Let’s face it, our culture is not pre-wired for complex and difficult conversations. When conflict arises between two or more individuals, it's normal to feel some level of discomfort. Our instinct is to ease the discomfort by making the conflict go away, and there are two ways to do that. You can dodge the conflict and make a beeline back to your existing comfort zone.
OR...You can explore the conflict until you find a solution, and in so doing expand your comfort zone.
The first approach is short term, the second is long term, and both have their time and place. If you find yourself in a relationship so volatile you can't see straight, you might not have the mental and emotional capacity to work through the issue. It could be best to take a step back and return to it when you have found your footing. On the other hand, if you are constantly having the same argument again and again, you may decide that it is time to invest the time and attention into resolving the underlying issue that is creating the conflict. Both responses can be valuable.
The problematic situation in which many people find themselves is when they think they have resolved the conflict because the discomfort is gone, but they have really just given the conflict a sleeping pill, and it will wake up at some point in the future.
It’s likely people are not even aware of what they are doing because so many of us are very well practiced in the art of conflict aversion. Also, most conflicts don’t manifest as yelling matches or nasty arguments. Conflict is often camouflaged as a civil conversation between two people, who, for the most part, like each other.
I’m reminded of a passage in Steve Martin’s novella Shopgirl. The heroine is on a date with her significantly older love interest, who aspires to finally sleep with her that night. He decides that first he needs to have “the conversation” with her, so she doesn’t have false expectations.
He makes a series of statements about his workload and travel schedule that are meant to convey his desire to keep their relationship casual. The heroine interprets the statements as his intentions to make their relationship work.
“What neither of them understands is that these conversations are meaningless. They are meaningless to the sayer and they are meaningless to the hearer. The sayer believes they are heard, and the hearer believes they are never said.”
People who opt for the short-term approach eventually learn that conflict exists whether they choose to see it or not.
The next time you feel that familiar clenching feeling in your stomach and tightness in your chest that signifies a conflict, how can you be more conscious in deciding which approach to take? Will you give yourself relief or forge ahead toward a solution?
Neither choice is wrong, unless you don't understand which choice you’ve made.