April 24, 2024

Conflict is Not a Problem but a Portal to Intimacy.


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There aren’t two sides to a conflict—that’s a lie that divides people.

There is only one side in every conflict: the human side.

And yet, popular relationship advice perpetuates the divisive and punishing “me versus you” and “us versus them” approach to resolution of conflicts that reflects prevailing attitudes in all spheres of our global society. This stance doesn’t serve basic human needs for connection and belonging.

We are quick to judge, condemn, and dehumanize anyone who sparks big uncomfortable feelings in us. And while it’s natural to honor our very real pain from an altercation, our attention quickly goes to labeling, diagnosing, or punishing the other and then holding it as truth.

The actual truth is that our perception is rather self-centered, while our analyses and projections are never the whole truth: they validate only one side of the equation and often escalate conflict.

In my observation, any frustration or anger we feel toward others actually informs us about our own needs, boundaries, and limitations. When rather than becoming curious we focus on criticizing the other, we miss out on metabolizing this very important wisdom about our needs, and remain stuck in a relating dynamic that keeps us unfulfilled.

As an example, I thrive in minimal and ordered environments and get frustrated when I see messy rooms of my children or when my husband doesn’t put away his clothes. It’s tempting to attribute my frustration to my children’s messiness, and then try to force them to change. But my feelings are more about my discomfort when I feel out of control than anything about my children needing to change. I get agitated when my husband doesn’t pick up his things, but when I look within, I see that I need him to change his behavior so that I can relax and come to inner balance, not because he is wrong.

Recently, while we were packing to move countries, I started packing my bags days before my husband did. To manage my stress, I needed to give myself ample time to think calmly and plan my choices. I noticed how I’d get frustrated or worried that my husband did not prioritize packing, but would take time for other things when I would not.

I caught myself judging him before I saw that we just have different needs and nervous system capacities. My husband is just not stressed out about packing, while I am. Ultimately, we left for the same trip at the same time and it stopped mattering who packed when. I realize that I just need more slowness to operate, while he doesn’t.

I used to view these differences in our tendencies and needs as character traits, where one—usually mine—was superior to the other. When I catch myself judging my husband for our differences, I am reminded of my mother judging my father for all the ways he was not like her.

Today, I know that everyone’s needs are different because our baggage, our survival strategies, and our nervous systems’ capacities are different. I tend to be more anxious, which causes me to plan things ahead so I can mitigate my stress levels. My husband is simply not anxious about the same things as me.

I am not right. He is not wrong. My way is not better than his.

This is important to remember when we get into a conflict.

When we are triggered and our system goes into a stress cycle, even people we love are experienced as a threat. In that moment we are no longer relating to the person in front of us, but re-enacting a situation from the past.

Sometimes we may feel threatened even when our usually loving partners cannot give us attention at the precise moment we need it. Feeling threatened is about safety and most of us look for safety from others, where it can never be guaranteed.

Many people I work with suffer from feeling misunderstood when the other person’s reaction to their emotional revelations does not match their expectations. Often we may experience the behavior of the other as a rejection, while that was not at all the intention of our partner.

We cannot control how we’ll be received by others. Another person’s ability to meet us where we are depends on myriad factors, including how they slept, what they ate, and what they were thinking or feeling before we approached them.

Many of us are simply unaware of the unique experience of other people, of their very different perception of a particular situation, and their emotional and nervous system capacity. We take everything personally and make it about us.

And yes, their inability to be who we need them to be in that moment may feel like a rejection. And this perception of rejection may send us spinning into a stress cycle, where our body experiences danger, even when there is no actual or real threat.

Here is where the ability to find safety within—in my opinion, the only place true safety can be found—can interrupt the automatic defensiveness in response to perceived threat and facilitate the important next stage: repair.

It takes courage and vulnerability to express our needs or feelings, or share something about our past. If the person with whom we share does not respond in a way that reassures us, it takes even more courage to not get stuck in wounded defensiveness, but to remain present for both: our own very real anger or pain and the humanity of the other.

It is habitual to blame others for our feelings, but learning to recognize our own experience, validate our own feelings, manage our own reactions, and own our contribution to the dynamic is an example of taking responsibility in relationships.

Once we process our feelings and the wisdom they deliver, the need to change others dissipates. When we no longer look to change our partners, they no longer have to focus on defending themselves against our judgments, and the whole dynamic shifts. It is this safety to be ourselves that disarms us toward connection and intimacy with others.

Conflicts are unavoidable. We will be hurt in our relationships and expecting anything else is simply unrealistic.

However, learning non-violent communication skills and building capacity for repair post-conflict will create connections that can endure.

I am interested in creating spaces for togetherness where everyone’s feelings and points of view are of equal importance and weight. In our highly polarized society this will require a lot of unlearning. This work will appeal to those who are more committed to deep relating than to being right.

But let’s also remember that while we are learning these new skills that no one ever modeled to us before, we will stumble and fall many times. Humans make mistakes. We get emotional. We get triggered. We lose perspective. We make choices we may regret.

To me that’s not a problem.

I am working on un-shaming and accepting humanness in myself and in others. I believe it is better to try and fail and try again than to abstain from trying. This is how we learn any skill—through practice and observation.

When we stuff our feelings for fear of retaliation or to “preserve the peace,” we are not relating. The peace we are preserving is an illusion: the conflict is simply happening inside. That is why radical self-responsibility in relationship begins with noticing, tracking, and validating our own internal experience in any moment of upset. We then metabolize collected data into wisdom for ourselves and/or the message about our needs that we can communicate to our partners.

When we hide behind the walls of self-imposed protection from pain or fear, we end up hurting ourselves and isolating ourselves within our relationships.

Not engaging with others in order to avoid conflict prevents that which we all crave: closeness, connection, intimacy.

In my experience, a conflict can take a relationship deeper, expose what was there all along, bring to the surface what’s been suppressed, address that which keeps us in separation, and build a bridge toward connection where there was a breach in communication.

Conflicts have the potential to bring us closer. For that to be possible, however, we need to learn to repair.

Some space may be needed to allow the stirred emotions to calm down, so we can return to the present moment. When we understand and process what we reacted to exactly, we can make sense of the conflict and why it occurred.

Then we dare to come back to the arena of relating and give another chance to express ourselves clearer, own our part of the dynamic, see the other person as worthy of our curiosity, attention, and compassion, remember we are on the same side, and respect everyone’s irrevocable human dignity.

In my experience, as uncomfortable as conflicts are while we live them, a successful repair post-conflict is what we’ll actually remember about the incident.

Understanding conflict, learning compassion for myself, accepting differences as normal, and practicing repair is where so much of my own healing happened over the years.

The success of a relationship should be measured not by never having conflicts, but by decreasing the amount of time it takes to recover from the conflicts that inevitably do occur.

Conscious relating teaches us skills to commune, to be together. All participants’ points of view get recognized. This is a radical departure from the “us versus them” approach so widely subscribed to by much of the planet.

My work is in advocating for everyone’s humanity and fundamental belonging.

I am also fiercely passionate about un-shaming humanness. Let’s stop hiding who we really are. Accept and allow all of our expressions, feelings, and needs; then we can share ourselves in all of our fullness. We can share our feelings—even the messy ones—and own up to the truth of our life without censoring out our mistakes.

Then we learn to extend this same love to others.

(Learn how to shift your relationship patterns by taking radical self-responsibility for your inner world. Contact me for a free introductory conversation.)


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