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Conflict: What an Opportunity

How your relational power struggles can grow you into wholeness.

Key points

  • Your core power struggle in your relationship is the place where you have the most opportunity for growth.
  • Most of our reactivity to our partners stems from our past, not our present partner.
  • Learning to identify and process the real place of our pain—with our partner—creates empathy and relieves us of our projections on them.

One of my most beloved and important teachers, Hedy Schleifer, used to punctuate her relationship workshops with the phrase: “Conflict—what an opportunity!” The couples in the room, all of whom were coming to the workshop because of conflict, would groan and laugh and, in general, be bewildered by her statement.

How can conflict be an opportunity to be embraced rather than a difficulty to be avoided? To learn this secret is to unlock the potential of your relationship. It transforms your power struggle with your partner from something that is a source of pain and aggravation to a booster rocket for your individual and relational development. It’s not about conflict resolution where partners learn to agree to disagree, or to compromise. It’s about partners learning to view their struggles with each other as growth attempting to happen in the relationship. Further, you learn your partner is the absolute perfect person to stimulate this growth, precisely because of how she/he drives you crazy. Hedy loved to tell her workshops, "You picked the person who can best create your worst nightmare."

Let me bring this down to a concrete example. Let’s look at Sandy and Oscar, married for 30-plus years, many of those years in a state of estrangement because of their power struggle: Sandy wanted them to talk about their issues; Oscar wanted to be left alone. The more Sandy was determined to talk, the more Oscar was determined to avoid. Sometimes Oscar’s withdrawal would be punctuated by a burst of anger.

I could write that Sandy would be only reacting to Oscar’s angry outbursts and sullen withdrawal, but that would inaccurately lay the burden solely at Oscar’s doorstep. I could write that Oscar would explode and withdraw from Sandy because of her judgment and control, but that would inaccurately lay the burden solely at Sandy’s doorstep. It was in the dance between them, the way they would trigger each other into an escalating and repetitive series of steps, where the power struggle lay. Addressing it meant looking at what in their past was trying to become conscious in their present.

When Oscar would explode, Sandy’s reaction to that explosion was 10% a response to Oscar and how she hated when he got angry instead of talking. But 90% of the force of her reaction came from growing up with a father who suffered from chronic pain and who would have frequent, unpredictable outbursts of anger. Oscar’s explosion would thus trigger a cascade of mostly unconscious reactions inside Sandy where she was once again a small girl facing the unpredictable wrath of a large, overpowering adult male. Is it any wonder she would want to do whatever she needed to make that anger in Oscar stop? Yet trying to control Oscar’s anger never worked. What was necessary instead was for her to explore her past feelings when confronted by an angry father—with Oscar.

Oscar grew up in a house where emotions weren’t discussed, so he never learned the technology of talk—how by speaking feelings, one has greater control over them and more choice in how to express them. Further, like many men, when under duress Oscar's default option was to try to muscle his way through it alone, rather than reach out for help. When his mother was angry and critical of him, he dealt with it by withdrawing into himself and/or his room. Thus when he sees Sandy cold, distant, and dismissive of him, he doesn’t reach out to talk through what he’s experiencing but withdraws from her as he did from his mother. When this doesn’t work and the feelings exit through the anger escape valve—the one emotional doorway most men have ready access to—he sends Sandy into her childhood wound, and thus the cycle continues. Withdrawal from Sandy has never made things better. What is necessary instead is for him to talk about how he really felt being raised by a stern and controlling mother—with Sandy.

It is through Sandy and Oscar looking at the source of their reactivity—almost always from childhood—where the opportunity lies. As adults, we are capable of re-experiencing our childhood wounds with adult perspective, adult language, and adult consciousness. Our partners bring these wounds to the surface in ways no one else in the outside world can. When we talk about the true source of our reactivity with our partner, we simultaneously create empathy for why we act out as we do and we realize that our partner is not our parent, because they listen to us and understand us with empathy and care. It is then possible for us to see this as the opportunity it is—to finally redeem the original pain and thus be released from it. This frees us up to be the adults, and the partners, we are capable of being.

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