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The One Thing that Separates Loved Ones From Strangers

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A few years ago I frequently took the GO train to downtown Toronto for work. It was mostly a pleasant ride. However, this one lady would push everyone in her frenzy to disembark every time the train pulled into Union Station. Mostly I stayed out of it but one day, she pushed me. I decided to call her out on it. Right there, on the platform, she started screaming out threats about pushing me down the stairs. A security guard caught my eye and came over. We explained the situation to him with several other passengers confirming that this lady had been very aggressive for the past few weeks. The security guard let her go with a warning. That lady was a total stranger. My only concern in this situation was to speak out against her aggression and do what I thought was “right” in defending myself. I did not care at all about whether our relationship would suffer as a result of my speaking out.

In contrast, when I moved to a new country, I saw a lot of things that were not “right”. Living with five other people, conflict was both healthy and inevitable. The difference was that I actually cared about my relationship with these people. So I had to force myself to look past huge hurdles like emotional extremes, power imbalances and a starkly different worldview and find a way to get along with them. I learned an important lesson – from siblings to parents to spouses to kids, our closest relationships are the trickiest to handle.

Strangers VS Loved Ones

When it comes to our closest relationships, unresolved conflicts can lead to an ongoing skirmishes and resentment. When this everyday stress becomes pervasive, it not only damages your relationship and self-esteem but also robs you of a potentially powerful support system (your loved ones). Conflict with people you care about is very different form conflict with people who are transient in your life like the cashier at your local drugstore or the rude lady pushing you on your commute to work.

Conflict with loved ones is trickier to handle because we usually DO care about our relationship enough to want to make it last. It is also likely that your affection for your loved one(s) compels you to keep their best interests in mind. So mutual trust and affection are essential to establishing and maintaining healthy long term relationships. However, in times of conflict, mutual understanding is the first facet of your relationship to be dismissed.

Impact of Different Conflict Management Styles

In a conflict situation with a loved one, your relationship will take the brunt of the damage especially if one of both of you are constantly minimizing the other person’s feelings. We have all fallen into patterns of aggression, lack of sensitivity or lack of courtesy in a domestic argument at one point or another. Unconsciously or even on purpose, we all tend to do it. However, not many of us are aware that these toxic patterns of interaction set up a dangerous power play dynamic – the effects of which can linger for a long time after the conflict has been resolved.

While displays of insensitivity, aggression and power struggles are damaging to your relationships with loved ones, avoidance of conflict is also equally, if not more damaging to your relationship. Always striving to smooth things over and please the other person inevitably breeds resentment if you are always bending over backwards for your loved one. Ironically, the family member you are trying to accommodate is simultaneously being conditioned to be selfish and insensitive to your preferences because you are always putting their needs ahead of yours. When this happens, the trust in your relationship is damaged as well as your own personal sense of self-worth. Rather than engaging in patterns of aggression or accommodation, an honest, respectful (both to yourself and to the other person) and non-manipulative approach can strengthen your relationship even in times of conflict.

However, in order to reach a respectful, honest and non-manipulative relationship dynamic, both parties need to do certain internal work first. Experts of often talk about open communication, negotiation and compromise but in order to act on these peace-keeping values, you need to create the emotional and mental space for them first. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of overcoming conflict with your loved ones:

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