Falling in Love, Staying in Love:
How to Build a Strong Lasting Relationship
by Malcolm Stern & Sujata Bristow
CHAPTER 6: Conflict Management – Riding The Storms
Martin and Kim came to see me together. After nearly five years of marriage, they were about to split up. They were very polite to each other, very considerate, and I noticed that when they talked about their troubles, it was always with a smile.
We began to explore the history of the relationship. It was sexual magnetism that had drawn them together, and the dreams that they shared; to travel the world, to have children. For about six months, they were in bliss. Then Kim became pregnant. She was delighted, but for Martin it brought up a lot of fear. He was afraid that their magical relationship would be weighed down by responsibilities, and he also thought that he had to let go of the idea of travelling.
He could not share wholeheartedly in her joy, but instead of talking about his fears, he withdrew emotionally, not wanting to upset her. Kim, of course, was both upset and angry at his withdrawal, which she did not understand; but she also tried to hold back her anger. Martin, sensing it in a thousand subtle ways, withdrew further. Into this troubled atmosphere their first child was born.
Their son was three years old by the time they came for counselling, and the gulf between them had grown so wide that they no longer felt there was a relationship to work on. Amicable separation was what they hoped to achieve. Nevertheless, as we worked together, it became plain that there was a great deal of unexpressed hurt between them. When I invited them to speak some of their feelings to each other, Martin was very nervous and afraid. Kim, on the other hand, was excited at the opportunity to express her anger, and she felt that the therapeutic setting gave her the permission, and the safety, to do so.
As she opened up her store of long-held resentment, the automatic smiles disappeared. Martin’s own resentment came to the surface, and he spoke about his fear and rage as he saw his dreams dwindling away. In the weeks that followed, they began to learn how to express their feelings, and to listen to one another. As they struggled to share their truths without tearing at each other, so an unexpected enjoyment of these spirited encounters began to grow. What had been a dry and arid relationship became a juicy one. Through the spark of conflict, the spark of love was rekindled. Conventional wisdom says that relationships are destroyed by the wounds that we inflict upon each other through what we say and do, but my observation is that the reverse is true: far more relationships break up over what is not said, than over what is said. Today, Martin and Kim have a marriage that works. They are struggling with the issues of freedom and commitment – and a host of other things – but they have both learned to bring their honesty and passion into their everyday relating.
Conflict is an essential and healthy part of relationship. If we are to express ourselves and our needs at all, we will have conflict. Intentionally or unintentionally, we hurt each other, just in the course of day-to-day living.
What can we do about it? In order to bring the art of conflict into its rightful place in relationship, we have to confront in ourselves the deep-rooted conviction that says, conflict is wrong. Quarrelling is a sign that something is amiss. If I were a better human being, or if you were less controlling, selfish, bad-tempered, we wouldn’t need to fight. In a perfect relationship there is perfect harmony. Maybe I’m with the wrong person….
All of this is garbage, and it serves us not at all when it comes to making strong, resilient, loving relationships. In trying to sweep it under the carpet or treating it as a major disaster when an argument happens, we lose a precious opportunity to learn a little more about each other, to become more intimate. And, just as we discover when we begin to honour our own feelings, there is much more to the territory of conflict than we can possibly imagine from the sort of hit-and-run skirmishes around its edges that are the usual stuff of fights between partners. Here, too, there is tremendous potential for transformation, if we can only summon up the courage to stay with feelings and situations that are painful for us.
Learning the language
Once again, it is a question of learning the language; listening, to yourself and to your partner, and noticing what you do when a clash happens. You can’t stop to analyse what is going on when you are in the middle of it, but you can make an agreement to do so afterwards, and to discuss it with others outside the partnership as well. The simple act of making an agreement like this – preferably not in the heat of the moment, but when both partners are cold sober – immediately begins to transform the way you approach conflict, and the way you handle it.
What is the language of conflict? At the simplest level, it arises when one partner tries to express feelings to the other, and is met with either hurt or anger, or both. Defences then come into play, and you will notice that you have favourite ways of reacting. All the many forms of defence can be put into two groups: those that involve withdrawal, and those that involve attack. Withdrawal means closing down, retiring hurt, refusing to talk any more, or – more subtly – trying to move the ground of the conflict, and arguing from your head or shaming your partner for getting into a state. Attack means trying to wound, bringing up old scores, shouting, physically assaulting. There are, of course, infinite variations on these two themes.
Typically, an argument involves a confused and confusing mixture of tactics, with both combatants frequently shifting ground and trying to gain an advantage. It ends with the withdrawal or collapse of one partner, but both usually go away feeling wounded and morally superior. We may attempt reconciliation, but we tend to skimp on inspecting the wounds too closely, lest we stir up further conflict. We try to smooth over the hurt, to forgive and let go and get back to ‘normal’, and the original hurt is now overlaid with new ones got in the heat of the battle. It is no wonder that conventional wisdom regards conflict as inherently bad and destructive, for unless we learn some better ways of handling it, it cannot be anything else.
How can we make conflict constructive? This chapter deals with some of the ways in which we can begin to work with it, and it also looks at the art of forgiveness, or the healing of old wounds. I want to emphasise, however, that this is no easy undertaking. It is hard and painful work, and although we gain experience along the way, it will never be effortless, never without pain. It is the effort itself, choosing to go through the agony again and yet again, that gives birth to love, and provides it with the nourishment that it needs to grow.
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SETTING THE STAGE
I have talked about making an agreement that when clashes happen, time will be set aside to look at what is going on. This means that both partners must be willing to explore their own dark places, and to work towards change. In other words, this is the point at which the issue of commitment arises.
Unless both partners are willing to grow with and through the areas where they run into trouble, the relationship will inevitably move towards compromise, stagnation, or death. If they are willing, however, it is immensely helpful to make some conscious statement of commitment. This does not have to be ‘till death us do part’, but it does mean declaring an intention to stay with the process as it unfolds, not to cut and run when things get difficult.
This is a vital step towards establishing trust, and making it safe within the relationship for whatever needs to emerge. Just as becoming a parent means – in theory at least – making a pledge to be there for the new human being until he can be there for himself, so entering into mature relationship involves the same sort of commitment.
Having said that, I want to emphasise that unless both partners are willing to commit themselves to growing and working with what comes up, there can be no deal. If you are living with someone who is abusive, physically or emotionally, and he or she is not willing to change, then you owe it to yourself to get out. There is no merit in allowing yourself to be abused, and no benefit for either partner if you stay. Unless each can give honour and respect to the other, the relationship cannot evolve.
Most of us find the idea of commitment a little frightening, and for many it is terrifying. We fear being trapped, shackled to someone who may turn out to be a nightmare to live with; and what if someone better comes along? I have seen so many relationships, on the brink of moving into a new and more mature phase, come to grief because one partner or the other could not bring themselves to commit.
However, it need not be like that. Some years ago, a friend of mine was considering training to be an osteopath. The course was four years long, full time, and Michael, my friend, had no prospect of financial help. The reaction of many people he knew was, “How can you possibly make that kind of commitment? Who knows where you’ll be in four years’ time?” Michael said that if he looked at it that way, the thought of those four years filled him with dread; but he had been drifting for some years now, not realising any of his dreams, and if he did not jump one way or another, he could still be doing that for the next four years. The only way to make it possible was to make the commitment, day by day and week by week, to be with what he was doing right now. He took the course, and finished it, and is a successful practitioner now. And along the way, his closest friends became those who were also willing to take the risk of throwing their energy into making their dreams come true.
It is the same when we make a heart commitment. All we can do is to pledge ourselves, as fully as we can, for this moment. However, in the making of a pledge like this, magic happens. When we really throw our energy into relationship – with the conscious knowledge that it will always be less than 100%, simply because we are human – we create momentum. We create a place where the relationship can expand, and we can be open to the adventure and the wonder of it, as well as the burdens. If we give it as much as we can today, we are more than likely still to be here tomorrow, and next week; and it will not be the same. We will be moving, and growing.
What are we committing ourselves to? Simply this: to keep company with one another on our journey of self-realisation. As trust grows, and love grows, and we learn to express what we are feeling, so our patterns and issues from the past will surface, seeking resolution. Unconsciously at first, we will play them out within the partnership. Conflict will arise, and in that conflict is the key to becoming conscious, owning what works for us and what needs to be discarded, and healing old wounds.
These things will begin to happen whether we commit ourselves or not, but if we do not commit, there will be no container in which to hold them, and the relationship is likely to founder. Once the commitment is in place, we can begin to look at some other ways of containing conflict, so that rather than simply suffering it, we can begin to use it.
2: Clear intentions
With commitment, and the resolution to use our differences creatively, goes the forming of clear ideas about where we want our conflicts to take us. Again, this cannot be done at the height of the battle, but at some more peaceful time, preferably when neither partner is actively feeling hurt.
What it comes down to is the conscious intention to reach an outcome in which no-one is the loser. Creative conflict is not about wounding, scoring points, getting revenge or emerging victorious. It is about reaching a ‘win-win situation’, a place where both partners feel heard and respected, even if they do not necessarily get what they were originally fighting for.
It means shifting the focus, from whatever the fight was apparently about – which is often just a hook for all kinds of other things, in any case – to the quality of the interaction that goes on before, during and after the engagement. It means getting better at listening, and at expressing our feelings so that we can be heard. At the root of conflict is hurt, on one side or on both, and if this can be honoured, through expression by one person and acknowledgment by the other, the charge will be defused. It is easy to tell when this has happened, because the energy goes out of the fight, and softer feelings come to the fore.
In relationship, the desire to attack or to wound another person always springs from our own pain. We may succeed in wounding them, but although that makes us feel strong, our pain remains unheard, and we have created an enemy. This is often at its most obvious in divorce proceedings, in which two people who once loved each other go all out to humiliate and blame and score all the points they can, while nursing their hurt and grief in private. Who – apart from the lawyers – really benefits from this? And who, in their heart of hearts, really wants it?
Forming the intention that both partners should emerge as winners brings about a radical shift in the dynamics of conflict management. The intention will not automatically become the reality, but it is a step towards it. As the proverb says, ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’
3: The art of timing
There are several important points to be made about timing, that can make an immense difference to the way in which we handle conflict. I have talked in chapter five about learning to express anger, and the way in which, once we have learned to express it freely, we have to learn how to modify that expression. This has a direct bearing on the management of conflict, in that we cannot begin to do this until we are comfortable with feeling our own feelings, and capable of holding them until the time is right for their expression.
Having said that, the first point to be made about timing is not to leave it too long before saying what you need to say. If you allow things to build past the point where you are able to express them gracefully, then there is likely to be an ugly and explosive scene. We have all seen this happen in work situations, where people may hold irritations with each other for a long time, and then suddenly lose control completely over something apparently trivial. To speak out, at the time and on the ground of your choosing, is empowering; to lose your cool or allow yourself to be goaded into a reaction is not.
The second point follows from the first. Don’t hold it too long, but do choose your moment. Remember that in relationship, the most constructive outcome is that both partners ‘win’, so choose a time, as far as possible, when neither of you is in a hurry to be somewhere else, too tired or carrying other burdens, in a defensive state before you start, or when other people are around – children, for instance – with whom you do not feel free to say what may need to be said.
If you are the challenger, opening a dialogue which you know may bring up feelings of hurt or anger, then you must be generous; you are in the stronger position, and it will not help if you place your partner at a disadvantage. Recently, I went to dinner with some friends, and among the other guests were a barrister and his wife. During the meal, he made several disparaging remarks about his wife’s lack of intellect and achievement, clearly looking for support among his friends there. Not only was he perfectly comfortable with sparring in public, but he was also enjoying the fact that his wife was not. She was embarrassed, angry and hurt, but ashamed to show it in company, and so she got back at him in various covert ways, which made her appear shrewish and ungracious. Their sniping poisoned the atmosphere and did not improve anybody’s digestion. This is something that couples who are in trouble often do, but trying to get support in underhanded ways like this does not achieve anything except more bad feeling.
The third point about time is the understanding that whatever we say or do in the heat of battle should not be given too much weight. Somewhere in the process of healing our self-esteem and attending to our own wounds from the past, we gain the ability to take things lightly. When we are attacked, we can see – sometimes – that the attacker is acting from a place of pain, and we no longer have to fall victim to it. And conversely, if we have hurt somebody – whether deliberately or not – we can find the grace and the generosity to apologise, or make amends.
In the middle of a red-hot argument, however, this is far beyond our reach – and it is perfectly all right that it should be this way. During a fight, people speak and act from their anger, their hurt, their guilt. We simply need to be mad for a while, to go ‘out of our minds’ and let it all spill out, clumsy and inarticulate and unreasonable and outrageous as it may be. Children do this beautifully, yelling insults and getting into a killing rage with their siblings or close friends – and parents too, if their parents are wise enough to let them – but they do not hold it against one another for long. Once the storm has passed, they will play peacefully together.
From this we can learn the wisdom of giving it time, of letting things settle after a battle, and not trying to hammer it out endlessly or take each other to task for what we said in anger yesterday. There is a kind of dance in conflict. After an engagement in which strong feelings have been aired, it makes sense to move apart for a time, to take space and allow those feelings to subside. They are not the whole truth, and with time other, more gentle feelings will rise to the surface. It becomes possible to see the other person’s point of view, even if you still do not agree with it.
Now is the time to come together again, to acknowledge the hurts that have been given, and to talk over the new thoughts and feelings that have emerged. Sometimes resolution happens without any effort at all, because self-expression was all that was needed. Sometimes there is a great deal of work to be done, as the conflict uncovers issues that need to be worked on. The main point here is that the argument itself is not the end of the world, although it may feel like it at the time. It is part of a process, and that process will take time to unfold.
4: Getting support
The old way of dealing with disagreements was to avoid them as far as possible, and if it was not possible, to fight in private. In our culture, it is unusual to see people lose their tempers in public. When we do it, we feel that we have ‘lost face’, unless it is a case of righteous indignation. There is a general disapproval of people who ‘air their dirty linen’ in front of others, although doing it covertly, like the couple I described earlier, is actually very common.
Hence, we often find it very difficult to build a support network that can contain conflict. It is one thing to discuss your grievances with friends who will affirm you and pass judgment on your partner, but this does not actually help the relationship to grow. For that we need friends and counsellors who are willing to act as witnesses, who will reflect back to us their sense of what is going on. We need, at times, to use them as ‘seconds’, to be present while we try to disentangle the strands of hurt and pain in the relationship. Then, we can ask them to hold the boundaries of the engagement, interpret our words to each other, identify the patterns that emerge, and make sure that both sides have been expressed and heard.
In this area of relationship, more than anywhere else, we simply cannot do it on our own. It is one of the great tragedies of our time that, although relationship guidance is freely available through Relate and other forms of counselling, people so often only turn to this resource in desperation, when it is already too late, and the relationship has been damaged beyond healing.
The time to call on the support of friends or counsellors is when you feel that things have begun to drift, and you cannot address it on your own. Perhaps you have tried to express your feelings and not been met, or perhaps you are afraid of what your partner’s reaction will be. Get support; bring in a friend or friends, people who care about both of you, and whom you can both trust. Choose the time and the place, and give the issue the energy it deserves. Both the partnership and the friendship will be enriched in the process.
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FORGIVENESS: Good Housekeeping
When we have been hurt by someone, whether it happened twenty minutes or twenty years ago, a bond is formed. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we invest energy in that person. If we do not or cannot choose to express our hurt feelings, then the bond remains, and it continues to take energy.
As human beings, we are constantly striving to be whole, to realise ourselves more fully. So it is that old wounds will ache from time to time, reminding us that healing is not complete. And it is the peculiar property of intimate relationships, what makes them such an extraordinary crucible for transformation, that whether we are aware of it or not, we will try to use them to settle these old scores.
If, for example, you had a teacher at school who humiliated you in some way, you would have had to swallow your feelings of shame and rage, or invite further trouble. These feelings leave a stain, a sensitive place; and when, years later, your partner says or does something that evokes that childhood wound, you will both be taken aback by the vigour and intensity of your reaction. In fact, you may well unconsciously set this up to happen.
If the whole process remains unconscious, your partner will feel unjustly attacked, and you will be left nursing your hurt. This business of ‘dumping on’ a partner goes on a lot in relationship, and it is a repeated invitation to wake up, start to put your house in order and attend to all those old wounds. And as we do start to wake up, as we honour our own feelings and learn the language of the other, it becomes more and more imperative that we undertake this work of forgiveness, for our own sake, and for the sake of our loved ones.
Forgiveness, then, is an act of creation; a sweeping out of dark corners, and a freeing up of energy that can be put to good use in the here and now. It does not mean turning the other cheek, practising saintliness and being ‘nice’ to your persecutors. In doing that, we do further violence to ourselves. Nor does it mean simply deciding to forget about it and get on with living. Before we can do that, there is a process that we must go through, and there are no short cuts. This process is outlined below.
FIVE STEPS TO FORGIVENESS
Once again, it is very important to be clear in your intentions. You cannot forgive because someone else wants you to. The only valid starting point for forgiveness is the point where you have healed your self-esteem enough to know, however dimly, that not forgiving is holding you to your pain. Once, the feelings of anger and hurt, or the desire for retribution, may have helped you to survive, but now you have other and healthier uses for the energy invested there. So your intention is to free yourself, for your own benefit. If you still want reparation or revenge, you are not yet ready to forgive.
2: Honouring the pain
Before we can forgive, we have to honour our own feelings. If you have been wounded, you will feel hurt. Whether you are aware of it or not, you will also be angry. There may be a host of other feelings, too, depending on the circumstances. The task in hand is to allow these feelings, without censorship and without trying to water them down. We may need witnesses, we may need help, and we will certainly need time. It can be done through therapy, and through a thousand creative projects: writing, painting, acting, making a garden.
We may need to go over the same ground again and again, slowly and patiently, reliving and releasing a little each time. Deep wounds cannot discharge all at once. There are layers upon layers of pain, old traumas overlaid by new ones. This work proceeds spiral-wise; there will be periods of remission, when the hurt fades and your attention is given to other things, and then it will present itself once more.
And finally, just as we need help to find our way in to our feelings, so we may need help in knowing when we have done enough to honour them. It is possible to get hooked on intensity, to find a kind of joy in fierce anger or deep grieving, that can be hard to let go of, especially if you have cherished these feelings in your heart for many years. They make you feel real, and alive; without them, what will you be?
I have been working for the last year or so with Martha, who is in her mid-twenties. When she was a young child, she was sexually abused by her father, and she left home as soon as she could and broke off all contact with her family. Towards her father, she felt an intense rage and hatred. When she heard that he was dying, she rejoiced. He contacted her, wanting to make peace before he died, but Martha’s reaction was one of contempt and furious rejection; let him suffer, as she had suffered.
One day, she brought with her a letter that her father had written. Until then, we had been following her feelings as they arose, and it seemed clear that she was far from ready to forgive. As I read the letter, however, a new picture of her father began to emerge. He wrote that he was truly sorry, that he was appalled at the damage he had caused, and that if he could live his life again, things would be very different. There was no self-justification, nothing for Martha to hang her anger upon; simply a very moving appeal, not for her forgiveness, but for some kind of meeting before it was too late.
The letter seemed to me to be a statement of genuine repentance. Martha was furious, as usual, but it struck me that there was a hollow quality to her anger; she was clinging to it, wrapping it around her like a protective cloak. Protective against what? In asking the question, the answer became clear. Without her rage, who would she be? Behind the anger was terror.
It was a turning point in our work together, and the beginning of a new task; the building of a Martha who was much more than an abused and grievously wounded child. She did go to see her father, for she felt now that if she did not, she would carry regret for the rest of her life. There was no Hollywood-style scene of last-minute reconciliation as he lay on his deathbed, but now that she was finding new ground to stand on where she was not his victim, they were able to meet, and there was healing in it for both of them.
3: Breaking new ground
Martha’s story also illustrates another aspect of the forgiveness process. At the same time as we are giving our pain the attention that it deserves, we also need to expand our lives into other areas that are untouched by old wounds. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds. It does not mean finding distractions and trying to forget about it. Instead, it means making a conscious choice to widen our options, to strengthen the fragile, often almost stifled, self that says, this is not all of who I am. There is much more to me than being a victim.
In making this creation of space into a conscious spiritual practice, we reduce the impact of the wounding in our lives, we can allow ourselves to be nourished in whatever we choose to do, and we pave the way for the grace to come to us that will finally enable us to forgive.
4: Conscious forgiveness
Sometimes, as we proceed with the work of honouring our feelings and widening our horizons – steps two and three – forgiveness comes about, gently, of its own accord. This happened for Rose, a client of mine who had been working for two years or so on the damage done to her by her father, who had physically and sexually abused her. To begin with, she had nothing but dark memories of her childhood. She painted a picture of constant bickering between her parents, rising unpredictably to violent rage, and she remembered no affectionate physical contact at all.
The intensity of her unlocked feelings had begun to diminish, and Rose was taking a break from therapy for a few months – focussing instead on ‘real life’, as she put it – when she began, unexpectedly, to recall memories that had a different flavour; moments of good parenting. They were accompanied by feelings of tenderness towards her father, with the understanding that he had been, in his way, no less a victim than she herself. She realised, with some surprise, that she had forgiven him.
However, we cannot count on this happening. If you have come to the point where you actively want to forgive, but you know that you cannot quite let go, a ritual of some kind can help you to go through that last barrier. It is important to devise it yourself, or to take some part in creating it, so that you forgive exactly as much as you choose, and in your own way. It can be solitary, or you can use witnesses or other participants.
Ritual is a very potent tool for transformation. It provides containment, a focussing for our intentions and our actions, and it acknowledges the power of spirit, our own and whatever higher powers we choose to call upon, to take us through when we cannot manage on our own. It can be as simple as a prayer, or a symbolic act of letting go, such as burying or burning something that represents the past; or it can be as elaborate as your imagination allows.
I have been working with Vicky, who is sixteen years old. Three years ago, her mother killed herself, and since then Vicky had been in a frozen state, unable to grieve because of her suppressed rage, and unable to rage because of her terrible guilt. Together, we set up a ritual, in which she brought a picture of her mother, and lit a candle in front of it. The only instruction was that she was to talk to her mother, and to allow whatever feelings came up, without censorship. Because we had created a sacred space, removed from the everyday world, Vicky was at last able to let herself be with her feelings, in a way that had not been possible for her with her family, her friends, or myself as her counsellor. It was clear to her that she needed to forgive her mother for taking her own life, and with the help of the ritual, she was able to begin to do this.
5: After forgiveness
How do you know when you have truly forgiven? It is easy to pretend to ourselves, because we want to be generous and loving, but if there is still resentment, if old scores still come up when you are feeling vulnerable, then you have not forgiven. The mark of forgiveness, as Rose discovered, is when other and softer feelings arise. Sometimes, we cannot even recall what we felt any more; the energy invested there has been freed, and put to other uses.
More often, however, we are left with a mixture of feelings, and the hallmark of forgiveness is not so much that the hurt or anger is gone for good, as that it no longer hooks us; we can feel it, acknowledge it, and move on. Then, we are as free as we can ever be from the tangles of the past, and available for intimate relationship in the here and now.
Falling In Love, Staying In Love
Falling in Love, Staying in Love:
How to Build a Strong Lasting Relationship
by Malcolm Stern & Sujata Bristow
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