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Have a Hard Conversation

I’m an Enneagram 9, which is sometimes called The Peacemaker.  That’s a really positive way of saying that as a 9, my core need or desire is to avoid conflict at all costs.  What I’m learning is that there’s a difference between being a peacemaker and a peace KEEPER.

I can keep the peace amazingly. If I disagree with someone, I can hold my tongue all day. I can listen to them ramble on about their incorrect opinions and never once speak up.   When I get to the point that I can’t take it anymore, I simply find a way to remove myself from the situation.

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This sounds all well and good, but the downside is what happens inside of me.  While I might not speak up and make them known on a regular basis, I do have strong feelings and opinions about things.  And stuffing them down doesn’t make them go away.  It just results in anxiety, and in worst case scenarios, actual physical illness.

When my husband and I started dating I was working a full-time job where (I realize now), I was being taken advantage of.  The conditions were far less than ideal, but I was young and new to my field.  I trusted the people in charge of me, far longer than I should have.  As someone who follows rules and tries to keep the peace, I allowed an untenable situation to continue until I started to fall apart.

One month before my first date with Dave, I became ill.  At first I thought I was having a reaction to ending a Daniel’s Fast I had participated in with my church, but over time it became clear that whatever was going on was related to stress.  Over the course of 6 months, I lost almost 20 lbs without trying.  (When I look back at photos of myself during this time period, I don’t even feel regretful about not being that thin any more.  I don’t look healthy, because I wasn’t.)

But Dave didn’t know any of this.  He didn’t understand why he’d buy me dinner and I’d only eat a few bites.  Why, even as he was deciding that I was the woman he wanted to spend his life with, I was pulling away from him.  Looking back, I can see that there were conversations I should have had with him from the start, things that should have been easy to say in the beginning. But I was so used to stuffing my opinions and holding in my feelings, I lost all touch with what I really felt.  I couldn’t even identify it myself, much less communicate it.

Finally, it all came to a head.  Two weeks before his birthday, I broke off our relationship. I couldn’t give him a good reason, which I know was awful and painful.  We were both miserable, but I didn’t know what else to do.  Not long after, I decided to quit my job.  (The fact that I left the parking lot crying every day, because I knew I had to come back, finally clued me in that it wasn’t the place for me.)

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When he asked me to be his plus-one for a wedding, even though I’d broken his heart and ruined his birthday.

It took some time, but I started feeling better. The illness, which the doctors never managed to diagnose, finally resolved itself. Dave and I eventually started over, very slowly.  Time, space, and the easing of all the stress allowed me to think, and process, and discover what I really wanted and needed.  One year and two months after that horrible breakup, he proposed and I said yes.

I wish it didn’t have to come to that.  I wish I could have saved us both the pain of that awful rupture.  I have learned that my husband is remarkably good at listening to me and responding to my needs.  But he can’t read my mind.  If I can’t communicate what I need, how is he to know?  And if I can’t discern what I want, how can I communicate it?

There’s a time and a place for everything, so getting to a point where I always say exactly how I feel is not only highly unlikely, it’s not even necessary.  In some situations, my ability to smile, nod, and walk away is a good thing.  But in my close relationships, or in areas where it really matters, I am trying to learn how to have the hard conversation, even though it is the last thing I want to do.

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Things I’ve learned as I’ve tried to move toward greater awareness of my own opinion and greater vulnerability in speaking up:

  • Let the emotion of the moment pass. Sometimes I feel something momentarily, but after I cool down, it’s gone or invalid.  If I speak up in that moment, I risk speaking harshly or incorrectly.  This could not only cause the other person to be confused about what I need, it could damage their trust in me.  It can also cause me to lose trust in myself, which sends me right back into the old pattern.
  • Sometimes I legitimately feel things, but they’re things I need to take to God, rather than dump on the other person.  I ask for His wisdom to help me know what I’m feeling, how to approach it, and for an opportunity to bring the topic up.
  • I process things on paper 1,000 times better than I do in conversation. Often, if I am having an emotional reaction to something that I don’t fully understand, journaling will bring it to the surface.  (And conversely, if I find myself studiously avoiding my journal, it’s usually because I need to process some emotions that I don’t want to face.)
  • Wait for the right time. This can be tricky, because sometimes I can convince myself that I haven’t had a good opportunity when I actually have. But God is faithful.  Every time I’ve prayed about something I needed to discuss with my husband, God has provided a perfect opportunity.  (And on more than one occasion, He’s provided a second or third opportunity when I chickened out at the first.)  Waiting for the right time, when the other person is open to the discussion and not distracted or emotional themselves, increases the chance of the conversation staying positive and productive.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that on the other side of that hard conversation is almost always sweet relief.  The stress of holding things in is eased.  Usually, there is the joy of being heard and understood.

Peace keeping works for a little while, but I am a living testimony that it isn’t sustainable.

Peace MAKING requires grit and determination, honesty and vulnerability, and being brave enough to have the hard conversation.

It’s worth it.

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