Conflicted About Conflict?
Are you opposed to engaging in conflict in your interpersonal relationships? Do you buy into the narrative that “healthy relationships” should be easy and conflict free? Do you wonder if a relationship is “bad” if there are moments of disagreement? These are VERY popular relationship myths that are at the root of many premature relationship failures. I see a great number of people who admit to cutting off individuals who they’ve experienced conflict with prior to attempting repair work, and many of those people are left wondering if they could’ve worked through that issue and continued a beneficial relationship later on. Retraining your brain away from these relationship myths is essential to building and maintaining ANY relationship throughout your life!
*OF NOTE- THIS BLOG IS NOT ADDRESSING INSTANCES OF ABUSE OR NEGLECT! ALTHOUGH ALL SITUATIONS ARE INDIVIDUAL, THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY TIMES WHEN ENDING A RELATIONSHIP OVER "CONFLICT" IS NECESSARY AND THE RIGHT THING TO DO. IF YOU ARE CONFUSED WHETHER YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED ABUSE OR NEGLECT AND IF YOU SHOULD CONTINUE A RELATIONSHIP/SEEK REPAIR WITH THAT PERSON, PLEASE CONSIDER TALKING TO A THERAPIST. THE CHOICE WILL ALWAYS BE YOURS, BUT A THERAPIST MAY HELP YOU IDENTIFY PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOR, SAFETY ISSUES, REASONABLE BOUNDARIES, ETC.*
All “real/genuine” relationships follow an important equation:
RUPTURE + REPAIR = a genuine, healthy connection
When I say “real” relationships feature rupture, I mean one in which you are truly able to be yourself and show up “unfiltered”. We speak freely and feel freely in the presence of another in a “real” relationship. We share our opinions, our histories, our likes, our dislikes, etc. Doing so is what helps us find commonalities and deepen our relationships to be more enjoyable and “natural”, as well as opens avenues for better attunement and caring. Doing so also presents the inevitability that we will eventually “put our foot in our mouth” with the other person and say something they “don’t like”. This WILL happen because no two people are the same in all respects, and there will come a time when a disagreement of minds emerges. We also cannot always be attuned to the needs of another, and we will eventually disappoint them in an “uncaring” reaction or response (and they will do the same to us!).
When this happens, we feel hurt and confused. We have experienced a rupture in that relationship. While rupture is not possible to avoid, people who do not acknowledge a rupture run the risk of not ever being able to repair. You wouldn’t rush to repair something that was fully functional, after all.
I am a firm believer that not all ruptures rise to the level of needing direct repair. Sometimes disagreements sting a bit, but we understand that they “aren’t that big of a deal”. Sometimes we can truly agree to disagree, or feel momentary disappointment, and move forward with no grudge. Signs you are NOT moving forward would be:
1) Starting to actively avoid that person
2) Starting to “devalue” them in your mind or with others (i.e. speaking only about their “bad parts” and not referencing or remembering their “good parts” whatsoever)
3) Ruminating on the instance/comment for multiple days and becoming more upset over time
4) Starting to behave more superficially around them and abandoning your “real” relationship so as not encounter more areas of disappointment
If any of these are true, you DEFINITELY need a repair moment! Repair work is scary for many because they fear a “blow up” moment could occur. Ironically, “blow up” interactions are usually the result of avoiding repair for too long and waiting until “a straw breaks the camel’s back” and all of your resentments pour forth! Engaging in repair work REGULARLY and AS NEEDED is the key to not having explosive conflicts.
Repair work generally involves:
1. directly naming the comment/behavior that hurt you,
2. sharing vulnerably about why that impacts you negatively,
3. asking for an apology (if needed to move on),
4. setting a boundary for the future.
I will use an example below to weave these steps together if you are confused about what “repair” work could sound like.
Natalie has been dating and unable to find a suitable partner. She confides about her dating experiences to Brooke, who is a good friend. Natalie and Brooke went to dinner with a larger group of friends, and Brooke made comments that Natalie’s dating life was “chaotic and crazy”. Although she was smiling and likely meant no harm, Natalie was hurt to hear those words in reference to her experiences. Natalie cried when she got home, found herself thinking on the instance several times, and noticed herself saying “I won’t be telling her any details about my romantic life again”. Natalie noticed she probably needed a repair moment with Brooke if she intended to trust her again and keep the relationship strong.
Natalie confronts Brooke saying: “I want to let you know that my feelings were very hurt when you described my love life as “chaotic and crazy”. I felt judged about a topic I already feel insecure about. I would like to find a partner, and to do that, I have had to be willing to go on dates with multiple people. Dating has been frustrating for me and I wanted to open up to you about it without judgement. If you can’t withhold judgment on the matter, please let me know and I will confide in someone else. If this was a misunderstanding, please treat my dating stories more sensitively in the future, especially in front of people who may not know the details from me.”
By risking this confrontation, Natalie is vulnerable about her feelings and asks directly for a change in behavior from Brooke. If this is a truly healthy friendship, Brooke will be able to tolerate her own guilt about hurting her friend’s feelings and will likely apologize for doing so. Because the boundary is “fair” (i.e. something reasonable to ask for- discretion about private information), a healthy relationship should be capable of reorganizing around it. While the moment may be awkward, both parties will likely feel good about being honest, apologizing, accepting apologies, and moving forward. With a new boundary in place, the relationship is also protected against becoming superficial or distant.
Repair work is a healing balm on the wound of rupture. It feels GOOD once we can get ourselves to be less afraid of initiating it. Most instances of rupture come from a benign place- our friends/family/partners probably do not mean us harm, although they did hurt us. To end a healthy relationship over benign rupture with no attempt at vulnerability or repair work would be truly sad. Learning to repair with others is the MOST valuable work, and if you find yourself struggling with it, I highly suggest seeking a therapist to help you navigate that in your world.