Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grow and improve as a person. I would like to think I understand certain things a bit better, but for the most part I haven’t really changed that much. There have been some changes I suppose, but they are largely small tweaks and refinements.
Really, the “new” me isn’t that different from the “old” me.
There is however one area where my outlook has changed considerably, and that’s in how I look at and approach conflict.
Conflict has become an area of interest for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in the past. A few years ago I viewed conflict as a bad thing. It was a sign that something was wrong. And that’s bad, right? Well, if that’s right then the absence of conflict must be a good thing.
That was how I viewed the world.
And that’s a viewpoint I’ve come to believe was completely wrong (like, totally and completely wrong).
You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You
Each person is an individual, with their own wants, needs and interests. And this uniqueness is a part of our beauty. However, because we have differences there are times our differences will collide.
My new(ish) viewpoint on conflict is that it is a natural and unavoidable part of any relationship. Conflict is simply the collision of our differences and can actually be a very positive thing; as the process of learning to accept each other and work together in spite of these differences (because let’s face it, they aren’t going away) is the key to a healthy relationship.
So although there can be issues in how we “deal” with conflict, conflict itself isn’t bad.
Problem? What Problem?
Currently I’m back in school, taking courses that will in theory help advance my career; and if not at least keep me somewhat current. And one of the courses I’m taking has a section on conflict.
Reading over the course materials, I came across the following:
Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.
Most people see conflict as indicative of a problem because disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening.
When there’s no open conflict we can carry on as though things are all right even if, really, we know they aren’t.
It’s the last line that really stands out to me – open conflict is the key. If there is no open conflict we all can carry on as though things are alright even when we know they aren’t.
People can be kind of stupid at times. For whatever reason, sometimes we don’t see things that are right in front of our faces.
Sometimes its ignorance, or we misjudge the severity of something. Or maybe we simply lack the context to truly understand what we are seeing. For example I have a buddy that almost died from a heart attack a few years back, when he thought he had the flu. That stuff happens, and is largely understandable.
It’s a VERY different scenario though when there is a problem and we KNOW it. But we pretend it isn’t there. When we ACT as though things are fine as long as we aren’t talking about it, and it’s not out in the open.
That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.
When to Deal with Issues?
Conflict isn’t fun, and I think it’s safe to say most people don’t want to deal with it.
Imagine you’re at home and you notice a drip in your bathroom faucet. Let’s imagine the progression of this problem faucet looks something like this (with some sort of time lapse between steps):
- We see the faucet dripping for the first time.
- We realize the faucet is still dripping over a period of time.
- We notice the drip is getting worse.
- Instead of a drip, we see that there is now a steady stream of water coming out of the faucet
- We notice that the room underneath the bathroom has water stains in on the ceiling.
- We notice that there is water streaming down the walls of our house.
- Sections of the ceiling below start to crumble and collapse
- We can no longer open the bathroom door, because the flow of water has gotten so strong that the water pressure is holding the door closed
Let’s face it, problems suck. However although we don’t want to, most of us recognize that there comes a point in time when we HAVE to deal with them.
WHERE we draw that line differs from person to person. For example, some people will get on an issue as soon as they see the first sign of trouble.
Personally, I would find that exhausting. I would rather wait a bit to determine if it was an actual (recurring) problem. If something happens once and then not again? Well, it might not be worth worrying about.
Thing is, when small problems aren’t addressed in time they have a tendency to grow into much larger issues. I would like to think though that most people wouldn’t allow the leaky faucet to get to step 8. Hopefully somewhere between step 2 and step 5, people will accept that there is an issue and be willing to put in whatever work is necessary to address it.
Unfortunately some don’t accept that issues need to be dealt with – ever. In fact some people will walk around their house in rubber boots with a diving mask and snorkel insisting that there’s no problem and everything is alright; as the faucets are pouring water and their house is rotting and crumbling around them.
In psychology this is known as Avoidance.
Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:
the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, activities, environments, individuals, things, or subjects of thought because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequences of such or (b) the anticipated anxious or painful feelings associated with those things or events. Psychology explains avoidance in several ways: as a means of coping- as a response to fear or shame- and as a principal component in anxiety disorders.
Avoidant people are masters at pretending that things are fine, because as long as they don’t acknowledge a problem openly they can tell themselves everything is alright.
Thing is, avoidance brings with it a slew of problems. Stealing another section from my course materials:
There is one main reason to engage in conflict, and that’s to reach a resolution. Without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions: nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.
By denying problems and refusing to deal with them avoidant people actually make things worse.
They allow small problems to grow, and ensure there is never a resolution. Nothing ever moves forward, and they end up stuck.
One of my sons hates cleaning his room. And when I ask him to, it always turns into a big production. He talks about how he doesn’t want to, and how he thinks “it’s not that bad anyhow”. Then he complains about how much time and effort it would take to clean it.
Usually it turns into some sort of power struggle where he refuses, and I’m forced to come up with some sort of consequence for not doing it as a way of getting him to clean it.
When he finally gets to cleaning it, I’m always struck by the fact that he will have spent WAY more time arguing over and fighting against cleaning his room than it actually took him. He expends all this energy “refusing” to clean his room. And if he would just DO it, a lot less time and energy would be wasted.
He’s 9, and I’m optimistic/hopeful that this is just a stage he’ll grow out of.
In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.
An avoidant person will expend a tremendous amount of effort ignoring a problem, pretending it’s not there, and refusing to deal with it.
And to a non-avoidant person faced with this, often it feels as though the issue at hand (whatever it is) is actually resolvable. And likely could have been easily resolved with considerably LESS effort than there seems to be spent ignoring the problem and maintaining a (broken) status quo.
It’s like they are trying to talk to someone while the other person is walking around with their hands over their ears chanting “la la la la la, not listening”.
Relationships with avoidant people can be difficult, because couples often get stuck with issues that often seem normal, or manageable. However because the avoidant partner won’t acknowledge the issue they are unable to move forward and improve.
So every leaky faucet has the potential to cause the whole relationship to crumble down around them.
And let’s face it, we all have leaky faucets.
Admitting to issues in your relationship is never easy, but if you don’t you can never, EVER resolve them. And you can never improve.
For any avoidant people, I ask you this – what is your goal? What is more important to you?
Is it more important to create the illusion of a perfect relationship and not have to deal with issues (even when you know that the issues are there)?
Or it is more important to have the best relationship you can?
A while back I read an article on couples counselors, and in it the counselors talked about how their ability to help a couple is often hampered because couples frequently come to them YEARS later than they should have. I suspect this is often due to avoidance, where a couple is refusing to deal with their faucets until the relationship is crumbling around them.
People can talk about priorities, but actions are much more important than words. So if someone “says” they want their relationship to be better but they refuse to work to improve it? Well, they are showing that they find the pain of a broken relationship to be less than the pain of trying to work on things. THAT shows true priority.
And if pretending things are good even when you know they are not is more important that improving, remember that if the rot sets in too deeply there will be no way to pretend any more.
Conflict comes from differences and differences are just part of who we are. Having a relationship with another person means there WILL be conflict. And accepting that conflict as normal allows you to deal with it proactively, and make your relationship the best it can be.
Strength in a relationship isn’t built through the absence of conflict, it’s built through encountering obstacles and getting through them together. So although we should never want conflict, we should always see it as an opportunity to improve on where we are.
A perfect relationship will never exist, no matter how much you pretend it does. But your relationship CAN always get stronger.
IF you accept that there are issues.
IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.
And IF you are willing to face your issues and work on them.
If you can do those things? Then your relationship will never be perfect, but it will be as strong as you make it.