My (Conflicting) Stance on Conflict

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Yesterday was the last day of my quarantine, a week in which I got to retreat from the world completely and not see anyone except my children, and my parents and partner from a distance. One of the advantages of not participating in any social interactions is that there’s very little chance of conflict arising in those social interactions (even though my partner and I have been known to argue over the phone as well.)

See, when I grew up, conflict around our house was never a big issue, mainly because we are all very apt at avoiding it. When I sense conflict arising, I have a variety of techniques to draw from: I ignore it and pretend nothing’s wrong, I literally run away from it by leaving the room or I might (not so) subtly change the topic. Invariably, the unspoken conflict will then leave me feeling irritated, nervous and anxious for a while, but I’ll fake my way through the next couple of interactions until it has sort of been smoothed over. And then it’s smooth sailing until the next conflict arises.

It doesn’t really seem like a healthy strategy when it’s written out like this, but that’s the thing with family patterns: you’re not really aware of them so you can’t objectively judge them on their merits.

I managed to go through most of my first marriage not constructively engaging in conflict, but with my current partner, that just doesn’t fly. That’s because the pay-off for avoiding all conflict is a really steep one: when you don’t engage in conflict, you miss out on the opportunity to truly connect with someone. Opening up in a situation of conflict, setting your own boundaries, listening to someone who’s angry, … these are all very scary things. It takes vulnerability, and vulnerability takes guts. But it also takes vulnerability to have true intimacy. You can’t have one without the other. And my partner just happens to be a sucker for true intimacy and connection (and by now, truth be told, has sold me on the idea just as much).

So how do you learn to deal with conflict if you’ve never had the proper training before? When every discussion feels like a fight? And every fight feels like the relationship you have is at stake? How do you learn a healthy conflict style when you’re afraid of conflict?

First of all, you stay kind to yourself. Realising that this style is something you’ve inherited, probably from generations and generations ago, means that this is not your fault. You can empathise with your fear. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not your responsibility to do something about it. You are now the only person who can, and if you want to get beyond the destructive aftermath of unresolved conflict, you’ll need to step up at some point.

Secondly, it’s important to get clear on the benefits of a healthy conflict style: you are able to stand up for yourself without damaging relationships. You can set your own boundaries which gives you confidence. You also create relationships that are safe and that you can build on, and you become reliable and authentic in the relationship. You learn that conflict doesn’t have to be a threat, but can actually bring you closer. You also learn that conflict doesn’t have to say anything about your worth as a person (or someone else’s worth). You are entitled to your feelings and needs, always. And you get to experience that surge of relief, joy and renewed connection when you’ve finally managed to get through the discussion in one piece.

As wonderful as that sounds, it doesn’t happen just like that. Conflict always brings up emotions, and usually the tricky ones at that. When we get angry or scared, we often fall back on patterns without realising it. So how do you get out of it? You do the icky thing: you go back into the conflict when the emotions have (somewhat) settled.

When dealing with conflict, in any relationship, it’s essential that at least one of the parties is not being flooded by anger or fear. Healthy conflict is a way of regulating your emotions, and you can’t do that if both parties are in full-blown emotional chaos. Give yourself a break if you feel like you’re getting riled up, but tell the other person you want to talk about it at another time (and ideally, agree upon a time to do so).

Once the emotions have settled, it can be really tempting to just let things be as they are, because, you know, it wasn’t really that big a deal, was it? But anyone who’s been in any sort of long term relationship, be it romantically, friendly or familial, knows that unresolved conflicts have a way of popping back up, usually when another conflict comes along. They silently stack up in the back of your mind until that stack becomes so high it can topple right over with just one funny look.

The only way to not let stuff stack up is to tackle it head-on. You get ready for a conversation that is, most likely, going to be pretty uncomfortable. You go over to the other party and say you want to talk about the conflict you have. You listen to their side, ask questions to understand it fully, and express your side. Together, you try to work out where you were coming from, which emotions got in the way and which needs lay underneath those emotions. All emotions are valid. All needs are valid.

I know, when it comes down to the technicality of it, it’s really not rocket science. But still, it can be pretty damn hard to do.

I’m still learning how to do deal with conflict constructively. My partner and I have very different styles, both with their own drawbacks, but together we try to build towards a healthier approach. My family life offers me plenty of opportunities to practice as well, to get it wrong, and learn again why I want to get it right next time.

Conflict is never going to be comfortable. But it does get easier, and it can definitely become less frightening over time. If anything, I’m living proof that it’s possible!

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