnership means that we are not hiding from each other.
Often in marital discord, our need to be right reveals what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” (what pschyoanalysts call “the ego”). The false self believes being right will make itself more real. But our true self is found in God: It is “hidden with Christ in heavenly places (Col. 3:3).” We can know union with God through this true self. The true self has no particular need to be right. It is never offended. It holds opposites in tension and integrates them.
In marriage we bump up against opposites at a very fundamental level. Our path of union with our partner is the path of integration in a very embodied way. Our relationship with our partner is the epitome of a duality: two distinct persons seeking union in soul, body, and spirit. Conflict is inevitable and is like an x-ray machine revealing pockets of our false self that we haven’t yet faced. This can be a wonderful teacher, showing us the power of our disordered attachments and where in our lives they originate. Once we identify them, we can then seek freedom from them.
So how do we cultivate a posture of Ignatian indifference to the false self? As Ignatius writes in the Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises, “We should not fix our desire on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” Here we could add for our purposes, “On being right or being wrong.”
These fixations — things that we are “fixing our desire” on — are what Ignatius calls inordinate or unhealthy attachments. They keep us from spiritual freedom. In marital conflict, our stubborn attachment to being right is often rooted in something far deeper, something that is keeping us in toxic unfreedom. This is why conflict can be a blessed revelation. When it brings up pain, defensiveness, anger, or fear, it also brings up the opportunity to examine the root of it.
We can cultivate compassion toward our emotional responses instead of going to war against them and trying to cut them out of our lives. They are there for a reason. If we are curious about them, we might be able to enter into the real desires of our souls; desires that are deeper than our fearful clingings, desires that are more true.
Curiosity requires that we be neither defensive nor offensive. We are simply interested in the way things are, both within ourselves and within our spouse. Paradoxically, the path to spiritual freedom is not trying to wrestle our disordered attachments to the ground, but to simply wonder about them — and by this wondering, understand them. Only then can we know the places we need to ask God’s Spirit to come and heal us.
Questions for Individual Consideration:
Before going off individually, together identify one of two things: 1) the most pressing unresolved conflict between you currently, or 2) a certain conflict that seems to come around cyclically.
Now individually find a quiet space for prayer. Prepare to take an internal posture of curiosity about your desires and your partner’s desires in this conflict.
Start with your own desires. Ask yourself, what word or phrase describes my desires in this conflict? The following steps may be helpful:
- Acknowledge and call upon God: “Help me to understand my desires in this moment.”
- Invite the Holy Spirit into your imagination: Wait for a picture, word, phrase or anything that helps you name and identify your desires in this conflict. It is important not to censor yourself. Write down anything that comes to mind. Allow yourself time, silence, and space.
- Journal, if it helps you, or think: How does this picture, phrase, word, etc. inform this task of naming your desire in this conflict?
Now do the same practice for what you perceive your spouse desires in this conflict.
Return to each other and take turns sharing both what desires you identified within yourself and the one(s) you perceive your spouse to be harboring. Speak vulnerably and listen with curiosity. Create a safe space without judgment or offense. Seek understanding.
About the Retreat Leaders
Shannon K. Evans is the author of “Rewilding Motherhood,” “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World” and “Luminous: A 30-Day Journal for Accepting Your Body, Honoring Your Soul, and Finding Your Joy.” Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.
Eric Evans is a spiritual director who earned his certification from St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. An alumnus of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School, he has served as a breakout session facilitator at the CAC’s international Conspire conference and has led retreats and centering prayer groups in local contexts. Prior to opening his spiritual direction practice, Eric served five years in parish ministry as director of music and campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Student Center in Ames, IA. He has also lived and ministered in overseas contexts such as South Africa and Indonesia. Eric’s practice of spiritual accompaniment is rooted in both Ignatian and Benedictine values.