There is often confusion with how we can speak up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, or respond effectively to antagonistic people from a Christian perspective.
The Theology of The Body (TOB) reminds us that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with love–including the people who we experience as antagonistic and unsupportive. However, TOB also reminds us that loving people doesn’t mean letting them treat us however they want. Loving someone means working for their good. We aren’t working for another person’s good if we allow them to demean themselves by behaving in a cruel, abusive, disrespectful, antagonistic, or unkind manner. We can’t just do whatever comes naturally–whether that means avoiding conflict or enflaming it. Instead, when we feel attacked, we have to ask God to help us make a response that serves the ultimate good of everyone involved.
Jesus modeled two ways of confronting abusive behavior. Sometimes, when he was clear about the greater good being served–for instance, the salvation of humankind–he patiently bore the wrongs committed against him. But other times, when the greater good required it–for instance, when the pharisees intentionally tried to twist his meanings, confuse his message, or undermine his mission–he confronted them. Like Our Lord, we must always respond to antagonistic people with the greater good in mind. Rather than simply reacting, we must bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to respond in a manner that will glorify him, help us be our best selves, and lovingly challenge the antagonistic person to be better. Sometimes that will require us to give them the space they need to self-correct, and other times it will mean being more direct. With prayer and practice, we can learn to deal gracefully with even the most antagonistic, unsupportive people.
Here are a few ways to respond to conflict gracefully and effectively:
Know Your Worth—In order for us to handle heated moments gracefully, its helpful for us to know our worth and respect ourselves (and the other person) enough to present ourselves calmly, firmly, and virtuously. Allowing ourselves to lose our cool, or give our power away by reacting based on the other person’s reactions, does not help us to act in accordance with our dignity as a person. Allow yourself to say, “I respect myself, and you, too much to allow this conversation to continue disrespectfully.” If you are able to have the conversation respectfully in that moment, it’s okay to continue, but if you or the other person are not able to be respectful at that time, it’s okay—and encouraged—to come back to the conversation at a later time when both parties have had time to cool down.
Focus On Caretaking—When conflict flares, taking care of ourselves and the other person is usually the first thing that goes. Conversations go much more effectively when we focus on taking care of ourselves and our partner. For ourselves that can look like being attentive to how we feel physically—knowing when our muscles tense up and working to stretch and release those muscles, or taking deep breaths when our heart or respiratory rate starts to increase. Taking care of ourselves can mean knowing when we need to pause before we respond or when we need to take a break, step outside, get a drink of water or a snack to help engage our parasympathetic nervous system. Taking care of our partner can involve small acts such as, “I’m getting myself some water, can I get you some?” Sitting next to them and making eye contact to help engage in active listening, or saying something like, “I want to work through this with you, how can I take care of you during this conversation so you know I am working to be your partner through this?” Taking care of one another throughout a conversation can also mean taking pauses together and saying, “I’m starting to feel ____ (frustrated, defensive, angry, etc.) and I don’t want to feel that way. How can we take care of each other better in this moment?”
Control Your Boundaries—Often we say something to another person in order to set a boundary with them and then we expect them respect and uphold that boundary. However, while it is appreciated when someone upholds our boundaries, it is actually our job to maintain the boundaries we set.
For more on working through conflict, check out: