There’s no real way to avoid relationship challenges and conflicts. They are going to happen. It’s how we respond when they do --and how we prepare ourselves for them in the first place-- that will make all the difference in how we experience them.
Learning how to approach relationships differently and developing the awareness and strength it sometimes takes to follow through in the moment will help us navigate whatever challenges we face and find peace amidst the drama, the confusion, and the heartbreak.
1. Ditch the gossip.
Gossip keeps us from feeling at ease in our relationships because it focuses on the actions and behaviors of other people. Because we have no control over what other people think, say, or do, we disempower ourselves in relationships when we blame, shame, and complain about them.
Also, underneath it all gossip is rarely about the other person’s behavior -- it’s about what we think we get out of commenting on another person’s behavior. Maybe it’s about shifting a power dynamic, gaining a measure of control, settling a score, or seeking validation. But as long as we express these needs within the context of what the other person either is or isn’t doing, we will actually deprive ourselves of the power we do have to address the pain and discomfort we feel.
2. Feel your feelings.
A lot of the discomfort we experience in relationships comes from the resistance we have to feeling whatever feelings these situations bring up for us.
When we experience this resistance, we let our minds leapfrog our hearts. We jump straight to “well I’ve really gotta figure this out” without first asking ourselves “how does this make me feel?” and sitting with the answer.
We talk ourselves out of feeling a certain way because we think our emotional response is irrational, unbecoming, unwise, or just plain wrong. We invalidate ourselves when we shy away from our authentic human experience in this way. Is it any wonder then that we feel so uneasy navigating relationship issues? We’ve disconnected from an essential part of ourselves.
Save the thinking for a short time later. Feel the feelings now. The more thoroughly and vulnerably we pay attention to them, the less intensely we will feel them in the long run.
When it comes to our emotions, the only way out is through.
3. Seek to understand the other person’s contribution, without judgment.
What is a judgment? It is an impression that would otherwise be a description if there weren’t some emotion attached to it.
If we’ve allowed ourselves to feel our feelings, we’ll be able to see the reality of the situation more clearly. And our understanding of who the other person is and what they’re doing won’t seem as threatening when it’s not viewed through the lens of our unmet emotional needs.
The impression of the situation we then have would be called information. Information that we can use to decide what our next steps will be.
In this way, focusing on another person’s behavior is only valuable to the extent that it impartially informs our own.
4. Own your contribution.
Want to know the only person’s behavior that we can change? Our own. The best way to do this is to account for and then take responsibility for our mistakes and missteps.
Acknowledging the ways in which we’ve contributed to the problem at hand will quickly empower us to make changes in the areas we do have some control over, for our own benefit and for the benefit of the relationship.
5. Atone for your mistakes.
When we take responsibility for our contributions to the interpersonal conflict in our lives, we will realize there are occasions where we would have acted differently knowing what we do now about the consequences of those actions.
One of the most important things we can do in a relationship is atone (express this remorse and regret), first within ourselves and then to the person we’ve hurt in some way.
There is genuine power in offering an earnest, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Will you forgive me?”
We shy away from atonement because it opens us up to rejection and ridicule, but we will carry the pain of our past missteps with us --and risk repeating them-- until we do.
Atonement is the full integration of the sometimes hard truths we learn about ourselves as we navigate relationships.
6. Forgive other people for theirs.
As we come to accept the atonement for ourselves, we will naturally feel an impulse to forgive other people for the ways we feel they wronged us in the past. Because we’ll now be able to see beyond the veil of malicious (or at least misguided) intent, moral judgments, and the pain of the moment.
We'll realize that if we are capable of making mistakes, genuinely regretting the impacts they had, and learning and growing from this experience, then other people are too.
Regardless of whether or not our atonement spurs another to atone, if someone else asks for forgiveness, openly accepting their apology will release both of us from the perceived power of the past transgression.
Showing another person mercy in this way is one of the most healing acts we can ever offer them.
7. Choose to see the innocence in other people, and yourself.
As we own our contribution to the conflict at hand, atone for our mistakes, and forgive other people for theirs, we’ll come to appreciate a certain innocence in how we both acted. Just as we know we ultimately didn’t mean to hurt the other person, we’ll understand that the other person didn’t mean to hurt us either.
We’ll realize we just didn’t know how to navigate the challenge at hand.
And this will not be a judgment of our character but an acceptance of the reality that when our sensitivities rub up against someone else’s, we sometimes compromise what skills and composure we do have to resolve conflicts more peacefully.
We’ll see how everyone is truly doing the best they can, with the information they have, in the ways that they know how.
Being able to hold the relationship within this field of innocence is the clearest sign that we’ve found our peace amidst even the most challenging situations, and in the future we’ll be able to trust that this innocence is always near at hand.
8. Change your approach from adversary to ally.
Like claiming our collective innocence, this last step is less something we must do, and more a product of our doing the rest.
Because moving through this process will involve disarming conflict where we would have fueled fires. It will require laying down our emotional armor and being vulnerable where we would have put up walls. It will mean holding nonjudgmental space for mistakes that we would have sought to punish.
Instead of approaching the people in our lives as adversaries, we'll meet them as allies. Occasions for conflict become opportunities for communion.
If there is anything to be done here, it is to realize that the role we assume will depend on the actions we take in our relationships.
Because if we’re looking for a fight we will surely find one, and other people will reflexively defend themselves. And if someone approaches us looking for the same, only in our defenselessness will we truly be free.