Getting out of the 'mud' in a relational conflict

communication conflict relationships Mar 06, 2023
 You know that feeling when you're in an argument or disagreement with someone and you just feel stuck, like it's not really moving anywhere and you're both not understanding each other?
Or maybe you're arguing and all fired up in the blame game and neither is getting seen or heart? You're both just doubling down on your 'rightness' and their 'wrongness'?
How do we get out of that muddy, murky, uncomfortable space and come back into connection and understanding?
Relationships include conflict, this is part of the package when we decide to be in a relationship with a person. We're not going to be able to be around someone over the long term without meeting some form of disagreement, conflicting opinions, frustrating situations or full blown arguments.
When we're resourced and our nervous systems aren't locked into threat mode then we can often, more easily come into compassion and work our way through if we have basic conscious communication skills, however often those skills disappear when we go into a 'trigger'
This is because a trigger takes us OUT of our rational, social functioning system (prefrontal cortex where our higher cognition resides) and INTO 'threat' mode (through the hippocampus and amygdala) which is a much less mature, compassionate or rational part of our brain and nervous system. This system is designed to just do the job of keeping you safe and it doesn't care about being the most loving and kind person you can be in those moments.
So 'talking it out' is sadly not actually a viable option for most people when we move into an actual threat trigger. Some folks can very easily move into an aggressive or defensive 'threat' trigger (especially people with a history of certain types of trauma like family violence) while for others this is a rare thing that only happens once in a while. A lot of people actually do go into a trigger, even though it might not 'look' like it, but it's a 'freeze' or 'flee' response rather than FIGHT so it doesn't look as volatile but still causes a lot of pain.  
Ideally through doing personal healing work we can reduce the chance of moving into full trigger, and have these situations happen less often, but I haven't personally seen in any human that it just never gets triggered at all ( maybe if you become fully enlightened😜 )
So what do we do when we are there, in our immature, irrational, defensive, shut down and triggered mode? Especially when we're with someone we actually do love and don't want to hurt or fight against?
Here are some of my top tips
  • Notice that you're in a trigger. This act of being able to 'zoom out' and notice 'hmm my system appears to be activated/triggered right now' sounds simple but is actually a pretty big move. This is supported by regular meditation and becoming aware of awareness itself, so you're able to drop into this witness state and not be fully IN your thoughts but instead observing your thoughts and reactions without being attached to them.

  • Make sounds and movements instead of words. This can feel pretty ridiculous, but if you give each other space to express in a non-verbal, expressive way, it can help to get us  out of trying to analyze and 'understand' what's happening, which gets frustrating when your logical part of the brain isn't fully functioning and which can also result in us creating stories about our experience that might not actually be true (conflation) or overly simplifying a complex emotional experience (I'm 'sad' when really there is sadness/anger/frustration/confusion all mixed in). When we allow space to move, sound and just FEEL what's happening then the energy can start to shift, rather than feel compressed by our attempts to rationalize or understand them. Emotions want to be felt and then the aliveness in them can transform! So even if it seems weird you can try to both stand up and have some minutes of expression though movement and sound, either at the same time or witnessing each other. 

  • Come into touch/connection. This can be the hardest thing you can do when the other person feels like a threat and it takes a pretty advanced move of putting your ego aside and finding that part of you that longs to be back in connection. Whether it's holding hands, a hand on the shoulder or a full cuddle/embrace while breathing together- this lets our nervous systems know we're actually safe and this person isn't actually a threat. My partner and I love doing belly breathing together, and our general rule in conflict is to take care of the body and nervous system FIRST, then talk later once we've settled down and out of the trigger.

  • Find the PART that still wants to connect, and recognize that it's a PART that want's to punish/push away/reject the other. Parts work can be really helpful because even if we might feel HATE or another strong emotion in that moment, we can still recognize there are so many other feelings towards this person (like love, empathy, respect etc). Can you find some of those other pieces and feelings in this moment?

  • Witness one another. Just sit and be with each other while feeling all the feels. Let yourself be witnessed in the emotions you're experiencing and also witness them. They're hurting too. They're feeling unseen too. They're a multi-faceted being. They're worthy of love and kindness. Can you see that? Can you get out of your own hurt ego and see them as they are in this moment?

  • Take space. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just take some space and self-regulate. Journal, let your feelings out. Write down all the horrible things your mind is saying about them. Hopefully as you write them down they start to loose strength and potency and maybe even sound ridiculous. Maybe you can even notice that the writing sounds like you at a certain age. Is this 10 yr old Luna writing? 14 year old Luna? Can you have compassion for this hurt part of you writing while also seeing they're just stories?


You can probably see the key points here from my perspective are to give space to the feelings and give permission for you to run that energy in some way even if it's petty, aggressive and/or immature, but to not let that energy run AT the person. You don't need to repress it but you do need to learn how to channel it in a way that doesn't wound or hurt the other person.
Also, take care of your nervous system and find a way to ground- whether you can do that together or you need to do it separately before coming back together. Find a way to come back to a balanced state and out of that activation (and if you struggle to come back to balance then this is work for somatic therapy)
And finally to intentionally see this other person as a multifaceted being who is more than your story about them. Who is more than your judgment. They may have done something shitty, they may not be meeting your needs in this moment but they are not something you can put a label on as being THAT. These labels hurt us as well as hurting them. They take away complexity, they take away nuance. They take away compassion.
Moving back towards each other after conflict is about finding that inner strength that wants to turn towards love and that chooses love. This doesn't mean that you don't then set boundaries or have important conversations about needs in relationship after, but it's a certain kind of strength to choose the path of being loving even when you're hurting.
Once you've been able to come back to connection, back to regulation, back to presence with your partner THEN the next stage of the work begins where you need to find ways to communicate what isn't working, what changes may need to happen in your relationship or how you can minimize the chance of more of these triggers happening in the future. What needs aren't being met? What stories are we holding onto? Where do we need positive change in our relationship? Or perhaps what boundaries do we need to bring in around certain behavior's? 
These kind of conversations aren't easy and for some of us we need a third party to help us to navigate them- whether that is a professional mediator, coach, counselor or therapist or perhaps a trusted friend or family member. There is no shame in needing support during conflict and it can save relationships and bring about so much more love when we get to the root of our issues and find a way through them with love and understanding. 

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