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If you have siblings, you are no stranger to conflict. My brothers and I didn’t battle often, but we certainly argued from time to time. Even if you and your siblings are two peas in a pod, you are still two separate peas. Conflict is friction, the energy from resistance of two objects or in this case two people encountering each other. You can either waste that energy fuming about how the other person is crazy or illogical, or you can try to learn from their response. I generally try to lean toward learning because who wants to be out here wasting energy?
Adult life introduces so many sources for potential conflict: co-workers, frenemies, roommates and more. For the most part, I’ve adopted a balanced take on conflict. I keep calm but also take no shit. My mother taught me not to start conflict that I am unable to or unwilling to finish. As a result, I’m more thoughtful when conflict arise. I’ve often acted as the peacemaker within different groups because I can see the different perspectives of the bickering parties. Even when conflict affects me, I’m able to detach from those heated feelings and focus on articulating and protecting boundaries. I’ll try to reason with you and be accountable for where I contributed to conflict. All in all, I’m pretty good at handling conflict productively.
So imagine my surprise when I started learning new things about how I handle conflict through my romantic relationship that started four years ago. My current relationship is the longest one I’ve ever had, with most of the priors being not that serious or long. Admittedly, I’m a stubborn person but also someone who genuinely aims to be agreeable most of the time. So conflict with my boyfriend who I love so much was a shock to my system.
I spent years believing that my trademark emotional detachment was a rule rather than an exception in my conflict resolution approach. Turns out that emotional vulnerability heightens the stakes of conflicts. For someone like me who finds any kind of vulnerability deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, having to walk through the purgatory of explaining my fears and concerns instantly raised my defenses. For better or for worse, I approached most conflicts with my boyfriend as though I would cornered with daggers and spears pointed at me. When you feel attacked, no amount of rationality or emotional detachment will help you. Fight or flight kicks in and you strike out until the threat goes away. This is great when there’s a tiger about to attack you in the jungle but not so much when your boyfriend insists that you shut down when anything negative arises.
In short, proximity raises the stakes. Hurts feel deeper and fears loom larger. Anxiety adds fuel to the fire and before you know it, you find yourself in a win-lose situation rather than working toward solutions. To say that I was rattled would be an understatement. Learning about your shadow self through conflict feels like living the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The hidden beauty of conflict is the space it creates for reflection in the aftermath. Let’s face it: arguing with your significant other is exhausting. So either you both figure out how to do it more quickly and sustainably or one or both of you taps out because you’re tired.
In my case, I needed space to figure out what really triggered my strong defenses. Clearly, the caring was there. But there wasn’t enough trust. I trusted him but I didn’t trust myself to be open. After all, maintaining my emotional distance had been the hallmark of all of my past conflict that I had navigated well. In fact, I used to tell friends and myself that the things that others fight with you about are a reflection of their fears and doubts about themselves rather than a shortcoming you have. Working through conflict with my boyfriend brought me face-to-face with my own advice as well as unaddressed shortcomings.
With greater self-awareness came the safety in vulnerability between us. We were both able to level with each other about our worst tendencies as well as our biggest fears. Knowledge is power especially when navigating conflict. Now we both can catch ourselves as well as each other when our buttons are pushed. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s much more productive. And conflict resolution is ultimately an exercise in continuous improvement. We can’t eliminate conflict but we can anticipate it and treat ourselves and others with conflict as we come through the other side relatively unscathed.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.