When Things Fall Apart
Frozen in Amber
I realize I’m not completely conflict avoidant, after all, I was elected trustee in the village where I lived, I volunteer to be a lightning rod for the really hard things on the board and community, and I was always willing to act as a mediator to find some way to transform the conflicts of the people around me. I will speak my own experience and opinion in the face of people invested in the status quo.
Apparently, I prefer to avoid my own loss by helping others. I’ve proven I can absolutely engage in the hard things with an awareness that we are all in this together and that is how I approach their problems. Always other people’s conflicts.
However, if I love you too often I’m conflict avoidant. An uncomfortable pattern with family relationships and romantic relationships.
There are reasons for that right?
Which stifles intimacy and vulnerability because I’m caught up in maintaining and protecting the relationship and not growing the relationship. Relationships froze in amber, beautiful and dead.
Toss in some abandonment issues, the family of origin damage perpetuated across generations by good people with their own family of origin damage and my general unskillfulness at intimacy makes perfect sense to me now.
That’s not an excuse but knowing this experience helps with transforming my internal conflicts from basic clemency to meaningful forgiveness.
In truth, I’d be more comfortable if every conflict was negotiated by email or text message because I can think about what I want to say and intend. It puts a buffer between my mouth and my fears. It allows for a few breaths and self-soothing. It also allows me a way to move in while still being out of reach of the real and imagined sucker punches. It never occurs to me that during hard moments in my life someone might be reaching out to hug me and not hook me.
A painfully true awareness and these are some of the obstacles to growing my relationships and moving closer to the conflicts that are essential to growth and intimacy.
I’ve learned through this experience that growth requires pain. Caterpillars, childbirth, teething, and weight lifting all require suffering pain and physical discomfort to grow something important and necessary. Why would growing love be different? Why would I expect growing love to be easy or require maintaining the status quo? Isn’t the depth of loss a corollary to gratitude? Isn’t there an equal but opposite reactions? The deeper the shadow the higher the sun?
Why do I think conflict is a sign that something is wrong? Why do I think I should know how to do something I’ve never done before or understood something about another person’s heart they have never actually expressed?
Relationship experts from the Gottmans, Perel, Brown, Tatkin, and others all say the same thing: arguing with your partner builds relationship resiliency and opportunity. Conflict isn’t the problem.
How we argue is what causes the problem.
Are we leveraging criticisms, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling? Those are learned unskillfulness. We can learn new skills but it is terrifying and scary to get out of those stuck places. We have to be willing to move into the experience: sit when we want to flee, breathe when we want to hide, feel when we want to fight.
Fucketty. Who has time for that shit? smh.
Recently, my Good Doctor asked me to make a list of all the places I’ve done the difficult thing and walked into the conflict.
Here is a short list:
- I’ve written all four of the primary interlopers and apologized if I hurt their feelings and asked for a conversation to sit and talk. Three of the four simply shot off insults and labels.
- I’ve offered to sit with C’s family and listen to anything they have to say and been met with more silence.
- I showed up at court when I could have run.
- I moved home after seven months and reached out to C asking for a conversation knowing it would be ignored and my intentions spun into a ghost story.
- I’ve gone to hundreds of hours of counseling and confronted my ghosts and listened to them.
- I publically speak my truth even in the face of stinging criticisms.
Each of these actions is a result of applying my truths and learning new skills. Each of these was an act of vulnerability. As such, I realize, I’m no longer acting avoidant if I keep trying. Even if it is unskilled.
I realized looking at the list I’m not conflicted avoidant. In fact, I have consistently used this experience to move towards the conflict. Partially, at first, because I knew it was the only shot at reconciliation with C but also because I knew it was the only path towards recovering my self-respect and power.
In my case the issue isn’t the conflict, it’s the unskill ways I respond to the conflict: sulking, silence, avoidance, lying, defensiveness, and deflecting to name a few. It wasn’t until Brene Brown’s book, and this conversation around my life, did I realize I needed to move towards the conflict to transform the conflict. I have to be willing to lose it all to move towards what I cherish. Perhaps if I moved towards the relationship I cherished with C, instead of trying to freeze the moment in amber it would still be alive? Perhaps it wasn’t my responsibility to keep her happy after all?
It is by embracing the pain and discomfort that I grow. Perhaps, like so much else I need to transform the conversation by using a more authentic language: today I’m not conflict avoidant, I simply lack the skills and confidence in facing conflict.
I’m owning that too.
Brene Brown: Last question! I spend most of my time preparing my argument when other people are talking. I want to be ready to counter. Yet I hate it when people do that to me. I can tell when someone’s not really listening. It feels terrible. How can you slow things down in the midst of conflict?
Dr. Michelle Buck: One of the most essential steps in the transformative communication, and perhaps the most courageous is not only to be open-minded but to listen with a desire to learn more about the other person’s perspective. I believe, and tell my students, one of the most courageous things to say in an uncomfortable conversation is “tell me more.” Exactly when we want to turn away and change the topic, or just end the conversation, or counter, as you say, we all also have the opportunity to ask what else we need to know to fully understand the other person’s perspective. Help me understand why this is so important to you, or help me understand why you don’t agree with a particular idea. And then we have to listen. Really listen. Listen to understand, not about agreeing or disagreeing. We have to listen to understand in the same way we want to be understood.
A Novel Idea
There is a lot of meat in this interview but I think this is the most complicated to apply.
Much of the damage to myself has been a result of me actively listening to the silence and imagining I know what is being said.
But I don’t.
And what was said I don’t hear.
When my xp has spoken, I’ve pleaded in a thousand different ways for my xp to “tell me more.” She can’t or she won’t.
Maybe because my response came across as a tuba blurting out questions or maybe because she doesn’t actually know how.
Or maybe because I don’t listen, I respond; I don’t wait, I interrupt.
Regardless, I understand moving forward in my relationships moving closer is an essential skill I have to develop if I want to have a relationship where conflict is a driver of intimacy and not simply leveraged as a weapon of mass destruction.
In February last year I discovered a novel idea, and in a plea to my xp asked her, “if you can’t talk to me like you love me, would you try to talk about me like I’m someone you loved once and loves you?”
She can’t…but I have tried every day to offer that grace and generosity to her. It had been my attempt to move towards the conflict and as such, towards a deeper inimacy. Not just the conflict between her and I but the conflicts within myself.
A year later the principle takes on an ever deeper intention.