When we think about conflict, where does our mind go?
What does the response in our body feel like?
What are the associations we make with the word 'conflict'?
For most of us, our mind goes straight into fight or flight mode: we feel immediate discomfort, our bodies tense up, create heat, go dry, become sweaty.
Most of us associate conflict with extreme stress.
Why? Why does this happen for us?
When we know, to some degree, that conflict is unavoidable, why do we react in such a strongly negative way to experiencing it?
There are two answers, neither of them is simple: Cultural conditioning and childhood experience. These two shape our conflict response style from the ground up.
So, all these years later as adults in conflict, we are still revisiting our five year old selves, feeling powerless, threatened, unheard, unseen, or unimportant.
Like we are fighting for survival, or we just want to hide.
And our culture will keep us there by giving us narratives that tell us conflict is bad, fairy tale relationships are possible, perfect couples don't fight. It even comes in the form of sympathetic faces of friends and family if we share that we are experiencing conflict with a partner, friend or colleague. Like it is something to be sad about or ashamed of.
Dropping this here for you right now: Conflict is healthy. Conflict is unavoidable. Conflict is part of relationship. We cannot have relationships without having conflict. They are a package deal.
What is not healthy most times is how we show up for conflict. And that is what we are going to pay attention to here and now.
It is safe to say that when we are experiencing conflict, we are not at our best most times. That is also normal and perfectly ok. It is ok to be perfectly imperfect. The other person in the conflict will also be doing the same, most likely.
What we want to work towards, though, is being able to name our emotions while being in the experience. This means, instead of being in a reactive state, which often looks and sounds like loud voices, talking over each other, avoidance, or blaming, we take the time to get into our own bodies and minds and speak about what is actually going on for us. This practice can and should be done outside of partnership as well, in conflict with friends or family members, whomever happens to be our other in the conflict situation.
For example, if we are angry about something our partner said at dinner with friends, instead of going straight to accusations and blaming them for our embarrassment, we close our eyes, feel ourselves and all that is coursing through us, and say, "I feel angry." There can be a pause here to let the other person register that. And then, we can continue with "I feel embarrassed about what you said at dinner. When you said _____, it reminded me of other times I have been put down in front of others, and it made me feel embarrassed and ashamed."
We have named our emotions, and we have claimed them as our own. If we do not wish to have the incident repeat, we can add, "That was not ok for me, so I would like you to be more mindful of this kind of stuff going forward.", which asserts a boundary we have about how we wish to be treated. Or, if we know there is something here for us to work on, and may need our partner's help, we can say, "I know you did not mean it like that, and I am projecting a separate experience onto you. I am going to need your help to work through this, and you being sensitive to this would be a really good start."
Again, it now has a name, and we have taken responsibility for our own internal worlds, our domains, over which our partner has absolutely no say-so.
This is a deeply conscious practice, and it works best when both parties can show up for it similarly. It won't always happen that way, but it makes it easier to change the conflict pattern in the relationship, especially in romantic partnership, if both are willing to agree to move towards it. It requires vulnerability and honesty, and feeling safe enough in our own body and in the relationship to admit what is actually going on with us.
Sometimes, especially with anger, it is extremely helpful to name the anger as soon as possible because we then discover sometimes that we aren't even angry at the person in conflict with us. Maybe our anger is for something else entirely. Maybe we are even angry with ourselves, but it is showing up in our conflict.
No matter the emotion, when we name it and describe it, it takes the power away from the emotion controlling the interaction, and gives the power back to the two people involved, consciously.
And it gives a certain level of clarity to build upon. That doesn't mean that there won't be conflict , or that it will resolve then and there. The conflict will still continue. But it will continue in a safe and open way. Both people will know why the conflict is happening, and will be able to understand where the other person is at emotionally and what is playing out internally. From there, we can choose to be curious about our partners and ourselves, instead of staying reactive and defensive. And that is so important when intending to keep conflict from escalating.
Anger is exceptionally difficult for many of us to hold space for. We are culturally conditioned, especially women, that anger is not acceptable under any circumstances. So many of us have also experienced scary, unsafe anger that we just want nothing further to do with it. But anger is a human emotion, and it is ok for us to feel it. It is how we experience it and express it that defines it as healthy or unhealthy.
Sometimes, we are feeling sad and fragile, and without naming that clearly for our partners, they may not understand that it doesn't have anything to do with them, especially during or after conflict. If we start crying during an argument, for example, the automatic response from the other person may be, "Shit, I did that." And that is a very human response.
But as long as our partners are able to allow us the space to have our own experience, and we do the same for them, then we can feel comfortable saying, "I'm not crying because of you. I am crying because I feel overwhelmed and I don't understand myself." Or, maybe fights are so deeply triggering to us that we say something like, "I am crying because every time we fight, I think you are going to leave me. I know you are not going to do that, but I am still scared anyway." It takes a lot of courage to name those deep traumatic emotions. But again, when we are safe in partnership, we are invited to do just that in order to create a more conscious engagement in conflict. This new way of communicating during conflict allows us to understand ourselves better, and the other to understand us better, too. And it invites them to be curious--curious about us, and curious about themselves.
Conscious Conflict moves us from a state of reacting and being defensive to witnessing and being curious.
On the receiving side, if our partners are naming their emotions, we are being asked to listen to them without being reactive, and allow them to have their experience without making it mean something about us. Just because our partner says she feels unloved does not mean that we are doing a terrible job of loving her. She feels that way right now, and we are going to figure out why--together. It is important to notice what comes up for us when our partner names their emotions. To go further with this example, if our automatic response is "I must be doing a terrible job of loving her.", we need to stop and ask ourselves where that story is coming from. Why is that our knee jerk response? We have things to explore here on the other side, too.
Conflict is oftentimes two people revisiting and experiencing their deep emotional patterns and wounding. That is why the brain goes into fight/flight mode to protect us.
It becomes two people exploring and understanding their emotional patterns and wounding when we are able to get curious and be descriptive. And being curious is the healthiest way to be in conflict and in relationship. Curiosity is the antidote to any situation, especially conflict.