Note: this piece was inspired by the work of Marianne Williamson.
All too often when we prepare for an interaction with someone we’re at odds with, we prepare for war.
We go over and over in our heads all the ways in which we’re right in our understanding of what’s really going on and how the other person just doesn’t get it. We’re crystal clear on how our actions are justified and how theirs are reprehensible, how we are beyond reproach and the other person is guilty beyond belief. Guilty! How they’re the ones who are largely responsible for the trouble we’re having and we’re just along for the terrible, tumultuous ride.
And we’re going to make sure they know just how wrong they are.
Does this sound familiar?
Here’s the thing. When we approach our relationships looking for conflict, we'll find conflict. When we approach someone with attack thoughts, more often than not they will reflexively defend themselves (and vice versa).
This impulse to go on the attack is so prevalent and deeply ingrained that we may not even realize we’re preparing ourselves this way -- it has simply become our default way of relating to other people in times of struggle.
Is it any wonder that these types of interactions don’t turn out so well? That they are forced and tense and testy and oh so painful?
But we prepared to inflict pain!
Why then are we surprised when our actions cause pain?
Or is it that we just didn’t expect for it to come back around on us so quickly (if at all)?
What we don’t realize is that relationships aren’t zero-sum games.
Truly loving ourselves will never mean putting another person down. When we act with love, we’ll receive love in return. We may not always know what the most loving act is in a given situation, and the love we receive may not always look like what we expect it to, but it’ll be there. And when we act from lovelessness, that is what we will experience.
This is why we can end up feeling just as bad as the person we intended to settle our score with. Because we peddled pain in the pursuit of peace. Even if it can feel very gratifying in the moment to really let ‘em have it, once the dust settles we’ll have a bad taste in our mouths and fresh wounds on our hearts.
And what have we really accomplished anyhow? Aside from eroding some or all of the trust that forms the foundation of any relationship?
Not a whole lot.
Even if we might claim that there’s no love lost because we didn’t need that person in our lives anyway, we must ask ourselves: Have we been the people we truly wish to be?
There’s no such thing as no harm done.
The honest resolution of relationship conflicts depends on a certain measure of goodwill, good faith, and generosity of spirit. None of this is possible when we are convinced of our own innocence, and we are bent on punishing another person for their guilt.
It’s up to us to interrupt this cycle by choosing to act differently in these moments, and by preparing ourselves differently for them in the first place.
By changing our approach, we invite a new outcome.
To this end, here are three spirit-minded ways to turn relationship conflict into communion:
1. “The love in me salutes love in you.”
Before our next interaction with someone we have a challenging relationship with (one that is strained, complicated, unpleasant, or upsetting), let’s set aside a few moments for the following exercise.
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Close our eyes and take a few deep breaths. Hold the image of the person in our mind. Imagine their face, their eyes, or maybe their smile. Can we remember what their voice sounds like? Hold that image steady, and tell them (within the mental container of our own mind): “The love in me salutes the love in you.”
We can repeat it as many times as we need to, as many times a day as we feel compelled to (there’s no such thing as too much love).
After we’ve done this exercise a few times, pay attention to how our attitude toward this person changes the next time we see them. Notice these changes especially in our bodies. Do we still tense up? Does our heart still beat faster? Do we feel as stressed?
Or have we softened a little bit? Has “fight or flight” become “you know, I’m alright”?
One additional note: we can repeat this mantra (to ourselves, internally) when we first see this person again in real life. It can be a good way of snapping our minds into right alignment at the very moment we would be readying our attack.
2. “I surrender my contributions.”
Let’s be real here for a moment.
A good portion of the turmoil we face in our relationships comes from us. Our side of the table. Our lane.
We carry our own assumptions, biases, wounds, and judgments. If we’re to successfully neutralize our ability to inflict pain, we have to repair our impulse to act from these places.
How do we do this?
We surrender them. To our better selves. To the Universe. To Spirit. To God. To whatever or whomever we wish -- the particulars don’t really matter.
What matters is that we let them go.
We won’t be able to access a different experience of our relationships until we resolve to approach them differently than we have before -- and our contributions very much matter here.
This time we go within ourselves and we get very still and we say:
“Take my anger, take my jealousy, take my judgment, take this feeling of anxiety and overwhelm, take my capacity for craziness and drama. Take my desire to settle this score.”
We can mix and match with whatever quality or behavior we wish not to add to the relational equation anymore.
Selfishness. Closed-mindedness. Pettiness.
Whatever most topples us from our center and compromises our ability to act from a clear, grounded place in the heat of the moment. Whatever attitude most prevents true conflict resolution and reconciliation.
We don’t need to do anything more than this, and we won’t be as at the effect of these behaviors when we do.
We can again repeat this as its own exercise, or silently in the moments just before we interact with the person who we have trouble being our best selves with.
Or we can do both.
(Sometimes we need all the help we can get.)
3. “I choose to see your innocence.”
Most of the time we approach conflict with a laundry list of someone else’s guilt. All of the many ways they’ve messed up, all of the mistakes they’ve made.
Believe it or not, meticulously accounting for another person’s behavior like this… doesn’t earn us any favor with them. It certainly doesn’t engender any goodwill. Instead it perpetuates the cycle of attack and defend. And let’s be honest, the other person could probably offer a choice word or two about our failures too.
So instead of scouring their behavior for their undeniable guilt, we can repeat this instead:
“I choose to see your innocence.”
Observe how the visceral need to attack them falls away and is replaced by a certain stillness.
This mantra operates from the understanding that everyone really is doing the best they can, with the interest, ability, and information that they have at the time.
This doesn’t mean we don’t hold someone accountable for how they’ve treated us. But it allows us to access a certain spiritual perspective that knows we were never really threatened by that behavior in the first place, and that confronting them in a compassionate way opens the door for them to make a different choice moving forward.
It’s also a gesture that comes from knowing that everyone makes mistakes. That everyone says things they shouldn’t have said, or does things they shouldn’t have done.
Who among us hasn’t erred in this way? Who wouldn’t take something back if given the opportunity?
It doesn't mean we ignore the consequences of another person’s actions, but it does allow us to have mercy on them for it.
Turning conflict into communion.
What happens when we practice these steps?
The impulse to attack becomes an opportunity to understand, to embrace. Self-righteousness is replaced by a humility that accepts we don’t know everything. That we don’t need to prove anyone right or wrong.
We’ll have removed many of the barriers we once had to seeing the other person clearly, and we’ll now approach them from a place of peace within ourselves.
We'll have set the table for greater emotional intimacy, vulnerability, honesty, and trust.
And our experience of the relationship will shift and change.
We’ll be less harried, and more in control -- not of the other person, but of our ability to respond with kindness and compassion in a composed way. We’ll be more confident in ourselves, and less at the effect of whatever’s swirling around us. We’ll feel more calm, more at ease.
Our habitual attack and defend approach will transform from this:
We are adversaries.
I am beyond reproach,
and I’m going to punish you dearly for your mistakes.
I forgive you for your mistakes,
and I surrender my own,
so that we can be together at last.