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Connection and Conflict
© 2017, Richard Routledge, M.A., RCC
I believe a basic human need is to know we belong somewhere, with someone, ‘warts and all’ just by virtue of who we are together. But that is a profoundly elusive experience for many people. When we do feel we have this depth of connection with someone, to maintain it is a matter of trust, good faith, and -– equally importantly — conflict. This applies to meaningful relationships of any sort, whether at home, at work, or with friends or associates, because relationships, like all living things, derive their life from the tensions between opposite poles.
To be connected in any meaningful way requires us to nourish not only the bond between us, but also the ‘relationship’ each of us has individually with one‘s own self, because if we lose that, we have nothing left to give. As Virginia Satir famously said, “You can’t fill a cup from an empty bucket.” A healthy relationship thus resembles a capital H: two strong people who are each strong in their own sense of self, not needing to be ‘propped-up’ by the other for emotional security, and yet with a bond between them that renders life more fulfilling. A relationship that resembles a capital A, on the other hand, where one or both parties must lean on the other, usually ends when one or both parties become tired of being ‘leaned’ upon. So to keep the ‘bond’ in the H strong, both sides have to stay upright. That requires a process for engaging in decision-making, negotiation, and compromise, and for keeping priorities and expectations in balance. Many people we see in therapy have over time drifted into disconnection by putting-off the work required to develop such a process, and their relationships have come to resemble neither an H or an A but rather two I’s: what the Gottman Institute calls parallel lives.
These principles apply, once again, not only to romantic relationships but to all meaningful relationships in any domain: to stay in enduring connection is to stay in dynamic tension that allows everyone to preserve and nourish self. It is not selfish, therefore, but rather an ongoing requirement of meaningful relationships, to devote some time and energy to our autonomous selves, as well as some time and energy to conflict. Neither is it realistic to think everyone’s needs will take equal priority at all times: like a swinging pendulum, sometimes one person’s needs will take priority but then the situation must be reversed, eventually, to restore the balance.
Conflict is the flip side of any kind of intimacy or sharing in a meaningful relationship of any kind. Without one side of the coin, we do not have the other, at least not for long. And reflecting on this analogy further, I wonder: is it possible to be in conflict without being connected? Even if all we are doing is keeping our distance and harbouring resentment, is that not also a form of connection, though largely toxic? That is why forgiveness is often regarded as a necessary part of healing: we can eventually choose to forgive for our own sake, to set ourselves free from the toxic connection. I am not suggesting it is always possible or feasible to forgive—sometimes it is not, and that is a subject for another article—but for now, suffice to say that an avenue for breaking an unhealthy connection is often to choose to forgive. Managing our connections is a process of managing our conflicts. It is a developmental journey throughout life: one we never finish and we never really master, either. Like all things, it is impossible to have what we need without giving something up for it, and if we choose not to decide we are still — in the end — making a choice.