For a long time, something in my body believed that to be in a good, fulfilling relationship meant to create one that was free of conflict, and that to move towards this harmony, it was necessary to let go of all conflicting beliefs, needs, desires, and personal preferences. In doing so, I would saintly stop disagreeing with what I was faced with. Within this subtle display of perfectionism, I believed it was better to silence my voice so that I might be perceived as ‘good’ — so that I would be accepted, cherished, and loved.
In practice, inner discomfort brewed in place of outer conflict. A knot would develop in the throat each time I held back tears or suppressed my personal beliefs, needs, or desires. Instead of expression through words, thoughts consumed by resentment would fill the space. When something would inevitably trigger the rising discord, grief and anger came pouring out, hastily and harshly. There was a sense of desperation, a deep yearning to be heard and understood.
Neither approach was working — not the muffling, not the erupting.
Given the impossibility of avoiding conflicting viewpoints in intimate relationships, we can consider that a third route might exist. If we accept that we will not always see eye to eye with another, we can ask ourselves: is it possible to find a common road to healing, understanding, and overcoming the rifts that build up between ourselves and our partner? Can we believe there is another way of seeing what we are facing?
While I cannot pretend to have mastered this skill, the ongoing practice of conflicting consciously achieves love and harmony in intimate relationships much quicker than old, ineffective ways of managing discord. These six simple concepts are a practice, a way of alternatively navigating our differences when they arise.
- Listen to understand, not to respond.
In intimate relationships, when the other party expresses his or her hurt, anger, or frustration towards us, it is imperative that we set aside our own story for a moment and allow the other’s to be valid. If we listen to understand their experience, we fulfill their human need to be heard and contribute to the healing of the emotions they carry. In relationships, there is often a tendency to run in circles, a pattern that can be shifted if we allow space for the other party’s thoughts and feelings to breathe. Our own feelings and viewpoints can certainly be expressed as well, but it is important to give time and space to allow the other person’s emotions to be witnessed and accepted>
- Focus on personal needs, not on the other’s faults.
When it comes time to respond, or if we are the person bringing up a potentially heated topic, we can assist the process of healing by focusing on our own needs rather than on the other party’s shortcomings. For instance, “you are suffocating me” can be translated to “I need some space to myself.” Taking responsibility for our own needs and role in any matter can help us to feel empowered to make change and also lessens the likelihood that the other person will react defensively. We are not responsible for another’s reaction, but if our goal is to mend the rift, we can consider how we can contribute to a space of compassion and understanding.
- Know your boundaries and limits.
Taking responsibility for our role in the issue does not mean that we absolve the other party for wrongdoing, or that we bear all of the weight. It is allowable, and necessary, to uphold our own limits and boundaries for what we are able to tolerate. No one else can inform us of what we need, of where we can bend, or of how much we can break. It is up to us to discern these limits for ourselves. It is imperative that we find our true voice that speaks up for our deepest desires.
- Be flexible.
Where can we bend? Where can we meet in the middle? To be flexible means that we are able move towards the other. If we want to be understood, hoping that the other party will come to see our side, we have to be willing to also hop the fence and get their perspective. This does not guarantee that they, too, will be flexible, but it will undoubtedly help us to find out what our deepest truth is — to help us discern between our most authentic needs and beliefs and those of our egoic self. If our partner is also willing to consider flexibility, chances are high that we will reach common ground.
- Soften the heart.
It is not uncommon to find ourselves hardening when in the middle of what appears to be a ‘you versus me’ situation. Chances are that we will not get through to the other if there are brick walls surrounding both individuals separately. Is it possible to soften our hearts and view the other person’s experiences as being worthy of time, love, and attention? Can we give what we hope to get? If, in fact, our walls have been lowered for some time while the other side has remained upheld and impermeable, we can retreat into ourselves, taking time to exert that love and compassion onto ourselves.
- Believe in a third viewpoint.
We can detach ourselves from the notion that one side is right and the other is wrong. In place of this duality, we can deeply embrace the belief that there is truth in both sides of the experience, and we can work towards understanding what a third perspective might be. We can reflect mindfully, asking: how can we honour both individuals and address the needs of each? Beneath the surface of the argument, there likely exists a core need on each side that forms the real issue at heart. What are those needs and how can we make room for both?
Honouring and trusting our own voice while making space for that of another, particularly when it appears to be in contrast with ours, is not a light task. This way of disagreeing has not been taught in the mainstream; it conflicts with what we see in movies, in stories, and in most of those around us. Until now, it has been the exception, not the rule; but if we practice it from the heart, again and again, we set new patterns that help to clear the road between us.
Conscious conflicting is a skill that, like any other, requires practice. It calls for courage to acknowledge that it is not always this way or the highway — there is often a third way. The rule does not have to be silencing, nor does it have to resemble an eruption; those become the exceptions. Conscious conflicting is a process — of listening to and expressing our deepest truths and experiences while also hearing and holding those of another. Somewhere between us, we begin to find another way through.