My book, Constructive Conflict, has just been published in print and in Kindle. Click here to buy from Amazon.
Conflict in relationships is inevitable.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t been paying attention.
Communication increases conflict.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t really been talking.
Conflict is the beginning of a real relationship, not the end.
If you haven’t had a conflict yet, you haven’t been real.
Violence is not conflict.
Violence is conflict avoidance.
Conflict is like electricity, it can turn on a light, power change, or burn down the house.
To enjoy the benefits of conflict, you need to know how to regulate it.
A short book, packed with wisdom, disarming humor, and refreshing directness, Constructive Conflict shows how you can manage your conflicts.
The Introduction and First Chapter
I’ve worked with all kinds of people in my psychotherapy practice, but there’s one thing they’ve all had in common: problems with conflict.
I’ve seen everyone from the worried well and the vaguely unhappy to those with serious mental illness. Addiction, in all its variety, brings a lot of people in. People hooked on everything from water (yes, gallons and gallons of water every day), sex, gambling, and shopping to heroin, crystal meth, and cocaine. Then there are the ones sent to me by girlfriends, parents, and probation officers for “anger management” as well as the girlfriends, parents, and probation officers themselves. There are the depressed and anxious by the hundred and the traumatized by the thousand. I’ve had murderers, rapists, and child molesters in my office, as well as legions of their victims, separately. About one-third of first appointments are couples, battling it out over one thing or another.
You see, I’ve tried very hard, over almost thirty years, to avoid specializing in anything. I’ve wanted to deal with any problem that came through the door. I’ve wanted to remain ready for whatever happened because people very often don’t know why they need to see a counselor. They think it’s one thing, and they’re right, it is, but it’s also something deeper, less readily identified or disclosed. When I’ve found I was out of my depth, I’ve called on experts, but I’ve never sent someone away with the message that I couldn’t deal with them. Consequently, I’ve seen all kinds. And there’s not a single kind that handles conflict well.
Interpersonal conflict—otherwise known as disagreement, dissension, argument, or strife—has been such a consistent issue for everyone that I’ve ended up specializing in it, despite my best efforts to not specialize in anything.
The problems people have in managing conflict fall into three categories.
First, there are the obvious problems with conflict. Some present conflict plainly, including the married couples who can’t stop battling; the anger management crowd, busting up everything from heads to china; and the rapists, murderers, and child molesters. No one disagrees that they have problems with conflict.
Less obvious are the people who dislike conflict so much they fail to confront injustices and exploitation because they don’t speak up. They permit themselves to get stuck in unsatisfying relationships, catering to the selfish and immature. They come into my office vaguely unhappy, so out of touch with their own feelings that they can barely think straight. And though they never come in saying they have trouble managing their anger, they have anger management problems also. They ignore their anger so much it turns it into anxiety, depression, and addiction.
The third group is the largest. These are the folks who, like those in the second group, bury their conflicts most of the time but then, like members of the first group, cause eruptions when they become mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. They get locked into a vicious cycle, alternating between repression and reprisal. Their recurrent blowups give them justification to avoid the conflict that their lack of assertiveness generates.
The sad thing is, conflict does not have to be something fearsome. Conflict is the greatest hope we have, unless you think everything is perfect already. We need conflict so things can get better.
The universal nature of mismanaged conflict is what led me, at a certain point, to say there ought to be a book. I wanted to tell people, Here, read this. We don’t have enough time in the therapy hour to learn, on top of everything else, how to constructively handle conflict. It takes a considerable amount of repetition and practice to learn to do it well. I wanted to find a book, order it by the box load, and keep the copies stacked in my waiting room. No one would ever leave without one. There was just one problem with that plan: I couldn’t find a book that spoke to the wide variety of clientele coming to my office. If there was going to be a book, I was going to have to write it.
Well, here it is. That’s about all I want to say by way of introduction. You probably want to get right to it. You have conflicts, I know, and want to learn how to use them constructively.
The Rock Tumbler:
Constructive Conflict in Action
I once knew a child who dug holes in his backyard. He would adopt stones he liked and then line the shelves of his room with them. His mother complained of the grime he brought into the house until, noting a sustained interest in geology, she got him a rock tumbler.
You may have had dealings with a rock tumbler. It’s basically a drum attached to a small motor by way of a belt that rotates all the livelong day. Put a few dull, brown, craggy, soil-caked rocks in the drum; add a bit of water; shut the hatch; turn on the motor, and you can keep the whole family from sleeping for a week. When your dad yells at you to turn the damn thing off so he can get some rest, you open it and reach in to find that your unremarkable stones have transformed into smooth, radiant gems.
There’s a rock tumbler for people too: a people tumbler. We call it love.
You think you’re familiar with love, are you? It’s the warm and cozy feeling you get when you look into your baby’s eyes. It’s the sweet sentiment you pick up in the greeting card aisle. It’s the powerful talisman you utter on your third date that accelerates your circuit of the bases. Love sells wedding dresses, tuxes, gowns for the bridesmaids, bouquets, fancy cakes, and extravagant receptions. It also sells funerals, headstones, more bouquets, and extravagant coffins. It makes the world go around. It’s a many-splendored thing.
As it often turns out, though, the warm and cozy feeling turns out to be little more than a glitzy advertisement on the package, a bait-and-switch scheme, a loss leader that lures you into the tumbler.
Love put you next to that snoring beast who snatches your covers in the night. It gave you to the shrew who wants you to put the toilet seat down for her but won’t put it up for you. Love made you the parent of that two-year-old having a temper tantrum in the grocery store. It showed you how to change your elderly parent’s diaper. Love hitched you to the wife who hasn’t gone down on you since your wedding night. It married you to the husband who won’t talk about how he feels. Love is the thing that, when that maddening child, husband, wife, or parent dies, will make you keen over that extravagant coffin. Love is indeed a many-splendored thing, isn’t it?
Consider one maxim you learn every time you dicker at the market: whoever has the most desire has the least power. If you want something bad enough and depend on someone else to get it, you have to meet that person on their own terms. Love is guaranteed to put you next to a person who does not share the exact degree of all your desires. In every pair, there is one who works harder, sleeps later, talks less; there is one who is hornier, messier, more spendthrift, more absent-minded, more likely to invite his or her relatives to stay for a week. That person will drive you nuts.
Okay, so how does all that transform people into gems?
You could make like a caveman and bonk your woman over the head with a club every time you want sex, but she won’t hang around and braise your mammoth. Instead, you learn some patience, some compassion. You write poems, go to movies that make you cry, play the guitar, watch the kids, and master foreplay. You wear your snoring bandage and learn to compromise, and it makes you a better man.
You could drag your husband to therapy and threaten divorce if he doesn’t tell you about his feelings, but you won’t like what he has to say. Instead, you discover that commitment is not something you declare on one bright, over-planned day but something you perform every hour for a lifetime. You realize that trust is not a noun that describe a state; it is a verb that indicates action. You demonstrate tolerance, listen with your third ear, and cultivate understanding. You learn to agree to disagree.
You could push your elderly parent off on an ice floe and watch her drift away, but there’ll be an ice floe ready for you someday. Instead, you listen to her stories and show her, for the zillionth time, how to make a call on an iPhone. You understand there is nothing new under the sun and that wonders are not invented so much as they are overlooked. You accept that even authority needs his diaper changed. You learn to hang on.
You could tie your children up and never let them leave the house, but you won’t like what they say about you when you’re gone. Instead, you teach them respect by showing respect for them. You realize that it’s not possible to be a perfect parent, only one who’s good enough (maybe). You acknowledge you have some growing to do, that it is your child who will finish raising you, and that he will do it by having a tantrum. You learn to let go.
Love can operate even in those relationships where you seldom admit its presence. You could pretend your roommate or the guy in the next cubical doesn’t exist, but how will you ask him about that yogurt that turned up missing? Unless you’re ready to steal his stuff too and enter into an escalating war of gotcha, you learn to speak up clearly, so that you protect your dignity, but respectfully, so he doesn’t need to protect his. You wouldn’t send him a valentine, but your considerate treatment of him is love too. Whenever you soften instead of going hard or assert yourself when you’re more inclined to sneak around, you can call it love.
Love could pop up even on the highway when someone cuts you off, in the comments section of a blog, or between lines of protesters shouting and waving placards. It could—provided you treat the other like a human and permit yourself to be receptive, as well as challenging. You could go on, doing what you’re doing and railing, ineffectively, at people you’ll never change. Instead, you see their point of view so that you can solve problems together, rather than make new ones. It finally registers that we’re all stressed, we all goof up, and we’re all doing the best we can. You learn you don’t need all that drama.
Love is the thing that’ll push you to your limits. It’ll take you outside your comfort zone, drop you off, and turn up the heat. Love is the means by which we have evolved compassion, generosity, and empathy since those caveman days. It will polish you and make you shine.
That is, if you stay in the tumbler and rock.
That’s what I call constructive conflict.