So your feelings have been hijacked by romance, and even though you are under the spell of an unconscious drive, you think you have it under control. Over time you begin to notice little things with which you are not in agreement. However, rather than doubt your feelings and the overwhelming experience of attraction and romance that took place in the first 9–12 months, you continue forgiving, letting things slide, adapting, but surely not conflicting. At least not conflicting in a meaningful and productive manner. Yes, you fight, but “I’m sorry,” is all it takes to squash the fight. Yet, “I’m sorry” does not constitute a real resolution. You remain optimistic and continue going about the relationship as usual.
You Have Been Missing the Point of the Fight and it is Going to Kill Your Relationship
Pick a fight, any fight, and once you have it in mind, hold onto that example for the rest of this story. In the first place, the purpose of the fight was never really addressed on a meaningful level. As soon as the bomb went off, your brain either went into hyper defensiveness, or you became over-responsible to squelch the flames. Time goes on, and you continue marking each fight as if it is its own instance and not a part of a cycle that represents anything intrinsically wrong with how you are relating. The mistake we make is in missing the pattern.
We get caught up quickly in the topic and miss the theme. You tolerate frustrating things about each other to keep the peace, refusing to believe in their reality, which is steeped in deeper concerns. Then the bubble of tolerance bursts. You have a conflict that meets the standard for a real fight. Even at this point, you choose to find a way to get over it, but somehow the problem is not solved. You start to have residual feelings that persist. These feelings are called resentment. It has been growing like mold for a while because, in all reality, you never really resolved the issues all along.
There are few pieces of conventional wisdom that are misapplied in relationships. They are only bandaids that many people call conflict resolution:
- Agree to Disagree — Only works when the topic is not of mutual concern. The underlying issue will come back up somewhere else until it gets heard.
- Negotiating — Perpetuates the problem because the value being expressed in the topic is subjective.
Neither of these are good options when they are void of meaning. The best research on relationship conflict has possible resolution at 69%, not being resolvable. So what are we fighting for if we can not resolve the fight in the first place?
Make the Unconscious Conscious
I previously alluded to an underlying purpose or unconscious process that exists under our expressed opinions. This underlying purpose, which is linked to our safety and security system, is a necessary player in this game of conflict. Your opinion in itself is not equated to universal truth. It is subjectively valid and deserves that validation from your partner, but it is not a settled truth in itself. What is happening is that differing opinions and personalities challenge the underlying need for safety and security. However, that’s what it means, “To relate” in the first place. To engage in the process of understanding between two “Different” people; rather than get someone to agree with you. As we expand our shared understanding of each other, we create more safe space in the relationship. This is what we are looking for in the first place, a safe space to grow. It’s what drives us into relationships in the first place and is the underlying force throughout.
Bringing this underlying need for safety and security to the surface is difficult because it requires vulnerability. For our everyday living in society, with friends, and at work, we put up our walls and send unspoken messages through our persona that informs people of our limits. Our behavior, both spoken and unspoken, is much like an ADT sign outside of a house that may deter a burglar from trying to break in. We never have to say why the sign is there or what the alarm system is protecting on the inside. However, what we are protecting either consciously or unconsciously is our hurts and unmet needs from our past. These instances of parental failure created a mark in us that we never want to experience again. Inside this vault also lies our potential for happiness, personal growth, and character development. So you can’t have that either, without the vulnerability. However, when we can engage in this growth process in our intimate relationship, we find value, and that value makes the pain of vulnerability worthwhile.
Vulnerability Is Your Duty To Yourself
Vulnerability is the key here. I have to decide to let someone into the vault that holds the answer to why I am the way I am. Two people in a relationship who do this simultaneously creates a beautiful portrait of conflict resolution, understanding, and growth. However, getting to that place in your relationship requires work and staying power. It requires an investment in another person that is undeserved and unearned. We like evidence first, but in relationships, we do not get it. We must invest first to see if this will pay off. Rather than accept this truth, we work into our relationship every good mannered and good-intentioned strategy, which only buys time. For most people, this pain that is being protected is not evident on a conscious level. It is not until they face significant loss or frustration that they choose the road less traveled.
Sitting with a competent counselor for a couple of hours is an easy way to tap into this vault. What typically ends up happening for most is that they utilize the other person’s behavior as the excuse to feel and act the way we do.
Conflict is a good thing. It is useful when I go to the gym and push my body. It is useful when I face the fear of public speaking; it is useful when I negotiate a contract, it is good when I try new food. Motivational experts tell us to expect conflict and failure if we want to get to our promised land. Yet we do not believe it when it comes to our relationships. As I write this, I bring to mind many friends and clients I know that struggle with conflict. They have either succumbed to a life of struggle or complacency and stay married out of guilt and/or fear, or they run for the hills. In any case, they are avoiding unlocking the vault of vulnerability, which holds the key to relationship sustainability and satisfaction.
You don’t understand. I just can’t seem to do this vulnerability thing.
Many more people than not have faced significant childhood distress in the form of addict parents, divorce and abandonment, sexual abuse, and neglect just to name a few. The scars for these experiences run deep, and having spent a lifetime of avoiding these scars, vulnerability does not come easy. For many of these people, death is a better resolution than vulnerability. However, the rules don’t change because you had a hard life. You will always be brought to the brink of vulnerability in real relationships, and it will always come in conflict. The attachment drive that brings on the desire for romance will not shut off, at least not without consequences. Neither will your drive for safety. However, in the survivor of childhood trauma, these drives conflict with each other. The attachment drive continually challenges the safety drive and the inner turmoil is excruciating.
Perhaps you have not been a victim of significant childhood traumatic experiences, yet these principles still apply to your growth. I speak specifically to those who either run from relationship to relationship, unable to commit or those who are considering leaving a long term relationship because “nothing has worked.” What I would encourage you to do is recognize that your security system will not shut itself off; it needs to be tempered over time.
Everyday conflict with your partner can seem overwhelming, but the urge to avoid conflict or shut down in the face of it is caused by your security system taking over. It is warning you that something painful from the past is being brought to the surface. That someone is infringing on your vault.
Do Not Believe It
Security will always win out over attachment when it comes to an intimate partner relationship without a conscious effort to stay in the fight and let your attachment needs win. As your partner disagrees with you in conflict, it needs to become apparent that unless they are directly threatening your physical safety, or using abusive language, you must stay in the fight.
Recognizing and verbalizing what vulnerability they are triggering is the entry into intimacy. As I stated above, the source of your intimacy needs shares a room in your heart with your wounds. Expectations of having a close satisfying relationship without being vulnerable are impossible. It becomes a question of sanity to expect closeness and connection without vulnerability.
Relationships are All About Exploring the Depths
Attempting to navigate a relationship on the surface is a waste of time. Recognizing what those surface circumstances are telling us on a deeper level is the avenue to closeness. Childhood trauma survivors find themselves involved in an internal conflict as their need for security seems at odds with their need for closeness. Closeness is achieved by working through conflict.
It is in conflicts that our partner is perceived as a perpetrator. However, it is in conflicts where we can see the underlying needs and relationship dynamics expose themselves as valid responses, which we can empathetically understand as attempts to connect.
By exposing our vulnerability, we allow our partner the chance to fully understand and respond to us on a deeper level, thus fostering intimacy. It is when conflict includes vulnerability that we can achieve relationship satisfaction. So for anyone who is struggling with constant arguing about surface-level issues of right and wrong, be aware of what you are really defending and utilize that awareness to express to your partner that need. What you will find in most cases is an empathetic response from a partner as well as a solution that meets both parties’ needs for security and attachment. What vulnerability leads to is a connection that’s worth staying in the fight for!
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