Get off the merry-go-round

See if this sounds at all familiar to you.

Jack and Jill have been married for over a decade. By now, they’re used to each other’s quirks and are willing to let most things slide. But there are one or two arguments that they keep falling into, over and over again. Jack will make a comment that he thinks is innocent enough, but Jill takes offense. She makes a snide remark in response, taking a jab at one of his sore spots. Jack, in turn, either fires back an insulting remark of his own or leaves the room in stony silence.

The topics may vary. Sometimes it’s about money, sometimes it’s about in-laws. And if Jack is the one who starts the argument today, tomorrow it may be Jill.

But in one sense, it doesn’t really matter who “starts” it. Both of them think the other is to blame. And every argument is just part of a long-standing pattern that keeps repeating itself over the months and years.

Again, does that sound familiar? You can fill in the blanks of the story with your own conflicts and pet issues. It doesn’t even have to be about marriage. All you need is a situation that keeps two people in a continuous face-to-face relationship.

But however you personalize the story, you probably know what it’s like to be stuck on that merry-go-round.

I’m not going to tell you that every conflict can be magically solved if you just learn the right communication techniques (though I’m a firm believer in the value of good communication). Marriage researcher John Gottman is quite clear on the matter. Even the most stable and successful couples have “perpetual problems”: those silly arguments that keep coming up and never get solved.

Some conflict is inevitable. We can’t get rid of all disagreement. What matters, though, is how we treat each other in the midst of conflict.

Many of us have what I like to call “panic buttons” — areas of sensitivity in which it’s particularly easy for someone to provoke a defensive or retaliatory response. Someone who was inundated with criticism as a child, for example, may have an automatic negative reaction to even the most constructive and politely offered critical remark. Someone who grew up around unreliable and unpredictable adults may overreact to anything that feels even remotely like being let down again.

The merry-go-round happens when we both push each other’s panic buttons, even when we don’t mean to. Intentionally or unintentionally, you do something to hurt me. My defenses go up, and I respond in a way that pushes one of your buttons. Your defenses go up and you retaliate. Around and around it goes, both of us feeling like victims, neither able to stop the argument.

Paul doesn’t say it explicitly, but I imagine that some similar negative cycle was at work between the believers in Corinth. When he wrote that love isn’t irritable or easily provoked, and that love shouldn’t keep a resentful record of the wrongs one has suffered (1 Cor 13:5), he probably had in mind the very real ways that the Corinthians were stuck on their own merry-go-round.

It may sound trite, but what’s needed in such situations is love. Empathy and compassion. Apology and forgiveness. These are some of the concrete expressions of love that help us get off the cycle of blame.

More about that in the next four posts about ending the blame game.