‘Wanted to check that we are still okay….’
‘From my side we are…..it is all part of the work….’
This was the start of a brief email exchange with my therapist following our session last week. The hour was a bit of post-mortem of the previous session, and I felt as though I was continually criticizing her, and so I left feeling predictably anxious about what effect that might have had on our relationship. Leading up to last week’s session I had felt angry, withdrawn and resentful, but as usual, I found it almost impossible to take the intensity of those emotions into session. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t express them, they seemed to melt away in her presence. Nevertheless, I still felt hurt and separated as I explained how angry I had felt over the last few days, and how I had wanted to shut her out and not talk to her at all.
We talked about the session that had resulted in those feelings, and about why they might have come about. I had finally worked up the courage to delve deeply into a difficult topic, but she had stayed on the surface while all the while a part of me was crying out to be heard.* A case of lack of attunement or lack of communication? Whichever it was, the key question, it seems to me, is what does it mean, to the client, when that happens?
I think it’s fair to say that I see ‘conflict’ where perhaps others may see disagreement or misunderstanding. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that for me, disagreement is conflict. It’s conflict when I feel anger; conflict when I feel like I’m criticizing; conflict when I have a different opinion to someone I care about or whose opinion I value. And to me, conflict is always a negative thing, as are the emotions that accompany it. There are three keys ways in which my views of conflict are unhelpful and which therapy is enabling me to address.
Conflict is about me. When it comes to work, I know that there is such a thing as a difference of opinion, and that chances are it’s not personal. However, when it comes to those I care deeply about, this concept doesn’t even enter my head. It is always personal. My husband gets frustrated because he finds it almost impossible to have an adult argument with me. I withdraw immediately into silence, because it feels like an attack. When he disagrees with something I believe in strongly, or is completely uninterested in something I am passionate about, it feels as though he is rejecting me, however much he emphasizes that he is not. If I am caught up in a conflict, it is because there is something wrong with me. It’s about something I have done or not done; it’s about a way in which I fall short, or a way in which I haven’t pleased someone. Conflict means that I have made a mistake – and I find it very hard to live with making those. Alternatively, and more rarely, it means that someone else has made one – and being hurt by another’s ‘falling short’ is a risk I’d rather avoid.
Conflict is a disaster. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s a threat. It’s never just minor – the fact that it happened at all is indicative of something wrong – not just in me, or in the other person, but in the relationship itself. I can never understand how quickly my husband seems to recover after an argument. While I wallow in self-hatred and despair over our marriage, he will appear to be fine within a few minutes or hours, and certainly by the next day. For him, the argument was not about him as a person, and the fact that it happened did not signify a catastrophe in our relationship (there are plenty of other signs of that, but that is for another post!).
Conflict is terminal. It is something to be survived – or not. My first response to conflict is often to want to turn and run and to never have to face a similar situation again. The shame of making a mistake or ‘behaving badly’, or the pain of being hurt, both drive me in the direction of wanting to turn my back on the relationship in question. One strike and you’re out, or I am – the result is the same. For example, my relationship with my mother-in-law changed a few years into my marriage, the moment we had our first argument. For a few years I had felt ‘adopted’; like a princess who could do no wrong. But that ‘minor’ argument felt like a betrayal – she showed that she could be displeased with me, that she could be critical of something I had done. It hurt, and since then I have been emotionally distant – and I will never let her in again.
But even when I want to repair conflict, I find it very difficult to know how. Talking about it, as I did with my therapist, feels as though I am criticizing and attacking the other person. That is how it would feel to me, and it’s hard to grasp that they may feel differently. Will they hate feeling criticized and consequently hate me? How will our relationship survive, and how much damage will I have done? This brings out my strong need both to reassure, and to be reassured that everything is okay. Hence the email exchange with my therapist – both damage assessment and damage limitation.
‘Blaming the parents’ feel like a therapy cliché, but with this particular issue, I think the origins of my feelings and reactions are clear. Expressing anger was a negative thing in my family, particularly if I was the one expressing it (which happened increasingly rarely, as a result). Even feeling anger, if it was towards a family member (my parents in particular), was quite clearly never justified. Whatever had transpired, the view put to me was that my parents acted only ever out of love. Not only was there no justification for anger or conflict, it was quite clear that it made my mother upset, and ‘how could I do that to her’? Our disagreements therefore felt as though I was attacking her (or at least I thought that she perceived it that way) and that therefore what I was doing was wrong. Conflict, disagreement, anger – they seemed to have no place within a happy, harmonious, family. They seemed unnatural – interlopers to be feared and discouraged, rather than opportunities to express oneself and to ‘clear the air’.
It is not surprising therefore, that conflict with my parents was never really resolved – and the same holds true now. Days and days can go by with no telephone contact after an argument, and by the time we next speak it’s all been swept under the carpet and completely ignored. When I lived at home and it was less easy to avoid communicating, it always felt as though it was a case of my mother being able to reach a point where she could either dismiss my view or try and control my behaviour. That might be by telling me I would see things from her point of view when I got older; or by saying that although I might hold a particular belief, she wanted me to promise not to act in accordance with it.
It’s not surprising that arguments with my husband feel like a disaster; or that I am very anxious about upsetting my therapist if I talk about having ‘negative’ feelings towards her. But for me, one of the most rewarding, helpful and emotional aspects of therapy, has been the repeated cycle of ‘rupture and repair’ – of conflict of one type or another, which is worked on and resolved. It is helping me to modify my views about what conflict is and what it means – or doesn’t mean. At the moment, I can only really take those lessons on board and apply them, if at all, in the context of my relationship with my therapist, though I am taking very small steps in the direction of testing things out with my husband. It feels as though the risk of confronting and resolving conflict is still too great to take unless I feel a huge amount of safety, trust, security and acceptance in the relationship. But I hope that that will eventually change, though that time feels almost impossibly far away at the moment.
Part of the reason I chose my current therapist was a gut instinct that she was robust enough, and I could be open enough, for us to resolve difficulties together. That instinct was borne out the first time we tried to resolve such a difficulty, by her wonderful response – her openness to criticism, her lack of defensiveness, and her apology for a comment that had upset me. Over much of our therapy I have spent long hours worrying over instances of apparent lack of understanding or attunement between us, but now I feel that being able to discuss and resolve difficult situations together is much more valuable than always striving to be on completely the same wavelength. Not just valuable, but more realistic as a template for relationships outside of therapy.
Rupture and repair – working through conflict – is also ultimately beneficial in creating a closer bond, counter-intuitive though that may seem. I have written before, about the desperate desire to be known by and to better know, one’s therapist. In working through conflict, you come to know something about the other person, which you might never otherwise have seen. Whereas a perfect understanding, a perfect mirror, shows you only your own reflection.
[* Dr Stein recently published a post called ‘The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists Can Go Wrong‘. It illustrates just how difficult it is for both therapists and clients to tread the line between going too quickly and too slowly in therapy, and neither one’s judgement on the matter, can be relied on absolutely. They will both get it wrong, some of the time, but talking about the feelings this engenders, can be very illuminating.]