Last month, as my oldest son and I watched the Chicago Blackhawks win game six of the Stanley Cup Finals, he pointed out something a little startling during the post-game on-ice celebration. In the 1990s, when it was the Bulls bringing championships to Chicago, at the final buzzer, their defeated opponent would immediately sprint for the locker room, hiding from the victors and their joy.
But last month, the defeated Tampa Bay Lightning did no such thing.
They waited patiently, for many minutes, as the Blackhawks celebrated together. Then, both sets of men lined up, as they’ve been doing since they were little boys, and they slowly moved past each other, giving handshakes and hugs and warm words of affirmation.
Although the teams had been in conflict for seven very intense games, there was a palpable sense of unity, as if both teams were part of something bigger than a contest, part of a great tradition called hockey, part of a mutual admiration for each other and a mutual respect for a game they are all indebted to. As I watched, I knew the post-game handshake was revealing something essential about conflict:
Conflict isn’t meant to be won; it’s meant to make us one.
Don’t Do Away With Conflict; Do Away With This
My goal as a marital therapist is not to help couples stop fighting. Conflict itself isn’t toxic to relationships. The elephant in the room is. The unspoken thing. The thing we avoid because we think the thing to avoid is conflict. Conflict is essential to relationships, and it’s essential to marriage.
My goal as a marital therapist is to help couples fight without ego.
Because it is the ego within our conflict that makes it destructive rather than redemptive, wounding instead of healing, brutal instead of beautiful. The ego is the presence within us that says the other side is always wrong, losing is always bad, and we must win at all costs. It’s what makes it hard for me to admit I’ve made a mistake. It’s why I bristle at legitimate criticism.
It makes conflict a minefield for my opponent, er, wife.
For years, I didn’t know conflict could happen without ego, so I assumed the only sane thing to do was to avoid conflict altogether. I’m not alone. The majority of couples I see in therapy don’t come in because they’ve been fighting like cats and dogs. They come in because they’ve been fighting like ships in the night, which is to say, not at all, passing by each other in silence, never addressing the real differences and divisions in their relationship.
But once the ego dissolves a bit and conflict is waged in the language of our lovely souls, you realize conflict is essential to intimacy and harmony and the very fiber of caring and commitment and community. Which is why, now, I tell couples if you want to save your marriage, don’t silence your conflict, silence your ego.
Leave Us In Peace to Fight
There’s an ancient Jewish parable that goes something like this:
Two rabbis have been arguing over the same verse in the Torah for more than two decades. Every afternoon, they retire to a nearby park and resume the debate. Finally, one afternoon, God becomes so annoyed by the endless discussion that he parts the clouds and a great booming voice declares from the sky, “I will tell you what the verse means.” The rabbis look at each other and then turn toward the voice, thundering back in unison, “Why would you end our conversation? Leave us in peace to debate it!” The clouds close and God returns to the heavens, pleased, I think, that the rabbis have embraced the true purpose of conflict.
Conflict need not drive us apart; in fact, it is meant to bring us together.
When Warring Becomes One-ing
Somewhere at the center of each of us is a soul that doesn’t fight fair.
It fights even better than fair.
It fights with a fierce love. Like two rabbis, it goes to the park every afternoon for conflict that feels more like communion. Like two hockey teams, it lines up at the end of the contest for handshakes and hugs. It fights with its arms so wide open it makes space for all people to come together. If it fights for anything, it’s to make the world a more beautiful place.
Conflict in marriage will never disappear. Nor should it. But extract the ego from it, and you are left with two people, dedicating their lives to wrestling out this one fleeting existence together. And then, at the end of the day, lining up for healing hugs and warm words. This might even be the purpose of marriage: a training ground for fighting with our souls rather than our egos.
In this sense, the world desperately needs the institution of marriage.
The Jewish word for peace is shalom. It means wholeness and harmony. But shalom is not what happens when conflict is finally settled; shalom is what happens in the midst of conflict, when egos fade and the struggle becomes something that forms two into one. Shalom is what happens when our warring becomes a kind of one-ing. In our marriages. And in our world.
That’s why marriage should look like the Stanley Cup Finals.
And that’s why I like to fight with my wife.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.