Last week I found myself having to swallow some of my own medicine. I didn’t like it, but it reminded me how hard it is to manage oneself. I’d gotten into a major disagreement with my trainer, a man I’ve been friends with for at least 10 years. I really like him. It’s always been a smooth relationship between us, so the fight took me by surprise. Him, too, I’m sure. Why we fought doesn’t really matter, but we really didn’t speak for about a week and there was a lot of tension between us.
I really wanted him to understand my position. I was willing to listen to his position, too. But the more I imagined the conversation, the less optimistic I felt about reaching a positive resolution. I was pretty certain that we just had a really different perspective on this situation, and worse, I didn’t think that our memories of events would coincide. The memory thing happens a lot, especially in fights. Everyone’s heated up in fights and the chemicals that get released in the brain tend to block accurate recall. That’s why eye witness testimony is so unreliable in court cases. So what would our “talk” accomplish? We might reach a mutual understanding. But more likely, we’d both get stirred up over something that we really just don’t agree on. I decided to soothe my own emotional reactivity and just let it go.
The big question is when is this a mature strategy for handling conflict and when is it just a conflict-avoiding cop-out?
Some things about relationships: There have to be bottom lines. There are some issues that you shouldn’t compromise on. These are issues that violate your moral or ethical standards; issues that compromise your integrity. No relationship is worth becoming less of who you are. Most issues don’t fall into this category. They are just the result of differences in thinking or feeling. People have differences about what they think is important and then about what is the best course of action to take. For most people, these differences don’t matter a lot until they come up with people you are involved with- close friends, children, partners. Then it becomes a much bigger deal, even scary.
In general, I think relationships require communication, because that’s how we learn about each other, and that knowledge will ultimately increase intimacy. But communication doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement or compliance. This lack of agreement can be highly unsatisfying (as it was for me with my trainer). It doesn’t feel good; it can actually feel lonely to find that your views, while understood are not shared. Some people become afraid of differences, feeling that they might signify that something is wrong with the relationship. I think differences are inherent in all relationships, and getting comfortable with that is a good idea.
So stand-up and define yourself. Say what you think, feel, need, but allow for the complex reality that your partner or friend may have a different point of view. Respectful disagreement is essential, but self-soothing the frustration that comes with a lack of agreement is a skill everyone needs to learn.