This is part one of a series of three posts about how we can use conflict to serve our relationships, instead of seeing it as a threat to closeness. Parts two and three will be published weekly on Fridays.
A few years ago I was facing an afternoon of practising conflict at a weekend workshop called Authentic Relating Training, and I was feeling sceptical. It was my first ever experience of being in a space where we were being taught to practice conscious communication and self-responsibility in our relationships, with all the new language and different ways of thinking that involved, and it had been quite revelatory. I’d gotten through the first day and a half, meeting all of my social anxiety and feelings of unworthiness head-on, and I was starting to relax in the space. Now it was time for the final exercise.
The facilitator explained how conflict was always an opportunity to create deeper connection. On some intellectual level I understood this – I got that it sort of made sense. Sure, if the stars aligned and we could both stop being pissed off with each other, we could probably celebrate our differences and skip happily off into the sunset. In reality, this seemed quite far from anything that I could make – or allow to – happen. I had had no experiences of arguments being handled with grace, patience, or an intention to form a deeper relationship, and the feelings of defensiveness, frustration, and fear that usually showed up for me in conflicts with loved ones didn’t seem at all conducive to getting closer.
While I have by no means mastered conflict, and I still often struggle to navigate it skillfully, my attitudes have changed enormously since that workshop and, with practice, I have begun to genuinely experience conflict as a way of enjoying relationships with deeper understanding and patience.
I’ll talk more about that journey over the next three posts and share some of the insights I’ve learned along the way, beginning with the place most of us start from: avoiding conflict altogether.
Avoiding conflict by avoiding connection
The most common way most of us deal with conflict is to avoid it altogether. One way of avoiding conflict is by avoiding connection, and this strategy suits me very well because I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf. I’ve learned to do a lot of things myself and have gotten really good at enjoying my own company. While that’s been incredibly beneficial in lots of ways (I’m great at enjoying solo travel and other activities, regardless of whether a friend wants to join or not), it also has meant that when things have got difficult in my relationships I’m much more likely to cut and run. Most commonly this comes from a fear that I’ll lose my autonomy and independence if I stay in this relationship, so I switch into an attitude of, “Well, I don’t need you anyway!” and find a sense of pride in striking out on my own again. Sorted!
(Ironically, I am sitting writing this post in a friend’s living room as they work next to me, having realised that I’m actually not very good at focusing when I’m completely on my own and company does have its benefits.)
Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this position is that I don’t need human connection. So it makes a lot of sense that I would struggle to wrap my head around staying with something difficult and vulnerable (a disagreement or argument) in order to create connection. In its fullest expression, my strategy would mean ditching the relationship altogether to avoid conflict.
This strategy works great until it gets lonely.
Avoiding conflict by keeping the peace
“If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.”Sheryl Richardson
Avoiding conflict can also look like keeping the peace: we go along with what the other person wants, and squash our own needs, desires, and opinions way down. This strategy usually comes along with a lot of fear that any conflict or disagreement would result in the end of the relationship, so it is to be avoided at all costs.
It’s also common to believe that if you were to engage in an argument, by voicing a disagreement or a difficult feeling, you would feel an emotional response to that conflict that you’d find overwhelming – perhaps breaking down into tears or getting angry and aggressive. That can feel difficult if you also have a belief that to have that response would mean you’d no longer be taken seriously. Keeping the peace and avoiding conflict means avoiding difficult, big emotional responses that you may have learned will not be seen or responded to with care and attention.
Those two fears, of losing the relationship or of not being heard and taken seriously, can feel overwhelmingly huge, even when the disagreement is over something relatively small.
In this way, you’re sacrificing your connection with yourself in order to maintain the connection with the other person. And in the process, you’re not really allowing the other person to see the real you, either.
This strategy often ends in a big emotional blowout fuelled by a ton of resentment and a sense that you’ve totally lost your sense of self, and any connection to your own needs and desires. This can also have a hugely destructive impact on the other person, who until now may have had no idea that you were not as happy and content in the relationship as you allowed them (and yourself) to believe.
Perhaps you can see how neither of these strategies is particularly helpful to fostering intimacy in the long-term. If you recognise any of these places in yourself, go gently: we all start somewhere here, and acknowledging where you’re at right now allows you to identify how you can begin to make changes. We’ll start to look more at that next time. Until then, if you’d like to explore this further, here are some journaling prompts you can try:
- When things feel difficult in my relationships, I usually respond to it by…
- When someone disagrees with me, the feelings that show up most readily are…
- When I was growing up, I experienced conflict as…
- The relationship I would ideally like to have with conflict is…
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