by Ashley Abercrombie
Many people falsely believe that every tension must be resolved before we can move forward in a relationship, and if resolution does not seem possible, it feels easier to stay silent, gossip about the situation, or use our words in a way that tears the other person down rather than working toward resolution. We are hesitant to face the immediate pain that comes from engaging in a conflict (or we blow up as another form of avoidance) because we do not keep the end goal of intimacy and connection in mind.
The first step is acknowledging that confrontation is part of every relationship. When people go to the gym, resistance is what builds strength. It’s the same in real life—tension helps us grow. Without resistance bearing down on us, we’ll have no opportunity to practice patience, honesty, and listening during a conflict. Like it or not, conflict is here to stay.
Most of us have a knee-jerk response to confrontation— fight, flight, or freeze. Fighters tend to respond quickly in the moment. Their level of emotional and mental health determines how aggressive that response is. Flight folks flee conflict immediately, and again, their level of health determines the degree. People with the freeze response may look like a deer in headlights, but usually what happens, and why this is potentially the most dangerous response, is they do not literally freeze but rather go through the motions. They may seem to be a high-functioning person, say the “right thing” or compromise, or do what is considered “appropriate,” but inside they are disconnected and shutting down.
This might be why suddenly a marriage ends or a relationship goes away. Freeze responders tend to struggle to express emotions and share honestly about the internal and external realities they face. Good news for us: we might have a particular leaning, but we’re all a combination of all three of these responses. Any given situation can pull any of them from us.
Have you ever been in an argument about something and all of a sudden the other person brings up what you did on February 4, 1996, and November 10, 2003, and also has a list of other unaddressed problems? This usually results in either a knockdown, drag-out fight or a complete shutdown. Whenever we feel terrible about ourselves, we’ll struggle to manage conflict well. Such dredging can be a way for one person in the relationship to avoid acknowledging the hurt or harm they’ve caused. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they bring up issues from the past or other unresolved conflicts, which allows room for avoidance and shifting the blame. When this happens, redirect. “I know that was a really tough time in our relationship and it’s important to talk about any unresolved hurt we may carry from that conflict. But right now, I think it’s important for us to focus on the issue at hand, which is this.” Stick to the original issue, one thing at a time.
When pursuing healthy conflict, recovery work is a gift, and there are a few principles we need to stick by to create an atmosphere free from blame, shame, advising, and fixing. First, we start our shares with “I,” not with “you.” For example, “When you said this, it made me feel like this. Is that what you in- tended?” or “When you did this, it made me feel like this. Can you see how that was hurtful?” Immediately, this causes us to switch from blaming the other person for our emotions to taking responsibility for our emotions. We’re also inviting the other person to share their intentions or reasons behind what they did or said. At the end of the other person’s share or perspective, a great question our marriage mentors taught us to ask is, “Is there more?” And then we mirror the response. “What I hear you saying is this. Do I have that correct?” It creates a healthier dialogue.
In recovery, we follow the no cross talk principle. Cross talk is when you talk over someone as they share, or offer them tips and ideas, or begin to talk about yourself. Nope, none of that belongs in a conflict. There’s no interrupting, just active listening. We’re not there to fix, advise, or save but to listen, dialogue, and connect. If we have some advice we want to give, instead of offering it unsolicited, we can ask, “Can I share with you something that really helped me when I went through something similar?” Or “Would you like me just listen, or do you need help with solutions?” Nothing shuts a person down like all your advice precisely nobody asked for.
In a conflict, and in relationships in general, remember that an unspoken expectation is an unfair expectation. Learn to say what you need, think and feel. Create safe space for others to do the same. How can you begin to view conflict as an opportunity for connection and growth, rather than isolation and frustration?
Ashley Abercrombie is the queen of geriatric pregnancies and author of Rise of the Truth Teller and Love Is the Resistance: Learn to Disagree, Resolve the Conflicts You’ve Been Avoiding and Create Real Change. She is the cohost of the Why Tho Podcast and the Executive Board Chair of Treasures, an outreach to women in the sex industry and victims of sexual exploitation. Ashley lives in Los Angeles with her partner and three children. Learn more at ashabercrombie.org.