I used to think that conflict of almost any kind was evidence of a relationship heading into a downward spiral, but as I’ve grown and evolved, I’ve come to see conflict as an opportunity for growth, and to build intimacy.
While this doesn’t mean that I invite arguments into my marriage, it does mean that I no longer shy away from them. I know now that conflict isn’t something to be feared or avoided. It’s a signal that change is needed in our dynamic. We simply need to pivot. By doing so, we will deepen our understanding of ourselves and each other.
By going into arguments calmly, with the goal of resolving conflict through love, I have been able to observe the patterns that emerge over time.
Every disagreement or disgruntled moment my husband and I have experienced in our marriage falls into one of two categories: pseudo-issues (arguments about a thing that might be annoying us but isn’t the actual cause of our dissatisfaction) and core issues (the thing that’s actually upsetting us). The real issue can inevitably be traced to fear—fear of loss or fear of pain. The real issue is that something has awoken that fear, and nothing has occurred to quiet it.
Whenever conflict arises, I begin by reminding myself that unresolved issues from my past WILL surface in my current relationship.
By starting from this assumption, I save my partner the task of convincing me that whatever is upsetting me might be about me at least as much as it’s about him (probably more). By recognizing the deep and abiding impact our past trauma has on our present intimacies, I recognize quickly that if I feel deeply frustrated and hurt because my husband failed to do the dishes (again) after we’d recently discussed it, I’m not actually upset about this single action (or inaction, in this case). We seldom are. Instead, my feelings are a reaction to a fear that’s been triggered by the circumstance—in this case, it may be a fear that he doesn’t value my feelings or have the same kind of motivation to invest in our home as he once did.
But how do I get past the initial swell of anger and hurt in order to start exploring what’s underneath it?
It’s almost impossible to have a constructive conversation when we’re driven by anything other than love and a desire to heal the relationship. So, I wait it out. I own what I’m experiencing and how I’m feeling, and I allow myself to push gently at the edges of the pseudo-issue until the bubble begins to deflate and the real underlying issue starts taking shape. Still, I let my heightened emotions run their course. And then I wait for the moment of quiet and intuitive connection to I ask myself:
“What are you REALLY upset about?”
This question allows me to redirect my internal monologue from the pseudo-issue to the real issue. I continue to ask myself more and more specific questions, all the while staying in tune with my higher self. I explore how my personal story might have affected my response to this situation.
“When I think about my story, how does it make sense that what he’s doing would upset me?” I continue to ask questions, paging through a mental slideshow of possible explanations and waiting for the one that “clicks.”
If he said something I felt was insensitive, the questioning process might go something like this:
“Is it what he said?” Not so much.
“Perhaps the tone?” No, he usually speaks like that.
“Was it the timing?” Yes, the timing!
“What didn’t I like about the timing? I’m busy?” No more than usual.
“I’m overwhelmed?” That’s it—I’m overwhelmed.
“Why is being overwhelmed a problem?” (And so on…)
Almost invariably this process ends with a realization that I’m disappointed with myself in some area of life and it has transferred to this argument. Alternatively, I might realize that my partner is currently embodying a behavior I struggle to accept in myself, which makes it difficult to see in my significant other.
For example, if the conflict arose because I’m feeling overwhelmed, I might be triggered because I believe that reaching that emotional breaking point means that I am weak, and I cannot accept weakness in myself. My story has told me that I value personal strength.
Either way, the argument was brought about by a conflict I’ve experienced with my own values, and ultimately, the whole issue has very little to do with my partner’s actions and everything to do with my own frame of reference for the world. The circumstance has merely shone a light on that hidden side of me.
This is hugely liberating (and also sometimes quite irritating when I’m desperate to wade around in the blame pool) because it hands me the power—and the responsibility—to reconcile my own story with the argument we’re in.
As soon as we reach this point, the argument just seems to crumble into an honest, vulnerable moment of sharing our deepest quirks, wounds, and fears with each other, every single time.
Will there ever be times that you can’t make sense of your story?
Sometimes I struggle to reconcile the root cause with the present argument. This suggests to me that the issue is so deep in my subconscious that I can’t get a grip on it, and we end up going round and round in circles with the pseudo-issue.
This happens to everyone. Don’t beat yourself up when it does.
The purpose of making sense of our story is to end its power over us and learn that right and wrong are not facts but value judgments. Our values are a result of our life experiences. But whether I can locate the exact value in my story that my partner has transgressed or not, I know that in order to resolve the conflict, we both have to take a subjective position.
What does that look like?
I try to use language that does not make my partner feel attacked. To say “you are” or “it is” is to present a feeling as a fact. Instead, just say how you feel. Say, “I feel” or “I interpret.” Relationships are the process of individuals with distinct wants and needs learning to live together harmoniously. Being able to acknowledge that the way you see something is not the only acceptable way to see it is a crucial ingredient in achieving this harmony.
We all have emotional maps we use to navigate through life (whether we realize it or not). We overlay them on situations that look similar to past experiences in order to draw conclusions about how to behave and what to expect in the present.
It’s tempting to try to force a partner to change their “map” of the world, but that’s not what makes a relationship work or what allows you to grow, both together and individually. Instead, the healthy, spiritually evolved, self-aware couple helps each member interpret their own maps so both of them can find the best route back to mutual understanding. It’s not necessarily the same route, but they take you to the same place.