Peacemaking Steps for Violence Prevention - A Domestic Violence Awareness Month Series

  • Published
  • By Capt. Brandon Acheson (Chaplain)
  • Space Base Delta 1 Chapel

If you’re emotionally close to another person, you’ve experienced it. 

That intensification of feelings from irritation to aggravation, ballooning into anger then rage that, like an awakened volcano, all-to-easily shoots to the surface. Before we realize it, we unleash scalding words (at best) or physical aggression/violence (at worst) like lava spewed upon those we love the most. 

Why is it that those we should treat the best are often the very ones who receive our worst? Why do emotions fly out of control leading us to say and do things we soon regret? How can we instead have self-control so that we don’t cause emotional or physical pain to those closest to us?

Part of the answer to these questions comes through understanding how our brains are wired.

Emotional Hijacking

Biologists know that data from our senses enters the brain and is relayed to two places called the amygdala and the neocortex. The amygdala acts as an experiential/emotional filing cabinet, processing feelings. The neocortex is the rational processor, forming thoughts. Due to the shorter  distance, data from our senses actually arrives at the amygdala (where we feel) a few nanoseconds before it gets to the neocortex (where we think). The result? If the sensory data triggers an intense emotional memory in the amygdala, the outcome is often an impulsive reaction before we can process rational thoughts. Essentially the emotional part of our brain hijacks the thinking part, and we say and do things we regret. This is why, after reacting and doing something really stupid, we say, “What was I thinking?” Answer: You weren’t. You were emotionally hijacked.

To make impulse control even more challenging, neuroscientists have discovered that when the amygdala (the feeling part) is highly stimulated with intense emotions, it utilizes more blood and oxygen than normal, leaving less of both for the neocortex (the thinking part). This deficit causes a temporary decrease in our capacity for reasoning/impulse control—up to 15 IQ points! Yes, you really do get dumber when you’re highly emotional.

Of course, our biology is no excuse for hurtful behavior. Part of being an emotionally mature adult is being self-controlled and responsible for our (childish) actions.    

And, though helpful, understanding our biology is only part of the answer to these why and how questions above. It takes more than simply making sure we are well rested, are not “hangry” or pausing to count to ten when feeling triggered. After all, we’re not just physical beings, but spiritual ones too. 

Battling Desires 

James the Great, the patron saint of Spain who died a martyr in 44 AD, wrote a letter to some friends in conflict, shining a light on the spiritual reasons for their troubles. He probingly asked, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” Then he answers, “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”

If you’ve ever regretted injuring someone with your words or actions, you know this internal battle. Against our better nature, we let our unmet felt needs/wants/desires become all-consuming and, like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, we’ll do and say horrible things to get our “precious.”

What if we could win this internal, spirit-level battle? What if those we love would never have to fear our next blow up? What if we could stop saying and doing things we regret? What if we could be the ones to finally break the family cycle of abuse?

Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson in their book, Resolving Everyday Conflict, offer four steps (G’s) to arm us in our physical and spiritual battles that, if followed, can turn these hopes into a reality when we face conflict:  

G1: Go Higher.

G2: Get Real. 

G3: Gently Engage. 

G4: Get Together. 

Let’s briefly unpack each step.

G1: GO HIGHER. If you’re a person of faith in God, bring God into your situation. Ask, How does God relate to this situation?

If you’re not a person of faith in God, you still have personal values to which you aspire.

In conflict, we tend to not go vertical (to God/values) but stay focused horizontally (on the other person).

As long as we leave God/values out of our situation, neglecting that which we deem most important in our lives, we can expect to stay stuck in conflict. Instead, stop and “look up.” This brings all-important context when, in the heat of battle, our wants/needs/desires seem way more important than they really are. Going Higher shrinks our desires in size and power, making us less dependent on the outcome, so we’re able to ask, “Is this really worth fighting over?”  Going Higher also opens up resources we need to resolve the conflict, like faith, hope, gentleness, patience, kindness, mercy, grace and love. 

G2: GET REAL. This means asking, How can I own my part of this conflict?

As a master teacher, Jesus uses a powerful word picture to illustrate this point, saying, “First take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck from your neighbor’s eye.” We’re often largely blind to our own contribution to a conflict. At least, we ignore or minimize our contribution. But until we are humble enough to acknowledge our part, we’ll never see clearly and accurately resolve the conflict.

One potent line from the book on this point of ownership states that, “Even if I’m only 2% responsible for a conflict, I’m 100% responsible for that 2%.”

An integral aspect of owning our part is to verbalize it specifically to the other person and make a direct, no-excuses apology, including asking for forgiveness at the end.

G3: GENTLY ENGAGE. This is helping others own their part of the conflict and addresses both when and how. Engage the other person when they have something against you (even if you don’t believe you’re in the wrong) or when you have something against them (the conflict is hurting your relationship, hurting others or hurting the other person themselves). Engagement with the other person should be done in person—face to face is always best—and with another person going with you, if necessary.

G4: GET TOGETHER. This last step involves granting forgiveness to the other person en route to reaching a reasonable solution to your conflict.

Helpfully, the authors detail what forgives is (a deliberate choice and course of action), and what it is not (a feeling; forgetting; excusing/minimizing). What are we saying when we forgive someone? Significantly, when we say, “I forgive you,” we’re making at least four promises:  

  1. “I will not dwell on this incident.”
  2. “I will not bring up this incident and use it against you.”
  3. “I will not talk about this incident to others.”
  4. “I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our relationship.”

It is my hope and prayer as an SBD1 Chaplain that each of us will take these principles to heart and put them into practice. May each of us become both aware of and engaging with our God/values, ourselves and our loved ones, and win the battle against mistreatment in all its forms. 

God speed,

Ch Brandon Acheson