Most of us are afraid of conflict. We find ways of avoiding it or solving it without really having to deal with it. Often all that we do to avoid the conflict can cause more problems than the conflict itself. Perhaps, if we changed the way we see conflict it would change how we respond to it. Dr. David Schnarch, a well known relationship therapist, says that every relationship is like a crucible. Crucibles primarily do two things: they get REALLY hot AND they refine, or burn off impurities.
Intimate or close relationships also can get REALLY hot (that’s the conflict) and it is this heat, or conflict, that can serve to refine…they help us grow…as individuals and also in our relationships.
The idea is that if we see conflict as a chance to grow, mostly ourselves as a person, but also the relationship, then we will respond to conflict in a very different way.
Using conflict as a chance to grow requires something of us as individuals. It requires us to self-soothe so that we can tolerate the heat (conflict) in the first place. If we run away we will never have the opportunity to receive the gifts that the tension can actually bring. You can “run away” in a variety of ways. Some of it looks like acting out as a child. You can bite the person’s head off, start a silent treatment, slam a door, or, in fact, leave. I am guessing these behaviors sound familiar to most of us.
I want to stop here and say that “staying in the heat” never means enduring abuse of any kind. It also doesn’t mean foregoing sleep or other self-care. Sometimes “staying in the heat” of conflict means being able to say “good night” and wait until the next morning. Sometimes it means taking a break with a plan to come back and continue the discussion.
Conflict has so much to teach us. What triggers us? What brings up a reaction? What reminds us of past wounds? What are our prejudices and biases?
My challenge to you is the next time you get into some “heat” with someone you love, rather than inspecting them, take time to inspect yourself. What is going on inside of you? What story are you telling yourself? What is it that you really want to share with your loved one?
In close (and safe) relationships, resolving conflict often involves vulnerability. It requires us to slow down and do some introspection. It requires us to share what is going on INSIDE of us...not just OUTSIDE of us. It requires us to be willing to do some growing of our OWN, rather than just demanding the other person get it together.
The next time conflict in your life takes place, whether it is at home or at work, try to see is as an opportunity. Whether you decide confronting the conflict with the other person is “safe”, appropriate or not (in some situations it isn’t), you can still use the experience to learn some things about yourself. Fear often blinds us. Don’t let fear steal the growth opportunities available in the crucible of conflict by blinding you in the moment.
These spaces are NOT easy. It is often a process to learn from these moments. A good therapist can help you lean into these spaces in a safe and healthy way.