The first time I saw one of the couples I live with sit in our shared living room and have a fight, I was shocked. Why didn’t they take it to their bedroom, to their private space? Why did they feel that it was okay to hash out the details of their relationship disagreements in public? It was so awkward.
In our culture, we tend to push conflict out of the way. We don’t want to see it. We don’t like conflict in our workplace, or in our home, and most especially in our intimate relationships.
But over time its grown on me, as I’ve realized there is value to conflict in plain sight. I’ve realized that living in a community with a “pro-conflict stance” (as a friend recently put it) can actually be healthier, even happier.
See, after a little while, I stopped being aghast at the lack of decorum of my housemates, and decided that if they were going to argue in the living room, then it was okay to listen. And the more I listened, the more I realized that they actually had good communication skills and good ways of processing and resolving their personal and collective difficulties. And by having their conversations where they were, they were not only modeling those skills for others, they were showing that they weren’t ashamed to be fighting.
And even when a conflict isn’t being handled in a healthy, productive way, having it in public can be useful. Like most couples, my (ex-)fiancee and I used to ask each other to “go upstairs” when we needed to have a disagreement. It was only we started arguing more in front of our friends that our friends were able to notice exactly how fucked up our relationship was, and how emotionally abusive we had become of one another. And then they did what true friends should always do—they called us out on it. Yes, this accelerated the end of the relationship. But that’s a good thing, as we are both much happier people now.
Do people argue differently when they know other people are watching? Maybe. I think it depends on the person. But if so, if it causes them to be more constructive and less abusive in their arguments, is that such a bad thing?
Conflict does not equal violence. Conflict is normal. It happens when two people have different interests, or different perspectives, or different pieces of information about the issue, or a misunderstanding, or because FEELINGS. In other words, it happens all the time. It isn’t “drama.” It isn’t horrible. It can be constructive.
In wider society, in politics, conflicts are often reflections of fundamentally different interests, and are difficult to resolve at all, let alone in mutually satisfying ways.
But in relationships, be they between housemates, family members, romantic partners, of communities, at the end of the day the interests often do align. Because what we want, or at least should want, is to support one another. And so long as all parties enter a discussion of a conflict with good will, conflict can be an opportunity for growth and resolution. (Good conflict resolution and consensus procedures are also important, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Conflict doesn’t destroy relationships between friends, families, lovers, or communities. You know what is really toxic to relationships?
Resentment comes from NOT TALKING. It comes from silencing conflict. From being afraid of being uncomfortable. When we feel like we can’t open express and resolve a conflict, we turn it inwards. And then it begins to fester. It begins to eat away at our love and respect for the other person or people. And for ourselves. Left unchecked, resentment will destroy at all the love and caring you have.
The only cure is to talk openly.
I’ve found that talking openly about feelings and conflicts is what makes our house function. So we have “house feels” meetings. Every quarter or so, we will have a meeting where we gather as a group and go around and each talk about how we feel about each other. This is an important tool for airing unsaid or withheld feelings or concerns, and for deepening our transparency and connection with one another, so we can support each other better.
Don’t get me wrong; this is hard. It requires vulnerability, and trust that the other person will listen to what you say. So we try to practice Nonviolent Communication. And we also adopted a rule, borrowed from Transparency Tools, that no one is allowed to respond to what anyone else shares for 24 hours, unless they ask for and receive permission to respond during the meeting. When someone shares a withheld feeling or issue with you, your job is to listen—and if you’re thinking of your own response, you can’t be fully present to listen. When we first had this I worried that people would attack one another. And yes, there was some conflict. But in the end, a good portion of the meeting was people declaring how much they loved and appreciated the others. Which is a refection of a reservoir of good will that is built through open communication.
I also have found that sometimes conflict helps reveal what my truly important relationships are. If I don’t give a damn about someone, there’s only so angry I can really get. But if I really care about someone, if I love someone, then a conflict with them will feel very sharp and powerful. Because their opinion will matter to me, and my opinion will matter to them. And maybe we’ll say some things that hurt one another. But we also will have a lot invested in truly resolving the conflict rather than shoveling it under a rug. I went through this recently with one of my closest friends. But over about 24 hours we worked out our disagreement (which in part stemmed from a misunderstanding), took steps to restore trust, and came out the other side closer friends than ever. There were still tears at the end. But now they were happy tears.
Yes, conflict and disagreements does sometimes cause pain. But as humans, and as feminists, we should not be trying to be perfect. We shouldn’t be expecting that we will always agree with one another, or that we’ll never hurt one another.
The most we can ask is that we treat each other with kindness, with compassion, and with flexibility. And that we respect ourselves, and those we love, enough to openly air our conflicts, and come out stronger for it.