12/05/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Conflict With Loved Ones: Do You Go Out or In?

All relationships inevitably experience conflict, as this is a part of life. It's how you manage conflict that determines whether it leads to deeper intimacy with a loved one, or to distance and disconnection.

Imagine that someone you care about acts in a way that feels hurtful to you: gets angry, withdraws or ignores you, blames you for something, discounts you or disrespects you, and so on.

What do you generally do? Do you react by getting angry, or by blaming, withdrawing, defending or explaining? Do you ignore your feelings, acting like nothing is wrong? What happens then?

Pamela and Ron consulted with me because their conflicts seemed to be tearing apart their relationship.

Pamela would often get angry and blame Ron when things didn't go her way. Ron would then react to Pam's anger by trying to talk her out of her feelings. This resulted in Pam getting even angrier, which resulted in Ron getting angry, and they were off and running, each yelling and blaming the other for the problems in their relationship. Each said mean things that were undermining to their relationship. Conflicts rarely got resolved.

Going Out in Conflict

Both Pamela and Ron were in the habit of going outside themselves in conflict. Their focus was external rather than internal. When Pam become frustrated, instead of going inside and taking responsibility for her own frustration, she externalized it and dumped it on Ron -- especially if Ron did something that she didn't like.

Ron, instead of going inside to manage his feelings when Pam was angry and blaming, also went outside of himself. He tried to get Pam to change. Pam, feeling controlled by Ron's attempts to get her to change, got angrier. Ron, frustrated over not gaining control over the situation, also got angry.

What would it look like if each of them went inside instead of outside?

Going Inside in Conflict

If Pamela had gone inside herself when she felt frustrated, she would have been able to tune into what was triggered in her. In our Skype session, we were able to discover that when things happened that felt out of her control, she felt trapped -- just as she felt as a child when her parents punished her. The punishments had been severe, so Pamela felt much fear when things felt out of control. Her way of dealing with her fear was to lash out at Ron, just as her parents had done with her.

Ron lost his mother when he was 4 years old. Instead of his father nurturing him during the loss of his mother, his father turned to alcohol to numb out his own pain. When Pamela got angry at him, Ron got triggered into the fear of abandonment. He became panicked at the disconnection, which had been so unendurable as a child. He wanted more than anything to get Pamela to reconnect with him.

However, in trying to get Pam to reconnect with him, he disconnected from himself. In effect, he did to himself what he had experienced as a young child -- he left himself. This inner disconnection created even more panic, so Ron tried even harder to get Pam to stop being angry and to connect with him.

What Ron needed to learn was to stay connected with his own pain -- the old pain of loss and abandonment, and the current pain that was being triggered by Pamela's anger

"Ron," I said to him, "When Pamela gets angry, practice putting your hands on your heart and breathing into your pain. Stay connected with that little boy in you who had so much pain as a child and who is currently in pain from the disconnection with Pam. Move into kindness and compassion for yourself, telling that little boy in you that he is not alone, that you are with him, and that he is okay. I know you felt as a little boy that you might die from the pain and loneliness of your mother's death and your father's emotional disappearance, so now you need to reassure yourself that you will not die -- that you will be fine. Are you willing to try this?"

Ron agreed to try it, and he did. In our next session, he reported how shocked he was at the result.

"When I took care of my own feelings instead of trying to get Pam to not be angry, I felt so much safer. And Pam's anger was very short-lived. When I was trying to control her, she felt even more trapped and got stuck in her anger. When I let go of controlling her and took care of me, she no longer felt trapped and we didn't end up fighting. In fact, we were then able to talk about the conflicts as rational adults rather than acting like angry scared little kids. I'm amazed!"

Pamela was also amazed. "I never realized how Ron trying to get me to not be angry fueled my fear. With him backing off me, I was able to notice my own trigger into fear. Sometimes I was even able to not get angry, and other times my anger was brief. We are feeling so much closer!"

I hope that the next time you are in conflict with someone, you go in instead of out. You might be amazed at the result!

Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® self-healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free!

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