A Love Worth Fighting For
Constructive conflict can strengthen your relationships. Here's how.
I don’t know about you, but for me conflict never felt safe. It never felt skilled. Conflict felt like an eruption of emotion that boiled over and burned down everything in its path, including my trust for the people expressing big emotions. It has taken me many years, decades even, of self-inquiry and healing to come to the alarming realization that conflict energy can actually be brave, liberating, and kind. Turning toward big emotions can actually make our relationships function at a higher level and hold a deeper intimacy. Becoming skilled at being in conflict can help us to establish trust in our relationships with others, and most importantly in our partnership with ourselves. First things first, nothing constructive comes from being triggered into a fear response. When anger and rage are expressed, fear is hiding in the shadows. Most people don’t realize this, because rage can feel so strong, so empowered, that for people who may feel dis-empowered in a relationship or situation, intense anger can feel like a relief. The truth is, untethered anger can rage like a wildfire that knows no bounds. It burns and burns until everything in its path has turned to ash. What this means is that no matter how hard you work to construct a solid foundation for your love house, if unchecked rage is present, then you may be building in a fire zone. Even for those of us who don’t react in externally explosive ways, it is helpful to acknowledge anger and use it as an invitation to inquire about the fear hiding in the shadows. What am I so afraid of? Naming the fear and following its trail can transform your anger from unconscious reactivity, to tender self-understanding Fight/Flight/Freeze It is essential to recognize and pause when you or your partner is entering into Fight / Flight / Freeze mode. What do you do when you are feeling triggered in your relationships? Do you yell? Do you leave? Do you stare off into space and feel nothing? Do you try to take care of the other person so that you can feel safe again? All of these responses are normal adaptive behaviors we develop in childhood to keep us safe. And guess what? They worked! Whatever behaviors you established in childhood worked to get you to this point. Now these same adaptations may be causing harm, because they are outdated and potentially unconscious in the way they keep you from the love and connection you desire. It is likely that you have different responses in different situations with different people, all depending on where you perceive the seat of power to be. Becoming conscious of these behaviors and habitual patterns can help you to lovingly create new ways of coping in the face of challenge. Here is a breakdown of Fear Responses and unconscious power assessments:
Fight ~ I believe I am stronger than the other person
Flight ~ I believe I am weaker but perhaps faster than the other person
Freeze ~ I believe I am neither stronger nor faster
Care-Take or Faun~ I believe that without this person’s attachment I will not thrive / survive
The first secret to constructive conflict is to be able and willing to call a timeout. When you enter a triggered response, also known as Flooding, your system is inundated with adrenaline and cortisol. Your breathing can become rapid and/or shallow, or you might even hold your breath altogether. While your body becomes supercharged with energy to protect you from perceived danger, your brain can become disconnected from that higher functioning rationality that you love so much. It’s like the attack of the body-snatchers, the Rage Monster, Runaway, Tin-Man, or Super Empath can take over! If becoming skilled at constructive conflict is your goal, the first step is recognizing that this state is non-productive for having compassionate conversations and must be paused before proceeding into the realm of the perceived threat. Strong Side Note: It is a good idea to have a conversation prior to conflict with your relationship partner of choice (parent, spouse, child, etc) and talk about this plan to pause during “Flooding”. It is a mutual agreement that is best reached while in a calm and grounded space if possible. People with abandonment wounds can get particularly triggered if a timeout is called, so be aware of that. Calling a timeout for a specific amount of time before attempting a repair conversation is super helpful. Make sure that this timeout is for at least 30 minutes (that is how long it takes the stress hormones to filter out of the body in a best-case scenario). How do you feel safe again? There are a number of ways to engage in self-soothing that can walk you back towards a state of deep internal calm. For me, it is important not to push away the feelings but instead to turn towards and walk through the tunnel to the other side. I suggest the statement: “I am feeling _______, and that is ok”
Notice how you are feeling sensation-wise in the body. “I’m feeling hot, sweaty, my hands are tingling, my limbs are shaking . . . . etc”. Notice the sensations with neutrality and kindness, what we could even call self-compassion. Cultivating an inner character who performs the part of “Compassionate Witness”, is a very powerful tool for this work. Next, get physical! Jump, run, dance, wiggle, shake, get funky, get goofy, do jumping jacks, whatever suits your fancy to get your heart pumping and your blood flowing. You want those stress hormones to hitch a ride out of your body. For that matter, make sure you are hydrated! Finally, pivot your focus to something fun, nourishing, and utterly unrelated to the conflict. This can be surprisingly hard to do! Your brain is going to want to hold on to the specificity of the upset as tightly as possible. But this is where you’ll need to put your big girl pants on and say, “Nope, we are going over here to do this other thing and have some fun. I’ll come back to deal with that other stuff later”. Becoming skilled and conscious in the face of conflict takes some serious inner-leadership skills. How to walk back into the Arena When you are feeling grounded and calm it is time to re-engage with your conflict partner for a Repair Conversation. To do this, it is important to approach with appreciation, gentleness, and care. Remind yourself that you are fighting for the relationship not against the relationship. And in the wise words of David Whyte, “practice your face as an invitation”, as opposed to a threat. It can be a powerful warm-up to the Repair Conversation to start off by verbally expressing appreciation and gratitude towards the other person, acknowledging that even showing-up to reach a deeper level of understanding is a feat unto itself. You may assume that the other person knows how you feel, but saying it out loud can help set the tone as one of compassion and kindness, and is a great place to start. Next, decide who will be the Listener and who will be the Speaker first. Have a pad of paper and pen ready so that the Listener can take notes. Taking notes will help you to effectively reflect what the Speaker is expressing and keep the Listener grounded in a task. Here is a little imagery that I personally use to help orient myself as a Listener. I imagine that I am a concave mirror. I move my energy out of the center of the space and imagine that my arms are super stretchy and can reach to hold the back-heart of the Speaker, encouraging them and supporting them to be brave and honest in their share. Sometimes, when I am super triggered, the “gumby arms” can be a bit too much, so I rest back into the concave mirror stance. I want to be able to really receive the other person without imposing my energy or story into the space. I know I will get my turn to share on the flipside. Some tips for the Speaker:
Lead with vulnerability.
This will really help the Listener to soften and hear you clearly.
Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements
Start by sharing your feelings, follow by exploring your needs. Unmet need is the birthplace of all negative emotions. If you can name your feelings then you can track the origin of those feelings by getting curious about the needs you have. (An interesting side-exercise is to notice when you are experiencing positive emotions and noticing what needs are being met.)
Feel free to flesh out the story you are telling yourself about the situation by using the sentence starter, “The story I am telling myself . . .” (credit goes to Brene Brown for that one). Every conflict has a story behind it. Being aware of and taking responsibility for our historical scripts can help us understand each other better and turn those old stories into something more empowered.
Transform criticisms into wishes. (Instead of saying “You never cook dinner” you can say, “I wish you shared the task of cooking dinner, it would really help me feel supported”). This is a way to make positive requests of what you do want rather than what you don’t want. It also helps the listener to stay out of defensive mode!
Take Responsibility. A huge part of moving from co-dependence to interdependence in our relationships is by taking responsibility for our own needs. What part can you play in making sure your own needs are met? In what way do you need help?
Some tips for the Listener:
Pull your energy out of center stage by becoming a Concave Mirror (with Gumby Arms if you can manage it)
Listen for feelings and needs more than thoughts and beliefs. Thoughts can transform, but feelings and needs are a person’s truth.
Take notes on what feelings and needs you are hearing so you can accurately reflect back to the Speaker.
Wait for the Speaker to be done before interjecting. Try, try, try, to not interrupt, defend, or insert your own story. Deep breathes. . .
If you find yourself becoming Flooded, call for a break! It is important to know your limits and if you are feeling attacked, your partner probably needs a reset too. They might need a reminder to use more “I” statements and state wishes or requests instead of demands and criticisms.
Reflect what you heard, when the Speaker has finished, in terms of feelings and needs. Ask them if you have heard them correctly. If not, ask for clarification.
If your partner feels heard, you can then offer them empathy. Accepting that their story is true to them and that what they are experiencing is hard doesn’t negate your experience, but it can validate theirs.
When the Speaker feels heard, it is time to switch roles. Remember that having positive action steps at the end of the conversation, requests that each partner has made that the Listener has been able to repeat back, can turn a conflict from contentious to constructive. “The goal of conflict is to understand each other better” ~ John Gottman I hope this helps to give a clear framework for how to navigate conflict in a way that helps you and your relationship partner grow together rather than apart!
* This blog post was originally published as an article for Certain Age Magazine in 2021 with an accompanying meditation practice for getting back in the body when flooded. Feel free to visit the original article to access the meditation video!