Conflict happens from time to time in relationships. Conflicts are bound to happen more often when people do not share values. The focus of today’s entry is more along the lines of when people share values. This is most commonly the case when people are long time friends, husband and wife, adult siblings, or in some kind of non-corporate and non-governmental employment situation together.
The first thing to note in a conflict is the exact moment when things “felt off”. It could be sudden, as in the case of some obvious violation, or a growing sense of discord that came with several behaviors in succession. Depending on the trust in the relationship, you can work to establish when exactly this occurred. With people who do not share your values, you may have to figure out this flashpoint for yourself. When both parties understand the moment “things felt off”, it’s important to know that there are several ways to proceed. Fighting is easy. Negotiation is more difficult until you have it conditioned like a muscle.
The conflict may have arisen from confusion. One or both parties may lack the clarity required to know exactly what is going on: who did what when, and what the rule for the situation is. It is important not to get into a “battle of certainties” with someone you care about. This quickly turns to bullying, lying, bluffing, and all other manner of unproductive conflict resolution strategies that tend to drag you down into the darkest moments of your childhood. You may simply have a case of confusion. Or the other person may. It’s worth checking for.
Once confusion or a lack of confusion has been established, it’s important to determine what belongs to who. Conflict happens when one person crosses over into the space of another person. A biting remark was made. A frustration boiled over into castigation. A gnawing habit is no longer tolerable. Someone said something that was untrue. There’s money trouble. Someone is overly defensive or withdrawn. There are endless variations.
What matters is being clear to not blur the lines between people. One person feels one thing, the other feels another thing. Basic projection is attributing your emotion or problem onto another person. This is the most common impediment to progress in conflict resolution. Establishing who feels how may seem silly and far too “in the room” but it also is accurate and leaves no room for interpretation.
With the “what belongs to who” question out of the way, you can determine what is a proper negotiation toward resolution. Does it involve an apology? Can the person who was the aggressor (or the passive-aggressor) find the courage to give an honest apology? What’s the split in the conflict? Is it 50-50? Most conflicts in long-term relationships are, especially romantic ones, because people know who it is that they’ve chosen to be with. Ownership of fault in conflict is supremely important. We know what belongs to who, emotionally, but we also have a kind of Conflict Property Rights math at play. We can only do this if we are guided by ethics. It’s good to be good. It’s wrong to lie. It’s wrong to lust, thieve, cheat, coerce, yell, seduce, withdraw for reasons not having to do with the other person, to abandon… these kinds of rules.
Fault and culpability are not all that important to get hung up on. You can get out of resentment by understanding the origins of a problematic behavior. This involves a self-knowledge survey of what in one’s childhood origins contributes to the problematic or challenging behavior today. This is more in the realm of advanced conflict resolution, so we’ll leave it here for today!