I heard a story recently about a friend of a friend who is taking steps to end his decade-plus marriage. Like many such stories, years of problems and blame have led to unresolved anger, bitterness, and withdrawal. All of the joy and affection are gone and the marriage has been sexless for years. The couple feels that they have tried everything that they know how to do, or are willing to do, to save their relationship. Their problems have grown and escalated so they no longer have hope of bridging the distance between them. Now begins the painful, agonizing process of tearing apart two lives that have been joined together.
When I hear this story, what I tell myself is, once upon a time, they must have decided to get married because they were in love and they were hopeful about a lifetime together. I imagine they saw themselves as growing together, deeper in love; of building a happy life as partners, each supporting the other. I imagine they even saw themselves, some time way in the future, with a lifetime between them, rocking in chairs, with happy memories and grandchildren in their hearts.
Sadly, this story is so common. In situations like this, I often see two very good people who want the same things out of life - to be known, to be accepted, to be loved completely. They want to walk through life with a partner who will support them, will listen to them, will let them make mistakes and still love them. They want to be human and vulnerable without having to be bad or wrong. Most of us just haven’t learned how to be in relationship this way. We don’t realize that to receive these things, we also have to be willing to give these things. This does not make us bad people. We are limited by what we haven't learned.
Very, very few of us have learned how to handle conflict. We only know that conflict feels bad and something in us feels threatened, so we react in ways to protect ourselves from hurt.
Conflict coaching teaches us that conflict is normal and healthy. Conflict is an opportunity for growth and understanding and deepening of relationships. It is an opportunity to learn more about ourself and others. Conflict coaching teaches us how to talk honestly about our needs and wants and how to listen to the needs and wants of others. From the point of honesty, compassion, and understanding, we can figure out how to take the steps that will lead us closer to getting our needs met and meeting the needs of others. Only then can we move toward one another instead of causing a build up of hurt and resentment that pushes us apart.
I think of the unresolved hurts in a relationship as building a trash pile. Every unresolved hurt gets tossed into the pile and the pile grows. The big pile of trash makes it difficult to see the good in the other person and to see the reasons we believed in the relationship in the first place. The bigger the pile, the harder we have to work to clean it up and the longer it takes. This is tough, difficult work. With conflict skills and conflict coaching, this pile can be cleaned up and we can approach our relationships in new and better ways. The issues that could have become trash are dealt with, honestly and purposefully.
Conflict coaching is so powerful because it teaches us that with more work and care on the
front end, understanding and relationship grows. We learn tools that help us work together to create the relationship that we want.