I’m a bit conflict-avoidant. Not avoidant of what I perceive as low-risk conflict. I rather enjoy debates about a host of issues and semantic questions. That’s mental stimulation that keeps me thinking and searching for more information while honing my argumentative skills. Not the hostile kind of argument. The persuasive sort requiring a blend of quick wit, precise vocabulary, and the ability to reason. Ethos, logos, and pathos. Those are the conflicts that feed by brain, hone my debate skills, and stir my blood.
I don’t like the kind of conflict that makes me sweat, my heart race, and my stomach to flip. I doubt many people do, although I understand that some people like adrenaline rushes, like the kind that come from bungee jumping or climbing to the top of the monkey bars. Those rushes just make me feel sick. It’s not just the physiological effects of conflict bother me. It scares me and just doesn’t fit well with my general tendency to want people not to hate me or just not to talk about me with nasty words behind my back. Cowardly? Maybe.
But conflict happens. Sometimes it’s heat-of-the-moment conflict, the kind more likely to occur with the ones you love the most. In the perceived safety of family, it’s easy to behave badly. I know. I’ve done it. Today. And earlier this week. Other times, it’s conflict with a bit more distance, the kind that occurs over the meeting table at work or church or in an online discussion with friends or acquaintances. It’s reasonable and even preferable to avoid the low-stakes squabbles that can open rifts in these communities or our own homes. But sometimes, introducing conflict — or even potential conflict — is necessary for growth, change, and even deeper love.
In my over forty years on this journey of life, I’ve been in conflict with more people than I care to count. Too many times, the conflict was a waste of emotion and time while being damaging to the relationship and to myself. Too often I’ve sacrificed my principles in the heat of a conflict-turned-argument (and not the fun kind). In no particular order, I’ve misassigned blame, name-called, brought up old wrongs, argued from misunderstanding another, and committed a thousand other disagreement sins. Oh, I can go on and on and on… And every time — every single time — the process shreds me. The adrenaline that carried me through my diatribe leaves me sick and sad, shameful of my loss of control and ready to slink under a rock.
I do get it right sometimes. Most of the time, I can raise my concerns in a peaceful, productive way. I tend to forget about these non-events where I say what I need to say in a way that respects the other’s dignity and worth since they don’t leave me either giddy with success nor depleted and sick of my own voice. But they happen. And that’s where I’m stuck. Why does it work so well sometimes, my ability to enter conflict — or perceived conflict? Why other times does it utterly fail?
A recent explosion at someone I love set me thinking about this. Or more precisely, our conversation after my return to sanity set me thinking. It’s far to easy for me to ignore the build up to serious conflict. While I’m generally fairly emotionally attuned to others, I’m not always so attuned with my own heart. Conflict bothers me. Perceived conflict, genuine conflict, the idea of conflict. It all undoes me. So I’ve become pretty skilled at denying I’m starting to feel it. That works at times. Most differences, after all, don’t matter and don’t really need mentioning.
At some points, though, in some circumstances, it rushes up though, unbidden and unwelcome, surprising me and, likely, whomever is suddenly in the role of opponent. And I’m off. Now, this only happens with those to whom are closest to me, the very people I want least to be in conflict with. And that’s likely the key. I’d rather pass off those first nudges of irritation as misplaced since, after all, this is someone I love. How could I be irritated? Or more to the point, how could I ever tell them that I’m irritated?
When I explode at my children — the very people whom I love the most — it sometimes is borne out of this lack of awareness. More often, it’s borne out of fear. These are the beings whom I brought into the world, and they are my responsibility. While I’m not vain enough to think how they turn out is under my control, I’m also aware that what happens as they grow has at least something to do with how they are raised, and I’m the one doing the bulk of the raising. And educating. That all weighs heavily on my shoulders, especially as my older reaches for 16. What if I’ve done it wrong? How many poor choices did I make? Why didn’t I do this…or not do that? And in that questioning whirling upstairs, something small can suddenly seem very big. Fear over the future and my own competence can make a normal tween or teen issue loom large. Kaboom.
If awareness if the first step, I’ve been standing on it firmly for a while. The next is increasing my awareness of that building of tension, the feeling I push down because it isn’t an “appropriate” feeling. My dear friend reminds me that, in any relationship, conflict is inevitable. We are just simply too different from each other to avoid it. Well, that blows my first choice — just ignoring those differences or trying to accommodate them all on my own. It seems a wiser path would be acknowledging those issues earlier. Rats.
Despite my disappointment about the inevitability of conflict between humans with differing minds and hearts, I know he’s right. Even when I don’t enter a conflict, I’m dragged down by the unpleasant sensation of feeling upset about a situation while feeling that I’m a rat of a friend/coworker/relative for just having the feeling. While I’m often called assertive, I find it hard to be so in these close situations, at least when I feel out of sorts about something between me and the other. I’ve committed to trying, and while its unlikely anyone will burst into flames if I raise a small concern, the whole idea of disagreeing about something personal that matters brings a sheen to my forehead.
And so I’ll try. I doubt I’m alone in my desire to avoid gut-wrenching (or just briefly awkward) conflict, and I’d love to hear with others about how they manage this with aplomb and peace, or just without wanting take to bed. And if you’re avoiding and exploding too, share that. I’d like to know I’m not alone in that less-than-healthy trend. And if we disagree? Hey, I hear that’s just what happens sometimes. I’m sure we can handle it.