Intimacy can be nurtured and grown through conflict. People cannot agree all the time, therefore, conflict is a normal part of relationships. Conflict is more than a disagreement. It is a situation where one or both parties perceive a threat. It does not matter if the threat is big or small, or even if it is real.
Conflict can be an opportunity for growth if it is resolved in a positive way.
For most people, conflict is frighting and causes them to want to run away. This is because they have never experience conflict resolution that led to positive outcomes. Those kind of outcomes that lead to healing and closeness.
Their experiences with conflict include hurt, anger and shame. It led to being hurt physically, mentally and/or emotionally. Out of these experiences, they form negative beliefs that limit their abilities to face difficult situations.
Negative Beliefs About Conflict:
1. Conflict is bad and dangerous.
2. Conflict is scary because someone is going to get hurt.
3. Conflict means someone has to win and someone has to lose.
4. Conflict is difficult to control and will escalate.
5. Conflict never gets resolved.
6. Conflict should be avoided at all cost.
These negative beliefs lead to avoiding conflict as often as possible. When it cannot be avoided, it is entered into in two unproductive ways: passively and aggressively.
Passively: I am going to lose and be blamed for what happened. The best I can hope for is that someone will feel sorry for me and let me off the hook.
Aggressively: I must defend myself to the death because to lose this argument will lead to shame. The best I can hope for is to win and escape the criticism that says I am bad.
Both attitudes prevent the conflict from being resolved, which leads to unprocessed anger and hurt. Conflict continues to fester when it is ignored. Many conflicts are created out of misunderstandings that could be sorted out relatively quickly if addressed sooner rather than later. This is the source of most of the misunderstanding and distance between people.
In order to deal with the hurt, anger or fear that comes up when conflict is not processed, a fantasy is often created. A fantasy is anything you tell yourself about a situation or a person that does not have factual information to support it. The longer a situation goes unacknowledged, the more the fantasy is nurtured and grows. This can happen without knowing it.
Conflict can trigger old memories and feelings. Not all memories are in the conscious mind. Often, they also play in the background of our mind and inform our thoughts. It is like very unpleasant elevator music – you tune it out so you don't pay attention to it, but it is still there, playing in the background, until you leave the elevator.
Tom and Susan were going out to a concert. As they were getting ready to go, Tom lost track of time and was 15 minutes late. In the car, Tom was imagining that Susan was irritated with him.
As he pondered the situation, he realized he was mad at himself. Tom remembered as a child his mother would get angry and criticize him if he was a minute late.
Even when the memory is conscious, you may not be aware of how it is affecting you. It may be adding fuel to the feelings that you are having in the moment. What is meant as a helpful comment may feel like a criticism because of having a parent you could never please.
This interaction could have grown into an argument. If Tom had nurtured his fantasy that Susan was mad at him, his anger would grow and he might get defensive. This could lead to Tom accusing Susan of being angry. She in turn would need to defend herself.
Conflict as a Way to be Close
There is another side to conflict. It can be used to manage closeness and distance. Conflict is a powerful way to have contact with someone without getting close. There is a lot of energy and engagement in arguing and power struggles.
When one is in conflict there is a lot of thinking and feeling involved. The person you are having a problem with is on your mind as you try to resolve the situation.
If you are afraid of getting close, connection and distance can be maintained. There is safe distance caused by the disagreement, while having the emotional energy between you.
On the other hand, if you are afraid of distance, starting a fight or power struggle is a way get attention. It creates intense feelings that can be a substitute for caring feelings. Any attention is better than no attention for the person afraid of abandonment.
When Tom realized he was irritable and mad at himself for being late, he apologized for starting a fight. They were looking forward to the going to the concert. It was a special night for them. Tom was afraid he had ruined the evening and that Susan was going to be distant. Susan reached for his hand and held it. The evening was lovely.
Next week, I will offer some ideas about how to resolve conflict when a simple apology does not work