What Do You Believe about Conflict in Your Relationship?By Phyllis Stein
November 20, 2011
The way our parents dealt with conflict between them formed an unconscious template that we took into our own relationships. By examining these unconscious patters, we get a chance to make a conscious choice about conflict in our relationships.
In the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, there is a chapter on the effect of parental conflict on children. They point out that what is really important is not the intensity of the conflict per se, but rather whether children see this conflict resolved in a healthy, loving way. Conflicts that do not get resolved, or conflicts where the parents hide the fact that they are in conflict from the kids (who know anyway) and therefore hide the resolution as well, are deeply frightening for children. It got me to thinking that the beliefs we form about conflict, based on what we saw growing up, have a huge effect on our relationships now.
When I looked back to my childhood, although I did not exactly see how my parents resolved their disagreements, they were always resolved. There might have been angry words (which were not hidden from the kids), but there was never any violence or the possibility of it, and fights were always over within a day or two at the most. There was not even the thought that my parents would split up as a result of a fight, and there was no alcohol involved, ever. I realized that I came to believe that although conflict was to be avoided if possible, once it occurred, it SHOULD be resolved and it should not take that long to do it. I suspect that my father gave himself up a lot to resolve conflicts, and I think I carried the idea that there was a winner and a loser (someone who was right and someone who was wrong), but later I came to believe that resolution would involve understanding each others’ positions and compromising if necessary to end it. When I was married, I was always baffled that this did not occur, but now I think I understand this better.
My ex-husband had a very different experience of conflict between his parents. Conflict was his father, usually inebriated, going off on his mother for some offense. Conflict was scary for the kids because his father was out of control and potentially violent. Often the kids were targets as well. Nothing ever got resolved; it just went away at some point, simmering until it was triggered again. His father was always the winner and his mother was always the loser, always the victim. Eventually, because separation and divorce were never an option in his devoutly Catholic Indian family, his parents lived out their lives together in a state of total disconnection, barely speaking, but each playing their assigned roles in the household. Only when he died could she begin to reclaim herself after years of abuse. So, for him, this was the way, unconsciously, that conflict was, and we lived it out. Nothing was ever resolved, because I would not give myself up completely like his mother did, and he, like his father, could not lose by admitting to doing anything “wrong.” We would just reach a truce and reconnect after several days, or in subtle form weeks, of hostilities, until the next time. He was operating from a completely different belief system about conflict and this possibility never occurred to me. It also never occurred to me that I was operating from an expectation, which is a form of control. My perspective seemed so obviously correct!
I thought it might be useful, then, to ask what we came to believe and expect as a result of seeing conflict between our parents. Perhaps this checklist will be useful in dialoging with guidance about your beliefs.
· Is an ideal relationship free of conflict? Are you a failure if you cannot avoid it?
· Can conflict ever benefit a relationship?
· Is it possible to feel safe during conflict, or does it always that mean someone is dangerously out of control or that the relationship is at risk of breaking up?
· Does conflict mean that your partner does not love you? Is it possible to simultaneously love someone and be in conflict?
· What is it okay to do or say during a conflict? Are physical or psychological threats acceptable?
· Is trying to get someone else to accept your point of view the same as speaking your truth?
· Are you obligated to continue communicating when you and/or your partner are deeply in your wounded selves?
· Is it standing up for yourself when you punish someone else because of a conflict?
· Is every conflict a power struggle that has a winner and a loser and cannot be resolved until someone gives themselves up?
· Is it shameful and embarrassing to be in conflict? Should it be hidden at all costs?
· Is it okay to have unresolved conflicts?
· How long should conflict last?
· Can conflicts be resolved if one or both partners are drunk?
· Do you know what it would look like to resolve a conflict with your partner in a loving way?
I am not sure what would have happened during my marriage if I had come to understand the old beliefs that each of us was carrying about conflict. If I had not been so busy trying to get him to take my little girl by connecting with me, maybe I would have been able to embrace her heartache and helplessness over his choices and seen the ones I was making as well, instead of making it worse by trying to control his. I understand this now.
Inner bonding gives us the tools to re-examine our old, unconscious, programmed beliefs about conflict in relationships and to become free make new choices when conflict does occur. It allows us to be compassionate for ourselves and our partners and for their and our old beliefs. It allows us to handle conflict without giving ourselves up or demanding that our partner do so instead. It allows us to choose to become and be with people who are of fundamentally good will, not eager to blame or win, but eager to engage from a place of trusting that the other person too wants to find a way to lovingly reconnect. Inner Bonding allows us to accept with deep sadness when this is not their intent and make choices from there, instead of endlessly trying to have control over what we cannot control. I believe that conflict is inevitable in close relationships when we care enough to stand up for our inner kids, but by healing our old beliefs thru Inner Bonding conflict can more likely be a gift to both sides, a path to healing and intimacy, instead of a curse to be avoided at all costs.
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Fun and joy exist between two people when the energy is clear and flowing between them. Clear energy is the result of open, spiritually-connected hearts. Likewise, intimacy and passion in committed relationships are the result of clear, heart-centered energy. The words "I love you" mean nothing without the clear spiritual energy of the open heart.
By Dr. Margaret Paul