friendship: conflict is good (even though most of us hate it)

blog conflict* this is part 3 from the refuge’s sacred friendship summer camp. the questions in bold are ones we somehow talked about together at our gathering or in the homework. 

* * * * *

some of us are really good at navigating conflict in relationships, but many of us hate conflict.  look at a list of “adult children of alcoholics” and you will read my mail!   at the top of the list is avoiding conflict. for many of us, we haven’t had a lot of examples of healthy conflict in relationships. we tend to avoid problems and issues and accept “it’s just the way it is” instead of trying to work through differences and get to greater intimacy.  often, we think it’s just our problem.

underneath most of our fear of conflict is a fear of being abandoned or rejected.  we are afraid if we rock the boat, it might tip over and we’ll lose anything we had in the first place.  and the truth is, sometimes we do!  if we are in relationship with unsafe people (or unsafe systems), conflict just won’t work. i have learned that the hard way, too.

for the sake of this friendship conversation, we are talking about engaging with people who are trying to get better at it, too.

the truth is that without conflict, we really don’t have intimacy, which is what we long for & are afraid of at the same time.

real relationships will always have some degree of tension in them; that’s what make them meaningful.

  • how do you feel about conflict?  are you comfortable with it? why or why not?

think of some past friendships that maybe you don’t have any longer for one reason or another.

  •  did avoiding conflict lead to the shift somehow?  If so, how?
  • if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently? 

conflict is a skill that is learned and practice over time.  each situation is unique.  each relationship is different.  but there are some practical skills that can help us strengthen our ability to engage in conflict with one another.

the best starting point is to evaluate “what is bothering me in this relationship?” or “what doesn’t feel right?” or “what is sucking life out of it instead of energizing it?”

identifying it is important, because then we need to discern whether any action is necessary beyond just reconciling it in our own hearts.  that’s the next question:  “what part is ours and has nothing to do with the other person?” “what do we need to own?”  “how are our own character defects or woundedness at play here?”

seeking our hearts and asking for God’s help is really important.  then, often, we need to get input from another wise, safe person on what some possibilities might be to engage the problem with our friend.  every situation is unique, so it’s difficult to say exactly how each hard conversation should go, but we brainstormed together and added to a few ideas from cloud & townsend’s boundaries face to face that can be helpful:

in friendship conflicts, it’s good to:

  • remain open and humble.  
  • stay with “i” instead of “you”.
  • be clear in our own mind as much as possible before engaging.
  • clarify the problem (the nature of the problem, effects of the problem, and desire for change)
  • balance grace and truth; when in doubt, go with grace.
  • concentrate on feelings, not thoughts, and identify and own our feelings clearly. 
  • be specific, be specific, be specific.
  • stay away from “always” and “never”
  • affirm the relationship.
  • apologize for our part of the problem.
  • be open to possible solutions. 
  • clarify the expectations moving forward. 

when you read this list, which of these are easiest for you to do in conflict? which are hardest?

in the boundaries face to face material, they also point out the importance of differentiating between forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust in relationships.  this was such a good reminder, especially for me because i am  notorious for working my-butt-off-to-stay-in-relationships-that-i-probably-should-let-go-of (more on that tomorrow). they say that forgiveness has to do with the past, reconciliation with the present & trust in the future.

forgiveness has to do with the past.  it’s about letting go and offering to others what God always offers to us.  the Bible does make really clear that forgiveness is not optional (matthew 6:12) and that unforgiveness over time will really do us in.  forgiveness does not require both people, just one.

reconciliation has to do with the present.  it takes two to reconcile.  this is a great question when considering conflict in friendship–is this a relationship worth working on or not?  i used to think that every friendship was about reconciliation, but that’s not necessarily true.  sometimes we have to learn to let them go and forgive. other times, we need to work in the present toward something better.

trust has to do with the future.   trust is something that’s built over time and experience.  we have a responsibility in friendship to become trustworthy and to also call for it in the relationships we continue in.  trust doesn’t mean perfection, but it means that our actions need to line up with our words and it’s okay to expect that from others, too, in order to deepen the relationship (or not).

in the past, i greatly confused forgiveness & reconciliation.  i thought that in order to have real forgiveness, the relationship needed to be reconciled; it caused me to stay in on some not-so-healthy friendships for far too long.  and then, i would offer too much trust too fast and end up hurt again.   but i am learning!

  • what do you think of these three things–forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust?

over the past chunk of years i keep learning to engage in conflict better. it’s not easy for me; my reflex is do-whatever-it-takes-to-keep-the-peace, but i keep learning that my initial reflexes are actually just controlling the relationship and not trusting God, others, or myself.




Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Beautiful post Kath, on a challenging but needed perspective. I’m in total agreement that you can’t have ongoing rich intimacy without conflict. Unfortunately in our culture, friendship is suppose to be convenient. It is a relationship one can walk out of or completely cut-off without given too much thought.

    I like what the Catholic tradition has brought to the table on friendship in seeing friendship is a school of love where friends learn together in the midst of ongoing closeness, generosity, justice, mutuality, authenticity, patience, kindness, and deeper goodness. In good, growing friendships where friends care for each other over time, conflict is a part of the dance of genuine intimacy and learning to care about each other and the relationship. Friendship is definitely a relationship where we learn to practice forgiveness.

    To open to the fullness of love, we learn as friends to engage in conflict over time that honors each other and honors the relationship. Affirming the relationship, affirming your own vulnerability, respecting the other, etc. are vital to ensuring love and a growing intimacy through conflict.

    I’ve been blessed to see some deep reconciliation happen in friendships after I thought there was no future hop in the friendship. I’ve also been blessed to see deeper intimacy emerge after some painful conflicts which had destroyed much previous trust.

    But I’m with you: understanding the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation is an important point for well-being and an important boundary for helping us to work through repetitive, unhealthy dynamics in friendship. This is where it is important and healthy to risk the relationship for a greater good–and the greater good may be to release the friendship.

    • that is such a powerful statement. friendship is supposed to be “convenient”. that is so true, when the truth is that it is anything but. hacking through the hard times together is what really builds the relationship.

  • Thanks for this Kathy! You made some good points, looks like I need to read Cloud & Townsend’s boundaries face to face. I have read almost every book they have written! I also suffer from working-my-butt-off-to-stay-in-relationships-that-i-probably-should-let-go-of disease! I have read “Boundaries” and “Safe People” and many more of their books and I think they are spot on! What they describe sounds so good, like a little slice of heaven. Unfortunately, my experience working on church staff at four churches has been that it is very difficult to find churches that truly walk the talk. I say that not to discourage anyone, but to encourage all of us to work harder at healthy conflict resolution. I think God is all about love and relationships. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust are all essential to love and relationships. IMHO

    • thanks, laurie. yes, we need more models of this in all kinds of places, especially churches, where we’re supposed to be actually practicing these things and not just talking about them!

  • Many of us fight so hard to reconcile because we have so few relationships that we think we can’t afford to lose the few we have. Sometimes that’s just using up the time and inner resources we need to use to develop new relationships. Then again, there’s the fear (sometimes based on past experiences) that the new relationships won’t develop, which would seem to make it all loss. It’s not easy to remember that love really can’t be loss, because the Spirit’s behind it.

    • thanks robert. yeah, it is so true, the risk involved and how scary it is to rock the boat–or even try. but without making ourselves vulnerable, we miss out on so much. ths kind of deeper love in community together is really a tricky dance, maybe that’s why Jesus kept talking about it.

  • I am on that list you mentioned in the first paragraph and so I tend to do whatever it takes to keep the peace. I’m in recovery for codependency and had a major breakthrough last week when I told my sister somethings I was unhappy with her about. It was extremely scary for me but here’s what I did: I made a list of all of the ways I felt wronged by her; next to each item on the list I wrote what part I played in feeling wronged; and then I prayed forgiveness over each item and also asked God to forgive me for my part in it. In the conversation I had with my sister, I just told her how I’d been feeling and asked her to forgive me for not trusting her enough to be honest with her about my feelings in the first place.
    I think the biggest take away for me was that it is possible to express my unhappiness in a relationship without expressing anger (like yelling, speaking harshly, or using mean words) or trying to get the other person to feel my unhappiness. Second big take away was that I am lovable. I don’t have to keep the peace to keep love.

    • now that is awesome. thank you so much for sharing, erin. that is so brave and so beautiful, really. the 12 steps are such a helpful process for us to own our parts and learn to show up in relationship but also let go, too. God seems to do all kinds of wild healing things through us practicing them. “i don’t have to keep the peace to keep love.”, love that!

  • Some people we think are our friends are not. They have motives other than friendship. When their agenda includes abuse, yes we must forgive. However, abusers often mistake forgiveness for permission to continue the abuse. Regardless of how many pastors may advise to forgive and reconcile, that is not always possible or advisable. In order for me to reconcile with an abuser, the abuser must recognize their abuse for what it is, stop the abuse, and work on reconciliation from their end also. Rebuilding trust may be a long process.

    • oh i can’t tell you the number of times i have heard of pastors telling women to forgive and go back into abusive situations. it makes me into a nutty person, seriously. i am a firm believer in hope and healing and that there are such things as miracles, but i always say “the proof is in the pudding” and actions over the long haul are what we must listen to. thanks for sharing.

  • Kathy, finding these blog posts from the archives is just what the doctor ordered for me tonight. I have been processing through the loss of two very significant relationships for over two years now (my best friend and mother). The anthem that has played in my head has been “Why can’t I get over this”…your most recent posts on grief had me digging in the archives.

    I keep finding peace among your blog pages…encouragement and hope…most your writings, thoughts and perspectives…it’s like you’ve crawled into my heart and brain. Erie and amazing all in one. Praise God for your words and vulnerability to share here. Thank you.

    Until reading this post, I have never really separated the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I have always considered them connected and then told myself I hadn’t really forgiven them if we aren’t reconciled. But, I have worked so hard at forgiveness in these two relationships, knowing that there will probably never be reconciliation because I want to be free from it!! I have settled into the lie that I will always carry around this heavy burden of shame over the failed relationships, although I know I am not supposed to be in them (unhealthy & co-dependent). Knowing I’ve done my part to work through forgiveness (and continue to forgive as stuff comes up) and knowing it takes two to reconcile is HUGE! They have a part in the reconcilation too. Freedom has come to this heart tonight. Halleijuah!!

    • hi meredith, i’m so glad you found this old post and some hope in it somehow. oh, i know that feeling where it somehow feels like it’s all up to us and somehow it’s our fault no matter what. i lost a friendship years ago that was so painful to me; i made amends, i tried so hard to do anything i could to stay in relationship, and even after several go-rounds of trying to somehow go-back-and-figure-it-out i would still have the insane belief “if only i just said it in the right way or apologized one more time (even though i had owned my side of the street over and over again)” that one day the other person would say “i’m so sorry, i own my part and i’d love to work on reconciliation”. i made a commitment to some safe friends not to call her or try again without calling them first. ever since then i haven’t, but i’ll admit, i’ve been tempted. however, i remember their wise words. peace to you; i am glad you are here!


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