The Miracle of Conflict

Over the years, while learning to help people navigate through conflict, I discovered something really cool. Most of us do what we can to avoid disagreements. It’s unpleasant to argue. But if one can be present, there are huge gifts to be found.

When we’re upset, we have the opportunity to discover much of importance about ourselves. The reason is that everything “out there” is actually “in here.” One might say everything’s an inside job.

Does this sound far fetched? Read on and then feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Our natural state is one of harmony. When someone does something that upsets us, we may have a judgment that the offensive behavior (and, usually, the person who committed the act) is “wrong.” In reality, what happened is just what happened. If we fail to see that, it’s because we’re stuck. Our reactions implicate us. Think of it this way: If someone were to cut Jesus off in traffic, how would he react? Would he get angry? Would he yell and shake his fist? Would he become short-tempered with his children in the back seat? Or would he have compassion for the other person and whatever it was that might have caused him or her to drive dangerously?

Of course we all know that a fully enlightened being would experience tremendous compassion for the other person. And that’s true of us too when we’re not in our own way. If, when cut off in traffic, we’re feeling really good because something wonderful just happened, we’re far more likely to wonder if the other person might be late for work or perhaps trying to get a child to the hospital or maybe just elderly and confused. And when we see the world in that way, we feel great because we’re living in a way that’s true to the light and love we carry in our hearts.

Unfortunately, being less than perfect, most of us get caught sometimes. I certainly do. And that’s alright. We can have compassion for ourselves. We’re only human and that’s what connects us.

At times when I’m not feeling compassion for another, no matter how wrong I may think he or she is, if I’m upset then it’s something within me that’s caught. Do you get that? Whatever’s caught is mine. I own it. And that’s the bottom line. Once again, I want to reiterate that we need not stand in judgment of ourselves. It’s not bad and wrong to have reactions. Such things are part of the human condition. But if we can discover the trigger that got activated, we’ll find an old wound beneath the trigger that’s in need of healing. And just by being present to that insight, the wound begins to heal. Anything we do to become more conscious of what’s within leads to personal growth and healing. When the wound that underlies the trigger is healed, no anger for the other person will remain; there will be only love and compassion.

The implications of this are enormous. For one thing, it means that conflict can be healthy. Navigated well, conflict leads to personal growth. Bit by bit, we become ever more conscious and integrated.

In marriage, once we’re past the honeymoon, our partners will trigger our reactions more deeply than anyone else. Since there’s so much healing potential in this, our spouses can be our greatest teachers. That doesn’t necessarily mean one should remain married to any partner. But it does mean that conflict, in and of itself, need not necessarily lead to divorce. It also means that, for those who do in fact divorce, the pain can be handled in a compassionate, loving way that leads to healing and growth for both spouses.

For those interested in working their relationships rather than ending them, there are resources that can be helpful. We’re fortunate to have a famous relationship scientist just up the road in Seattle. Dr. John Gottman has an institute that gives workshops on the things he’s discovered. He teaches people to be aware of the ways in which conflict can be handled well or poorly and empowers them to make wise choices.

Another great resource are Imago workshops, given around the country by people trained in what’s called Imago therapy. Imago posits that we fall in love with someone who reminds us in unconscious ways of our caregivers in our family of origin. It further posits that we do this so that our childhood wounds can heal. Imago teaches techniques that can help people see beneath their conflict and return to love and intimacy. I’ve taken Imago workshops twice and both experiences were amazing. Even if the marriage isn’t saved, most people who approach this work seriously will experience growth that will show up in their next relationship. People who have perfectly wonderful marriages may take an Imago workshop to deepen their connection. I met a couple once who were taking a workshop given to them as a wedding present. I also met a husband and wife who took an Imago workshop every year as an anniversary present to themselves.

Another wonderful resource is Non-Violent Communication. Developed by a brilliant man named Marshall Rosenberg, NVC helps people to see the feelings and needs that exist beneath conflict. It can be useful not just in our romantic relationships, but in the many interactions in which we participate daily. Rosenberg calls NVC a language of love — and it is. NVC leads one to insights that bring compassion for oneself and others. As one learns this language, it becomes ever easier to access love and joyousness. NVC is not, in my experience, easy to assimilate. I’m far short of mastery. But there’s value in beginning to learn its techniques, and then progressively more value as one continues to learn.

It’s an amazing and wonderful sort of cosmic joke that whenever we think something happened “out there,” it’s really a mirror for what’s inside. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” When one gets this, and when one realizes the potential for growth that comes from facing interpersonal challenges well, one finds himself or herself looking forward to the next opportunity to learn in this way. Behind every challenge lies opportunity and even hidden treasure. An old teacher of mine once said, “What’s in the way IS the way.” It’s really true. That’s why I love relationship work, and it’s also why I love working with people who are going through the difficult transition that is divorce. As an attorney and mediator, I’m blessed to witness the enormous growth that many of my clients experience. People come to me at a time when it can seem to them that their lives are falling apart. Often, by the time our work together is complete, a client will seem like a new person. Pain is not easy to face, but if one uses it wisely it can be very much like rocket fuel that takes one to a previously unfathomed, far more satisfying life.