I wish I had a dime for every conflict that didn’t end well. Seemed like, no matter my intentions or resolve, disagreements almost always ended badly. The knock-down-drag-outs usually left one or more people feeling hurt, and the relationship different afterwards. The let’s-pretend-this-isn’t-an-issue had different intensity and duration, but still produced the same hurt feelings and damage in the end. Conflict of either type can be particularly insidious because the trigger for each fight may vary so it feels like a new argument, but it may actually be masking the same underlying emotional battle.
If two people care about each other, and/or if the relationship is important to them, then why do we keep making the same mistake, the same way, over and over again?
I can only speculate as to the answer to this question. I know for me, I have made the same mistake in the same way because I had approached the conflict the same way every time. Things have only improved when I changed the one thing I have control over: me.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein
First eye-opener is that every success or failure in the relationship is due roughly 50% to me. Whether we’re having fun and/or being productive, all the way to dysfunction-galore, it’s half my responsibility. It’s not all his fault, no matter how “right” I think I am. This most difficult step requires I assume responsibility for my share, then act accordingly. Usually it means I examine my motivations, fears and desires and take ownership of them. My fears and insecurities are my responsibility to manage, not my partner’s to fix, heal, or placate.
For example, for decades (talk about stuck) I had arguments with someone close to me that always went the same way. What seemingly should’ve been a reasonable discussion would deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing. I could never understand why, but admittedly the topics that triggered the reaction were predictable. I spent all that time feeling it was her fault, that she needed to change, not me. Yet, even though it was predictable I couldn’t help but stepping into that same landmine repeatedly. Now, who’s fault is that?
Things changed when I took a step back to ask myself how I was contributing to and reinforcing the dynamic. I realized that I have a need to be heard. It didn’t matter how reasonable I thought my position was or how calmly I stated my feelings, as it was creating an emotional reaction in my loved one. So, I was putting my need to be understood ahead of my relationship. I couldn’t make her listen to me, why was I insisting on it? Sounds like I was the problem, not her.
So I decided to change the rules of the dance (this is the second part of making a change). I would no longer tell her how I felt or what I wanted. Instead, I acknowledged her needs and desires, but was clear and calm about what my boundaries were: what I am willing to do, or what I wouldn’t do (determined by me as to whether I’d feel resentful afterward), without judgment or explanation. Knowing and clearly communicating about my boundaries (and sticking to them) meant I would neither get angry nor martyr myself doing something I couldn’t happily do.
When I refused to participate in the same argument, the conflict dynamic itself had to change. We were then able to move into a collaborative style of problem-solving since we were no longer pushing the other’s hot button. Ironically, by giving her what she needed, I was able to get what I needed.
Interestingly, in some situations I tend to go straight to talking it out, but in others I might try to avoid the issue. Avoiding, or even acquiescing every time may preserve the appearance of peace, but the damage is still done. Neither approach solves serious or long-term problems or really avoids causing resentment or bad feelings somewhere in the relationship. Changing my approach means reaching out to the other with an open mind and respect for their feelings, with the goal of understanding. It helps to request the conversation in advance and have them choose the time and the place. Oh, and I bring chocolate. Lots of it.
Damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Maybe. If handled with love, respect, clarity, and personal responsibility, conflict can be a growth opportunity for you, your partner and your relationship. Conflict can enable people to right wrongs or make important course corrections. It can help each come to a better understanding of the other, result in better decision-making, and reaffirm the bond and commitment between the pair, whether in a personal or professional relationship.
Unfortunately, successfully managing conflict, or anything else in the relationship, is still a shared responsibility. It is possible to approach disagreements with the spirit of openness and collaboration, but if your partner is still avoiding or fighting to win, all you can do is keep trying different approaches to engage them in collaboration. Be creative. Take a chance. If they then continue to insist on fighting or stonewalling, your only option may be to accept that the dynamic won’t change and work within that reality. You can always try again another time, as people do change, especially if they observe successful change in others.
I’m better at conflict now – I have better tools in my conflict management toolbox. It is still far from perfect – I can still get my buttons pushed way too easily and fall back into old habits. But I forgive myself for not having this nailed down. I forgive others too for where they are in their journey to be a better person. I celebrate when we make progress. After all, in the conflict dance, it still takes two to tango.