January 10, 2011
Issue: 12.01
Working it Through

Many people think that a good relationship is one that is free of conflict. But what sets a good relationship apart is not the absence of conflict but rather how the conflict is managed. If handled productively, it can actually deepen a relationship.

My experience tells me that a relationship that does not have conflict is actually one in which it is not being addressed. When two people come together, they bring two sets of needs and expectations that, while overlapping, also contain some differences. This means that, if conflict is not addressed or even recognized, one person is holding back from expressing his or her needs or, even worse, stuffing down feelings of hurt or anger.

Owing to my family’s mishegoss (and I will spare you the details), it is difficult for me to express hurt or anger. When I get hurt, I do not immediately express my feelings. I go through a rather protracted process of examination (i.e., are my feelings justified?), weighing the consequences of expressing them (i.e., will I be understood or will I be seen as overly sensitive?), and conferring with my “advisory board” (i.e., what do my most trusted friends think?). It’s a minor miracle if I am able to express my hurt while the other person can still recall what happened to make me feel that way.

Over the years, however, I have seen that how the other person handles the expression of my hurt or anger or the resolving (or not) of conflict, when it is finally identified, speaks volumes about a relationship and even has the potential to move the relationship into a deeper level of intimacy. So, as difficult as it is for me, I have learned to act (or perhaps simply react) in the moment and in a way that facilitates discussion. And even more difficult for me, I have learned how to receive and work with the information that I have hurt another.

There are certain questions that we need to ask ourselves when attempting to deal productively with conflict, hurt, disappointment, anger, or any other “stuff” that makes us feel bad; be it received or inflicted. In the best-case scenario, these questions should be addressed (internally) as much in the moment as possible so that you can then move to dealing with the hurt or conflict. (For the questions below, in cases for which you have hurt another person, “the other” can be substituted for “I” and vice versa.)

Why do I feel bad?

What do I believe were the intentions of the other person?

Was this an exception to the other’s usual (considerate) behavior?

Was there an explanation for the other’s behavior that I might have overlooked?

Was it an honest mistake?

Asking yourself these questions will keep you from jumping to conclusions and exacerbating your hurt feelings. It also will provide the foundation for a discussion of what happened, your reaction to it, and how to move past it.

The next step is to tell the other person what you are feeling in a way that does not make him or her feel criticized or attacked and that gives the other an opportunity to respond. Your responsibility is then to be both open to the response and to trust your sense of what is between the lines. In doing so, ask yourself:

Did the other person acknowledge my pain?

Did the other person appear concerned that I was hurt?

Did the other person take responsibility for or provide an explanation for what he or she said or did?

Did the other person apologize?

Did the other person say how he or she would avoid doing this in the future?

If these questions are addressed in a mutually satisfactory way, then the hurtful incident or conflict can be viewed as a good thing. It opens the door to a deeper understanding of the other person as well as provides practice in resolving conflict, which further contributes to the health and growth of your relationship. Just as the Chinese character for crisis contains within it the character for opportunity, what sets apart a good relationship is the couple’s ability to work it through.

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