As is not unusual, this post is sparked by a conversation I just had with my husband, who I think is rather wise beyond his years.
I had lain in bed this morning for probably a good hour mulling over one of my relational conflicts that I’m still trying to sort out and resolve.
And, as my husband has pointed out, I seem to find myself in this position often.
Why do I have so many difficult relationships? What is the pattern? What can I change?
The distress of the particular relationship that was preoccupying me this morning goes back to this May — that’s 6 months ago, people.
Although I’ve run the gamut of emotions in regard to this conflict, the predominant feelings this morning were of anger and intense disappointment.
When I finally roused myself and went out to the living room, I had to scoot my armchair into its correct position before sitting down and, in the process, I tipped over my husband’s XBox with quite the thud, which he was understandably none-too-happy about.
He was expecting an apology from me but instead got glowers and grumbles and even a nice little accusation that I should have asked him to move my chair for me in the first place since I really shouldn’t myself on account of my back troubles.
Surprise! That didn’t go over so well.
Thankfully, this little could-easily-become-a-dragon-dance scenario was deftly jiujitsu’d by my husband who simply said that he felt hurt that I couldn’t offer a simple apology and whatever is wrong?
Note: while owning his own emotions and communicating them clearly and non-defensively was awesome, it was ultimately the caring and face-saving, i.e. benefit-of-the-doubt-giving, “whatever is wrong?” (the underlying assumption being that a decent, reasonable, good human being must have a respectable reason for acting like a jerk, so … what is it?) that broke down my defensive grumpiness.
I sighed, said that I was indeed sorry for knocking over the XBox and for being a general sourpuss. I told him that I had been torturing myself for the last hour about this relationship that still causes me turmoil, and that I came out to the living room and dumped my anger on him, which wasn’t fair and I’m sorry for that, too.
Apology accepted and mini-crisis averted, my husband sat down to engage with me on the topic of this strained relationship that robs me of so much time, energy, and happiness (bless his soul, he might be a saint).
He listened, he validated, he asked great questioned. He engaged. It was a beautiful M.E.E.T Circle as I’ve written about here. As far as I’m concerned, it is the way to effectively walk someone through any issue they’re dealing with (or, two people in conflict with each other can use this method).
Throughout the course of the conversation, he made three key points that steered the course to some useful conclusions:
- I suffer distress from relationships a lot and there seems to be a connection between these difficult relationships — What is that connection? Let’s find it.
- In talking about difficult relationships, the topics of “justice” and “fairness” seem to come up a lot — Let’s explore why.
- Could this be a matter of an Adult Brain vs. Child Brain internal conflict, as I’ve written about some here?
All the relationships that plummet me into the depths of despair are all with family or with as-good-as-family friends — there is always a long relationship history involved.
The given conflicts in these crucial relationships always entail me feeling unjustly treated as someone less than who I am.
Now, those two features of my relational conflict surely don’t seem very special. I imagine you could say the exact same about your relationships.
Although we explored the related sub-topic of why I have a very keen sense of justice (hint: this seems to be the case with anyone who has experienced some profound form of injustice), the main things that really intrigued me were the aspects of 1) ‘fairness’ as something subtly yet crucially different from justice and 2) Adult Brain vs. Child Brain.
I appreciate the concept of justice in the sense of natural consequences -- that for every action there is a reasonable reaction that matches it. I like to believe that we live in a predictable world of cause and effect.
Of course, I may be very wrong about that (and certainly believe in some exceptions anyway), but on the whole, I like to think that good choices produce good results, that being a great friend gets you treated as a great friend in return, etc.
Maybe this relates to concepts of karma or reaping what you sow. Maybe, to not be so generous, my ideas of justice are matters of magical thinking — neat ‘n’ tidy, black-and-white ways that I attempt to make sense of a chaotic world. Who can say?
If only my thoughts of ‘justice’ came into play in a difficult relationship, then things might go quite easily. I could say that X was poor treatment of me and the natural consequence is Y, which is invariably a form of pulling back and not investing so much in someone who apparently doesn’t value me so highly in return.
My problem is that my sense of ‘fairness’ gets in the way.
Instead of living according to relatively clear-cut principles of justice, when it comes to my family and as-good-as-family friends, I get tripped up by ‘fairness’ or the lack thereof.
Instead of simply always recalibrating so my responses are just and in accordance with the other’s actions, I get quagmired by how things shouldn’t be this way. How I shouldn’t have to pull away. I shouldn’t have to make painful decisions about erecting new boundaries against this person who isn’t treating me well. I should be treated well! Why am I not!? I treat them well! This isn’t fair!
In other words, it seems as if my vague understanding of ‘fairness’ entails a certain denial of reality.
I don’t want to embrace that a given person obviously doesn’t care much about me and simply appropriately and justly adapt to that scenario. I want to change the scenario, which means changing the person. I can’t let go. I can’t divorce myself from the idea that X person should care for me very much. I can’t embrace that he or she doesn’t and then simply move on with my life.
Note: to be more precise, I really ought to refer to my denial of my perception of reality. I am not one who necessarily believes there is a reality as opposed to all our individual perceptions of it. Some things are fact (at least of sorts), but we interpret all information in our own unique way as a product of our personality, history, wounding, etc.
So, in other words, I perceive that I am not being what I think of as ‘appropriately’ valued, but instead of having a just response to that perception, I deny my perception of reality, try to explain what’s happening in some other way, and work to change the circumstances so I can honestly perceive the relationship the way I want to. Mental gymnastics, anyone?
Here is the funny thing: in breaking up with the 3 boyfriends I’d had before being with my husband, I could mete out my idea of justice and natural consequences in accordance with my perception of reality. No problemo. In fact, my break-ups were always extremely rational and calculated.
Best part? I never — and I truly mean never, not for a millisecond — doubted my decision, regretted my choice, wondered ‘if only’ I had said/done this or or that, maybe things would have turned out differently … No. Never.
Honestly, I had never been able to understand people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) end romantic relationships the way I always did. I took a time out — usually for approximately 4 days — and pretty much completely secluded myself from the world. I’d do nothing but free myself to think — journal, mediate, exercise, write pros and cons lists, etc. At the end, I had a solid conclusion that led to a logical action. I took it (i.e. broke up) and never looked back. Not once.
If only I could attain this same confidence and peace of mind when it comes to family and beloved friends. Why can’t I?
This is where my husband’s point about Adult Brain and Child Brain seem to potentially come into play. As I child, I didn’t date. I didn’t have romantic relationships. I didn’t evaluate people to see if they were worthy to play a key role in my life. I was born into some relationships and even friendships that come along during childhood have a way of seeming ordained as opposed to something we choose for ourselves. And Child Brain feels very attached.
But with romantic relationships while in my 20’s, Adult Brain was in charge.
Adult Brain is essentially our thinking brain and Child Brain is our feeling brain, to put it most simply.
My Adult Brain could make a brilliant case as to why a given romantic relationship was headed toward a dead-end. Adult Brain could argue convincingly as to why and how to simply get out now. Adult Brain was clear, cool, confident, and conclusive. I love Adult Brain.
Child Brain can be so messy. Child Brain is so touchy-feely, mushy, dramatic, extreme. Child Brain can put us on an emotional rollercoaster. Child Brain is just like a 2-year who one day thinks peas are the best food ever and wants nothing but peas peas peas and then the next day thinks peas are the most disgusting thing on the face of the planet and will fling them at the wall. Child Brain doesn’t know what it wants.
Just like any moody, unpredictable 2-year old, Child Brain can be a … challenge.
Maybe breaking up romantic relationships was easy for me because I had not yet felt safe enough to go to the vulnerable place of really, truly loving my partner. Maybe it was easy for some other, not-so-generous reason, something not-awesome about myself. I don’t know.
All I do know is that Child Brain can’t let go of people she’s known virtually her whole life. Adult Brain lists the reasons why we should, enumerates the offenses, goes through what would be the reasonable, just response to XYZ — a response that is logical, predictable, not aggressive, not anything negative … a response that is not only just but justified.
But, although Child Brain may go along with it, she doesn’t buy it.
Despite how aggravating it is for Adult Brain, Child Brain still mourns broken friendships. She still worries about those that seem on the brink of breaking. She frets about what she can do to make things right, to make the other person love her the way she wants to be loved and the way she thinks she ‘should’ be.
Child Brain can’t accept that not everybody thinks she’s delightful and lovable.
Child Brain struggles with magical thinking. She’s always looking for the special formula — the right words and actions at the right time in the right way that makes her perception of reality what she’s looking for. Child Brain believes in an infinite number of chances. She’s optimistic. Or maybe that’s ‘insane’ — expecting different results from circumstances or people that don’t change. Child Brain can easily fall prey to Stockholm Syndrome.
What to do with this internal conflict?
Well, first thing is to evaluate what I’ve done in the past and how I feel about it still.
Relationship #1: Multiple attempts to repair damage met with rebuffs. Completely cut off. Still grieving.
Relationship #2: One hard-core, extremely EQ-high attempt (that I’m quite proud of) to repair damage met with no response. Completely cut off, yet … no regrets, no pining.
Relationship #3: Backed down from conflict, still feel lack of trust and some bitterness. Not investing much, still waiting (but not holding my breath) for other person to take a turn stepping up to the plate. Feel some sadness, but mostly resolve that I’m responding to the situation appropriately and protecting my boundaries and self-worth.
So, that brings to me the distress of this morning:
Relationship #4: Indecisive regarding how to respond to conflict — back down? pursue? Child Brain protests ‘We don’t want to lose this relationship!’ and Adult Brain counters ‘But is it a real relationship anyway?’
There are a few actions I’ve determined to take that I think/hope will help:
- Anytime I find Child Brain moping about Relationship #1, I (Adult Brain) respond by saying “I’m sorry that you miss her. We had good times. It’s too bad things ended so sourly, but we did the best we could. That she’s gone isn’t your fault.” And then I will count my many blessings, including my many, many healthy, wonderful relationships that are not to be overshadowed by this one that imploded.
- No later than Christmas, I will reach out to the person of Relationship #3 with a high-EQ inquiry as to why she’s not been communicating with me … just like my husband’s face-saving, benefit-of-the-doubt-giving “whatever is wrong?” of this morning. Why would a decent, reasonable, good person be completely ignoring me, one of her dearest friends? I will assume for the time being that there is a good reason that doesn’t necessarily say anything negative about her and definitely doesn’t about me (i.e. if I’ve hurt her it was unknowingly and I can’t know it and do anything about it until she tells me; I don’t read minds, sorry).
- With Relationship #4, I need to carefully evaluate a few options and get some vital second opinions on those options. Here they are:
- 1) Write a carefully crafted, high EQ letter (again) and attempt to hope for the best.
- 2) Write a perhaps more honest, more raw, potentially less conciliatory letter and expect the worst.
- 3) Involve a third party as a mediator of sorts.
- 4) Write a rather non-committal letter that simply buys me more time.
It seems useful to me to think about what do I truly want from this situation?
On some level, of course, I want the relationship to be resolved and returned to health and strength. But, I’ve realized that I have a higher goal than even that: I want peace.
I want the peace of knowing I did my best. The peace of knowing that there wasn’t some magical turn of phrase I could have used that would have made it all better. Peace that allows me to sleep at night.
Now, perhaps there are different sorts of ‘peace’. Backing down from conflict, saying ‘well, let’s move on like this never happened’ might be a type a peace — I don’t know because I don’t go in for that variety of peace. I’ve never experienced avoiding a tough issue and then truly feeling as if it was legitimately cleared up. My perspective could be summarized by ‘you can close your eyes, but the elephant is still in the room.’
Not acknowledging a feeling, a thought, a problem doesn’t make it go away. It will just pop up somewhere else in your life.
I want the peace that comes from knowing that I’m upholding my values. There are some particular ones that feel threatened by the present situation with Relationship #4. Actually, maybe it’s just a single value that has a lot of off-shoots.
I value being treated as a fully-fledged human being entitled to my own thoughts, feelings, and choices. I value being treated with a basic standard of civility and respect that honors my individuality like I seek to consistently honor that of all others.
Frankly, I don’t believe a true — i.e. interdependent — relationship can exist unless both parties perceive each other as separate entities as opposed to some sort of unhealthy extension of self which cannot ever be in disagreement.
Valuing autonomy means that I also value individuals being personally responsible, taking ownership for any wrong-doing (intentional or inadvertent), and for truly validate differences of opinion and perspective. Validation isn’t the same thing as agreement. Vitally, vitally different (and terribly lacking in a heckuva lot of interactions).
I don’t feel as if the person in Relationship #4 acknowledges and accepts my autonomy, my personhood, the fact that I am not an extension of her.
And that’s a non-starter for me.
Now, perhaps I can write about this issue in a way that can get through to her and help her change her perspective and thus treatment of me. Maybe. And maybe I will try.
But, historically, no relationship has ended on a positive note for me that entailed the other person’s unwillingness to accept that I feel and think what I feel and think — even if it’s the opposite of what they want. I can negotiate, I can change my mind and my feelings. I can be comforted, reassured, convinced, persuaded.
But I will not be bullied into believing that I’m “wrong” to think and feel as I do in the first place. Sorry. I have a little too much self-respect to invalidate my own personal experiences like that (anymore, that is — been there, done that, never going back to that terrible place again).
So, I’m skeptical. If I have to start from the basic level of convincing the other person that I am an autonomous individual before we can ever get close to tackling the meat of our problems, that doesn’t bode well.
Thus, I lean toward writing a more raw letter that explains my position (on the subject of autonomy, for prime example) but doesn’t expect any particular response. She could respond well, take ownership, apologize, and work together with me to make things better. Or maybe she’ll get even more angry and offended.
But, I don’t think the relationship ‘justly’ deserves that I waste any more time and agony on it. Five drafted letters, too many conversations with others trying to problem-solve, too many sleepless nights and unpleasant mornings, and I’m done now.
Adult Brain will help Child Brain, if necessary, to embrace that our relationship with this person is not (and maybe was not) what it seemed. And that that doesn’t make it our fault. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the other person’s fault. No one necessarily has to be villain. Not everybody gets along. That’s life. And that’s OK. Move on.
What do you think? Which option should I opt for? Do you see some other possibilities I’m missing? What do you think about the idea of Adult Brain and Child Brain sometimes warring over control of a given situation? Does that resonate with you and your own experiences?
When you think about your own conflicts, do you know what you truly want? Do you know what you value — potentially more than relational resolution?