One busy afternoon I was preparing some food that would be served for the family. I set a pot of water on the stove, turned the heat on high, and promptly forgot about it. Okay, I admit it, I became absorbed in reading something on my phone, and it wasn’t until I heard the unmistakable sound of water spilling over the edge of the pot onto the stovetop that I remembered what I was supposed to be doing. Oops.
Sometimes disagreements can be a lot like a pot of water set on a hot stove. A disagreement might start out small. Whose turn is it to make dinner? Should your daughter add playing on a basketball team to her already-full schedule? How much money should you be saving each month? You begin discussing things in a calm and rational tone, but before you know it your voices are raised, your words have become hurtful, your mind is racing with angry thoughts, and doors may even be slamming. Your pot is boiling over. This is rarely a constructive way to solve problems or work through conflict. What can you do to keep your pot from boiling over?
Most of us will instinctively recognize the signs that the temperature is rising. Some of these indicators are physical. Your pulse quickens, your face flushes, and you might feel tension coming on. Mentally, you find that your thoughts are racing, you might not be thinking rationally any longer, and the anger or the hurt is tempting you to lash out, or to become argumentative.
Like a pot that is boiling over, the simplest solution is to remove the pot from the heat. When a disagreement reaches this point, it’s time for a break. The best thing that you can do is tell the person you are disagreeing with that you are overwhelmed, and that you need to take a break in order to collect your thoughts. But be specific; it won’t work to storm out the door for an indefinite period of time with no explanation. Instead, specify how long you intend to be alone, and reassure your partner that you are committed to trying again when you get back together. Take whatever time you need to go for a walk to clear your head, talk with a trusted friend who can give you wise and honest feedback, or practice a hobby that can help relax you.
Sometimes, though, taking the time apart can feel like things are getting worse rather than better. Does this sound familiar? You’ve separated from the person you’ve having a conflict with but rather than calming down, your mind continues to race. You rehearse the million other times that they’ve treated you the same way; you convince yourself that they don’t really love you; or you make a list of all their faults. Instead of calming down, you’re only getting angrier. What now?
Here’s where the “boiling pot” analogy breaks down – I’m not sure what the culinary parallel looks like here! It's as if your pot is heating itself. If your anger is only getting worse, this is a sign that there may be deeper issues that need to be addressed. Begin by asking the Holy Spirit to guide your thought process in ways that will uncover both truth and grace.
Often, the intense emotions that we feel can be a mixture of feelings knotted together. At first glance, we might be feeling intense anger, but anger is a response to some deeper emotion. On further reflection, we might realize that we are also feeling fear, insecurity, and hurt. Processing your reaction means pulling apart the various strands of emotion and identifying what is all going on.
Once you can pull apart the varied strands of emotion that created the intensity, it’s time to examine each of them in more detail. Imagine taking each emotion off of the shelf and turning it over in order to examine it in closer detail. What was it about that particular comment that was so hurtful? The ferocity of our anger might be explained by the fact that something said made us feel insecure, and therefore anxious. Or, we might realize that a particular tone of voice stirred something in us that led us to feel more defensive that we should have been. Explore what is getting hooked in your heart that triggered the emotions. Our reactions often have more to say about our inner emotional state than what someone else said. As you process your triggers, you’re also evaluating your emotions. Sometimes, anger is the appropriate response to a situation; if your spouse is belittling or controlling, anger is a righteous response (as long as we express it in appropriate ways). If they said something that wasn’t intended to hurt, you might have to remind yourself that losing your temper “doesn’t produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20). So often our emotions are masking our own pain and insecurities and we need to confront those feelings with God’s grace.
No conflict can be avoided for long. Eventually, you and your spouse, your friend, your son or daughter will have to face the issue that caused the problem in the first place. But now that you’ve had a chance to examine and evaluate what set you off, you are better prepared to tackle the issue at hand. You might start by saying something like, “Thank you for giving me the chance to cool down and collect my thoughts. I’ve had time to consider my reaction, and I think the reason that I got so fired up was because…” and then you share what you’ve come to understand about your response. Your goal here is not to point the finger or to justify what you’ve done, but simply to explain where you are coming from. You may also need to explain what you need from your spouse in order to avoid “boiling over” next time. You may also ask them to do the same and be prepared to hear how you can respond differently in the future to prevent boil-overs.
There is a piece of wisdom given to us by a man named Agur – “As the churning of cream produces butter, and the twisting of a nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” When conflict flares we sometimes find ourselves in a pattern in which we are “twisting the nose” on purpose. We let our pots boil over and allow our anger to fuel the strife between us. Try something different. Give yourself and your partner time apart to cool things down, process your reactions, and work through the conflict without stirring up the anger. Conflict can be a path to healing personal and relational wounds if we learn how to approach it constructively.