Conflict management or resolution…?!
As My Favourite Weirdo (MFW) and I unpacked our last box, placed our last picture on the wall and wired our last speaker, we sat down on Sunday evening and looked around our “new” apartment. It looks the same, but different…in a positive way. A new space to mark a new start to sharing a front a door. We accomplished many things over the weekend. The main achievements were moving into our new space and purchasing and putting up our first Christmas tree! As we looked at the tree, with it’s soft white Christmas lights, we sighed and felt content. MFW said, “well other than the lamp and the shot glass, nothing got broken. And we are mostly intact.” It was true. We managed to keep it all together, literally and figuratively. One of us has a sore back (from carrying the heaviest stuff) and the other of us smushed her finger and managed a blood blister, but otherwise we were unharmed. And we didn’t fight, argue or get irritated with each other during the process. In my mind, this might be our greatest triumph of the entire move.
Conflict in relationships is unavoidable.
Conflict in relationships is natural and normal.
Conflict in relationships is unavoidable.
I might be repeating myself for my own benefit. When I think back on my childhood, I only remember one argument that my parents had. My recollection is of being in my older brother’s room “reading”. I was reading out loud and it was annoying him. However, my very educated response to his request to read to myself was, “then I’m not reading, I’m only thinking the words.” He had no come back. We were “reading” and listening to Motley Crue, or was it Twisted Sister, hard to say, but definitely an ‘80s hair band, when we heard our parents arguing. They were arguing about washing dishes. At this time in our lives, my parents owned a small cafe, a soup and sandwich shop in the Interior of BC. Growing up as children of entrepreneurial parents, often our memories are timed by the business they were involved in. “Remember when I got frostbite? That was when we owned the campground.” My mom and dad were arguing because my dad chose to hand wash dishes instead of using the dishwasher during a busy period at the cafe. That’s it. Nothing earth shattering or life changing, but the memory for me is unshakable because they never fought, argued or rarely bickered. Not that I saw or was aware of. However, as an adult, it is pretty obvious that they must have because conflict in relationships is unavoidable.
Fighting, arguing, conflict are all considered foul language in my vocabulary. Actual curse words roll off my tongue easier (and more frequently) than any word or action involved with conflict. I’m conflict-averse, or avoidant. Whenever there was conflict in any of my relationships, family, friends or otherwise, I felt/feel like the relationship is ending, flawed, broken and/or doomed. This might also be a symptom of my over-calamitizing.
When I mentioned to MFW how impressed I was with our move and our lack of arguing during such a stressful time, he smirked at me and asked, “were you expecting a fight?” The truth is, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a fight, but I was dreading it. I was fearful that an argument or fight would result during a stressful time.
The Gottman Institute is on the forefront of relationship research. Dr. Gottman has extensively studied couples, their interactions and even predictors of divorce. His research has informed much of current theory and accepted knowledge regarding intimate relationships. I like frameworks and models to guide integration of theory, so Gottman works for me and how my brain processes the information. He states that the majority of conflict arises from fear of loss. He also has found that over two-thirds of problems in relationships are unresolvable. What!? Isn’t it called Conflict Resolution?? But what if it can’t be resolved? Much of the research I found discussed the nature of conflict and how it is a natural and intricately integrated component of human relationships. There is also consensus that conflict needs to be managed, not resolved. For someone like me, who is conflict-averse, this was not what I wanted to hear (or read). I want to fix everything. I want harmony. I want peace. I want my relationship to be smooth-sailing. But I also want to live in reality. And the reality is, as I was quickly learning, conflict in relationships is unavoidable. In fact, psychologist Michael Batshaw stated, “Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, it’s avoiding the conflict that might.”
We humans are complex and difficult creatures. We are the only animals capable of self-reflection and self-doubt. We also have a unique tendency to complicate things unnecessarily. And just like anything else the keys to managing conflict are not earth shattering, but do take skill and practice. Unfortunately, these skills are not necessarily taught to us and we don’t always get to practice them in ideal circumstances. In the articles and research I read, the most successful couples are those who are able to manage their conflict. This is done by remaining calm (and taking breaks as necessary), listening to the other (not with an intent to respond, but with an intent to understand and empathize), being able to safely describe how you are feeling about a situation and to express your individual and personal realities, and finally taking accountability and responsibility for your part and apologizing.
Again, we don’t see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are.
Psychologist Dan Wiles stated, “when choosing a long term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems.” I can’t avoid conflict, but I know I can manage it better. Choosing MFW and our unique set of “problems” was the easy part, the difficult part is knowing when to honour the other’s process over our own, but it’s all part of the learning, or building love maps, as Gottman refers to.
When it comes to the unresolvable issues, I prefer the saying, “choose your battles.” He leaves his socks on the floor and I leave hair literally everywhere. I call that a draw.