Many of us hate conflict. Especially when it comes to conflict with friends or people we care about. We fear the impact upon the relationship. We fear the consequences of expressing ourselves. Whilst we often can let loose on family and partners safe in the knowledge they will (probably) stick around, with friends it’s a different story. The idea of presenting someone with our authentic feelings about a situation makes us feel deeply uncomfortable and we end up swallowing our anger or distress to avoid something worse: conflict.
But sometimes avoidance doesn’t feel like much of a solution. We have to sit on our feelings, never communicating or having the opportunity to repair the damage done. If we keep finding ourselves upset or angry with a particular person the relationship may suffer as we build resentments. We may find that we are full of pent up anger, sadness or pain. All unexpressed.
What happens to unexpressed emotion? A couple of things. First of all, it usually pops out somewhere. Often not where it belongs. We might find it easy to show our irritation in the context of some relationships but not others, so our parents for example might end up taking the hit that was meant for someone else.
Secondly, it can become cumulative. We get upset for example when people talk to us in a condescending way. Each time it happens we just suck it up. Each new time it happens after that we’re not just responding from how we feel in this precise moment, we’re dragging along all the things that went before too and when we do react we end up responding disproportionately, not able to separate past and present, not really directing our anger where it belongs, not really being able to judge accurately if we’re even being treated badly or not. Sometimes we end up becoming highly sensitised to certain kinds of slights from others and then we’re prone to mishearing, misinterpreting and misdirecting our feelings.
Thirdly, we can end up being passive aggressive. We may be full of anger towards our friend for something or other and we don’t say anything. But we let them know. This kind of communication is indirect, and may take the form of sulking, withdrawing, or being obstructive. Usually the person on the receiving end gets the message that something is wrong, but they probably won’t know exactly what they’ve done and can end up feeling pretty badly treated themselves. Passive aggressive behaviour can give the whole relationship a negative charge.
So by now we’re probably in agreement that talking it through might be a better plan. Yet this can feel like an unbearable agony that we’d rather avoid no matter what. If that sounds like you, here are seven ways through:
Recognise that conflict is normal: All long and intense relationships involve a little conflict and it does not have to mean that the relationship is broken. If you have not had very secure early relationships, such as if you experienced abandonment or a lack of emotional attunement from caregivers, you may not have had the experience to give you confidence that relational ruptures can be resolved. In these circumstances, it is easy to believe that a conflict is a disaster for the relationship and will lead to irreparable damage. But generally if there is enough goodwill and positive feeling between you, most relationships can withstand some ups and downs.
Adopt a spirit of good will: Most people who annoy or hurt us – especially when it’s friends we’re talking about - are not deliberately setting out to do that. Possibly they would be mortified if they knew they’d hurt you. Okay, this isn’t always the case, but it’s worth checking with yourself as most of the time hurting the other person is not the motivation – at least not consciously. The motivation may be to communicate their own hurt by giving you a dose of it, but there’s something at the back of it that is unconscious. The person in question is reflecting their own personality as well as something about you and them in relationship. Coming from a position of goodwill doesn’t mean denying your anger or frustration, but means avoiding shifting to a place of feeling entirely negative in relation to your friend and allowing one problem to colour your whole experience of them.
Look for the co-created element of the conflict: Think how you would like to be treated if someone was angry with you. You would probably want to know. And we would all be a lot more receptive to these kinds of discussions if they were conducted with some sensitivity, rather than an all-out attack. Imagine someone has hurt you because they’d thoughtlessly or unknowingly bashed up against one of your hot buttons. Imagine for example that you really struggle with not feeling heard and your friend repeatedly disregards your opinion. The fact remains, it’s your hot button. That’s not to say that they have no responsibility or have not done anything wrong. What it does mean is, own your part. When you get away from blame, you avoid attacking. Then the other person doesn’t get defensive and you don’t end up trying to outdo each other in terms of who did what and basically who is the bad guy. Unless someone has done something that is very clearly unambiguously wrong, you’re better off approaching it as: We’ve got ourselves into this, how can we work it out? Approach a discussion with curiosity, open to another perspective. You could say something like, ‘I had a really strong reaction when you said x the other day. I’m really sensitive about not being heard and I wanted to talk it over with you.’
Let go of being right: When we feel wronged we can become convinced that we are all right and the other person all wrong. We want others to see it and agree with us and the other person also to ultimately realise how awful they have been, acknowledge it, be sorry and never do it again. But many conflicts are not so easily organised into the goodies and the baddies. As above, they are often co-created. We move forward more easily when we can let go of convincing the other person of our rightness, and instead allow both parties to be heard and share their experience of the other.
Respect the relationship: Give it the chance to heal. This is denied when negative feelings remain unspoken and unresolved. An additional upside of this is that when we go through rupture and repair we have experiences that teach us that relationships are not fragile things that can be lost with any wrong word. Instead, we grow a sense of robustness, that we and our relationships have the capacity to cycle through rupture and repair, and from this experience we develop security.
Know your boundaries: Taking account of all of the above points, it’s still important to have boundaries and limits around what’s okay and not okay. We might find certain people or friendships don’t work for us because our boundaries get crossed. It doesn’t necessarily mean that person is terrible, but it may mean that you are not a good fit as friends. Or it may be that a friend has behaved in a way which is not acceptable and you do not have an inclination to work through the conflict or get back on track. It’s okay to let go when a relationship doesn’t work for you.
Stop being a perfectionist: When you let others off the hook, you can let yourself off the hook too. Your friends aren’t perfect and neither are you. At times they are going to get it wrong, say the wrong thing, offend, or cause pain. This happens. It’s worth not holding everyone (or yourself) to such a very high standard. Having boundaries is about knowing where your limits are, but not setting the bar unrealistically. Some conflict is a normal part of a relationship. Every little blip doesn’t all need to be held on to, analysed and discussed. Some can be taken as the regular up and down. How do you know the difference? I’d be guided by this: Is the problem a pattern in your relationship? If so, then address it. It will happen again and resentment will grow. Secondly, ask yourself: Is it a big deal? Let your feelings let you know how far to take it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know when to try to put things right and when to let go, or how much of an issue is about us and how much about them. When we have particular patterns that repeat in our lives, it’s generally signalling that there’s something about you or how you are in relationships that you need to take a look at. Online psychotherapy or online counselling can help with this. Contact me for a free initial consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org.