I was chatting with a friend recently about relationship conflict. My friend, like me (and I’m sure every other person on the planet at one time or another) was dealing with some disharmony on the home front. Among other things, she was finding herself frustrated at both her and her loved ones’ inability to communicate effectively with each other.
She wanted to discuss the issue at hand; her partner did not. She was doing her utmost to prevent an outburst of the rage she felt simmering inside of her; her partner wanted to retreat to his cave and carry on as if nothing was happening.
Their personality types are quite different - and while this may not be too noticeable or troublesome on a day-to-day basis, the differences really come to the fore during times of conflict and stress. He wants to deal with the situation in his way (retreating to his cave) and she feels best dealing with it as she knows how – trying to engage him in conversation. To talk it out.
When this fails, she usually ends up feeling resentful and he, in all likelihood, retreats even further into himself. This is, I believe, a pretty common scenario with couples. I have personally experienced it more than a zillion times.
So why does it happen? Well, besides the obvious differences between men and women and how we each respond to stress and conflict, there is this:
We are all ‘victims’ of our childhood conditioning
I read once that our ‘personalities’ are what we develop over time as a direct response to childhood ordeals and trauma. Something about this statement REALLY struck home with me.
I can see it in myself – the way that I sometimes automatically react with ‘panic’ when somebody close to me is upset with me – exactly as I did as a little girl. The old fear of being abandoned for not being ‘good’ or ‘lovable’ enough is never very far from the surface. And whilst this automatic reaction was probably appropriate for a four-year-old child, it is hardly appropriate for a woman in her forties.
Somebody close to me learned over time to ‘fight back’ when faced with fear or conflict (the opposite of my ‘panic and plead’ reaction). During conflict I’ve become aware of both of us, at times, automatically and subconsciously resorting to our childhood responses.
When he feels attacked – as we all do during conflict – his first and automatic response (before retreating to his cave) is anger. My automatic response is to cry, scream and plead for it all to be over. When I’m able to step outside of the situation and look at it objectively, I often see little more than two frightened children doing their best to ‘win’ the fight. Hardly effective.
Some conflicts cannot be won
If we remember that the way in which we argue or fight is the way in which we learned to deal with fear and conflict as children, it becomes easier to:
1. Take a step back from the situation
2. Decide if what we are 'fighting' for is actually worth the fight
3. Assess whether we are fighting fairly OR automatically (and unknowingly) responding to fear
Sometimes, hard as it is (because if we're honest, we all want to win) the best thing to do during conflict is to step away from it. Even twenty minutes may be enough to give us clarity, and outsider's view, on what's really happening.
This is something that I am slowly mastering. It is something that isn’t necessarily easy for someone like me – someone who is desperate to not only prove the other person wrong, but to make that person see the horrible injustice of upsetting them in the first place – but it is a very necessary thing to master if I desire to have an adult, functional relationship.
I believe that if we could all be fearless enough to face our childhood trauma head on – to work out exactly what we are afraid of, what we are fighting for, and most of all what we are terrified of losing, we would find ourselves less tormented by our loved ones and their differing beliefs. And there would eventually be less need for mindless conflict.
Conflict will always be a part of life; conflict will always be a part of relationships. This is OK. It is simply not possible that two people - regardless of how much love there is between them - will agree on everything all of the time.
Two mature adults, discussing differences in opinions, with the ultimate goal of finding agreement and resolution, should be the goal during times of relationship conflict. Yet when emotions are heightened - with voices being raised and doors being slammed - this is simply not possible.
THIS is the time to take a step back.
Because this is the time that we will find ourselves (and our loved one) acting on autopilot – acting as we did as frightened children - lashing out; determined to win; or just wanting to retreat.
This is the time to be mindful of what we are doing, how we are acting, and what we are saying. It is the time to let go of our EGO and whatever it is instructing us to do. It is the time to take a breath and clear our head. And then, and only then, to work out what the hell we are doing.
This is the time when taking a step back really is the best thing to do – for ourselves, for our loved one, and for the relationship.
Do you find it easy to take a step back and let go during times of stress and conflict? Please, let me know in the comments!
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