Don’t be afraid of conflict in your family—it can lead to stronger relationships

Why is conflict so scary? Why do we avoid it at all costs? Why does it intimidate us so much? Why do so many people believe that healthy relationships don't have conflict? And why does the notion of a “perfect relationship” mean that there isn’t any fighting?

The first place we want to look is our family systems. How did we witness or experience conflict? Where did conflict lead?

Our first experiences of conflict set the groundwork for the story we tell ourselves about it. Did we have parents whose conflict was abusive? Did fighting lead to a divorce? Did conflict get brushed under the rug and never dealt with? Did its avoidance mean people carried around resentment and unprocessed anger that led to nasty, condescending side remarks?

Take a few moments to think about the stories you tell yourself about conflict.

Where do they come from? What fuels them? It starts with what we see and absorb, but we also have our own experiences of it that contribute as well. Maybe when we’ve brought things up to past (or current) partners it’s turned into a full on war. Maybe we bring things up and our partners respond with things like “THIS again?!?”, “Can’t you let this go?”, “I don’t think you can go a day without nagging me.” Maybe our conflict has been “too much” for others and it’s led to people leaving us.

Fill in this blank: “The story I tell myself about conflict is _____.”

What I have found in both my professional and personal life is that conflict is one of the greatest gateways to deep connection, intimacy and healing.

Why is that?

Because conflict is information. Really, really important information.

When we’re in conflict either with ourselves or others it means that something really important and informative is happening underneath the hood. There’s information that’s running rampant, looking for a way to come up and out in an effort to be heard, seen and deeply understood.

When conflict surfaces it’s because we’ve been triggered by something. We’re having an emotional reaction to something we’ve just experienced (often something that's familiar) and that information is yearning to come forward and be acknowledged and processed in a healthy way.

Problem is, that information is often confused and afraid to come forward. It believes that if it’s shared it has a high likelihood of being rejected, invalidated, made fun of, unheard or dismissed. It believes that another may not know what to do with it, and its greatest threat becomes total abandonment.

Truth is, that IS what a lot of conflict looks like, and it’s why our fears and stories around conflict get positively reinforced.

Unfortunately, I have a problem with that.

It’s my mission to shift our relationship with conflict. When we can begin to learn and accept that conflict is just information (important information), it becomes less intimidating.

When conflict is information, we start to become curious with our partners; we begin exploring what’s going on for them and what their triggers are. We start asking questions to better understand them.

From that space, stories of the people we love begin to surface and come forward. They (or we) begin feeling safe enough to share vulnerably, and we then begin to find ourselves in a space of emotional intimacy. We learn more about ourselves and our partners and begin to believe that conflict CAN lead us to learn more, connect more deeply, and begin to heal the wounds that are getting triggered.

A different type of emotional intimacy and healing is on the other side of conflict. It’s a brave and bold space to explore, but one I’d highly recommend.

Today I ask you to think about the last time you were in conflict and explore the story around that conflict. What got triggered? Where had you felt those feelings before? What did it remind you of? Did you have any concerns around sharing more fully?

We are often quick to react and criticize or complain in the face of conflict. This week try pausing and connecting deeply with your own story around what’s happening, and if you have someone who stands shoulder to shoulder and is willing and able to “go there” with you, I’d challenge you to try sharing your opportunity for connection (aka the conflict) and see where it leads you.

It may not be easy, but it’s totally worth it. All conflict has a story that wants to be heard. It’s not for everyone, but it is for some. Surround yourself with people who have the capacity to turn conflict into connection and see how beautifully you begin to transform your life and relationships.

Originally posted on Mindful Marriage & Family Therapy.

Vienna is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of New York, practicing out of New York City with Mindful Marriage & Family Therapy.  Vienna trained extensively while in Chicago at The Family Institute, Bette D. Harris Center out of Northwestern University. There she treated individuals, couples, and families in a clinic setting. Vienna also received training at Family Focus, a community outreach program, providing community-, home-, and clinic-based therapeutic services for individuals and families.
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