When you were growing up, how did your parents or other caregivers handle conflict?
- Did they fight when they had conflicts?
- Did they ignore the conflict, hoping it would somehow get resolved?
- Did one give himself or herself up to avoid the conflict?
- Did one get angry and the other shut down?
- Did one get angry and the other comply?
- Did they discuss and resolve their conflicts, caring for themselves and each other?
Unless you saw them do the latter, you had no role modeling for healthy conflict resolution.
All relationships have conflict. Conflicts are a part of life and can provide an opportunity for learning and growth -- if they are approached with caring for yourself and the other person. How two people in a committed relationship handle conflict is often an excellent indicator of the health or dysfunction in the relationship.
Conflict can trigger many fears -- fear of rejection, fear of engulfment, fear of being wrong, fear of losing a battle, fear of getting hurt. When fear is activated, many people go into the "fight, flight or freeze" stress response.
When the stress response is activated, the blood leaves the brain, organs and immune system and goes into the arms and legs for fight or flight. The blood leaving the brain makes it hard to rationally think things through. Therefore, trying to resolve a conflict when the stress response has been activated doesn't work well.
What Not to Do
If one or both of you are triggered into fear, here is what not to do:
- Don't escalate the conflict by attacking and blaming.
- Don't fuel the flames by defending or explaining.
- Don't shut down and withdraw.
- Don't try to pacify the other person.
- Don't comply. Don't give yourself up.
If you do any of these controlling behaviors, you will either escalate the conflict into a fight, or you will lose yourself. In either case, there will be no caring resolution.
What to Do
There are only two responses in conflict that have a chance at leading to healthy resolution:
- Opening to learning
- Lovingly disengaging
Learning: If neither you nor the other person is triggered into your fears/stress response, then you can open to learning. What this means is that you become curious about your own and the other person's reasons for each feeling the way you do. When you each share your point of view, with caring for yourself and the other person, you each open to the possibility of learning something new. By each of you opening to seeing the situation through the other person's eyes, you will each likely gain new information that will enable you to resolve the conflict in a way that works for both of you -- where neither of you feels you have given yourself up or compromised yourself.
Even if one of you is triggered into the stress response, if, in your experience, the person is often able to get themselves back into some calmness and caring, you might be able to say something like, "I really would like to understand your point of view, and I hope you want to understand mine so that we can resolve this conflict. Would you be willing to explore this with me?" If you say this in a calm, loving tone, this might help the other person to calm down and become open to learning with you.
Disengaging: Disengaging is completely different than withdrawing. When you withdraw, you are shutting down, closing your heart, cutting off your love for yourself and the other person. Withdrawal is a form of punishment: "I will shut down and withdraw my love from you until you stop hurting me, or do what I want you to do."
Disengaging is temporarily leaving the conflict, but keeping your heart open to yourself and the other person. This means that you need to learn to lovingly manage your painful feelings of helplessness over the other person being closed, and of the loneliness and heartache that might be there when someone is angry, blaming or shut down to you.
A powerful way of managing these painful feelings is to put your hand on your heart to ground yourself in your body, and fully acknowledge the feelings with compassion for yourself. Compassion is a very powerful energy, and when you acknowledge your feelings with compassion and understanding, you will find that they start to dissipate.
When you disengage, you might say to the other person, with a kind and open voice, "I don't think we will get anywhere right now. Let's try again in half an hour and then maybe we will be able to be more open with each other."
If you were triggered into fear, then once you have compassionately acknowledged your feelings and allowed them to move through you, take some time to understand what might have triggered your fear. Understanding this will help you begin to heal the triggers so that eventually you can stay open in conflict.
Once you feel fully open, go back to the other person and see if he or she is ready to learn with you. If not, then you will need to let it go for another time, or even let it go permanently. We cannot have control over whether or not another person opens in conflict. If the other person doesn't open, then you will need to decide for yourself how to take loving care of yourself in the face of not being able to openly talk about the conflict.
If you practice these two healthy behaviors each time you get stuck not being able to resolve a conflict, you will find yourself feeling better and better -- even if the conflict doesn't get resolved.
Most conflicts are fairly easy to resolve when both people are open to learning about themselves and each other, and are caring about their own and the other's highest good. Attempting to resolve conflict when one or both people are not open is generally a waste of time. You might find a way to end the conflict, but it likely will not feel satisfying to one or both of you -- especially if one wins and the other loses. This is especially difficult in a primary relationship, and will eventually erode the connection and intimacy.
Often, when one person changes the system by moving into the intent to learn and/or lovingly disengaging, the whole system improves.
It's worth a try!
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! Discover SelfQuest®, a transformational self-healing/conflict resolution computer program. Phone or Skype sessions with Dr. Margaret Paul.
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