|Transforming Conflict in Relationships
By Zoé Newman
Zoé Newman, MFT, has been practicing psychotherapy and leading dream groups for over sixteen years.
One of the ways I've found valuable in working with individuals struggling with relationship conflicts is to channel the clarity of anger into a catalyst for one's own growth and empowerment.
Anger is a valuable signal. It alerts us to the need for necessary communication and action. It clarifies limits we need to set, awakens us to unmet needs, and puts us in touch with underlying wounded places in need of healing.
But we can also use the situation as a reflective mirror offering healing insight into what we can't see directly in our self; to face our own shadow; and to transform outrage into insight, empowerment and inner change. Taking the clarity we have about someone else's behavior and bringing it to our self can bring a laser-bright light to our own life.
A helpful device to create some space so that we can bring openness and curiosity to our exploration, I've found in working with individuals and groups, is to view the conflict situation as if it were a dream. This shift in perspective can help defuse our anger and provide enough distance, balance and humor to open us to new insight.
Usually we are so caught up in our life, that we have no perspective on it. Stepping back, and looking at what is happening in the moment as if it were a dream can give us needed space and perspective. It gives us enough breathing room to look at the deeper issues, to wonder what we might be able to learn from the situation, and to make choices about how we might want to respond. It creates a pause of awareness that allows us to notice what is happening, to listen deeply, and to be more open to gifts of the moment.
In shifting our attention in this way, not only do we gain by the insight and healing that opens up for us in our own life, but that change ripples out into our relationships as well.
Marlene was angry at her partner for not listening to her, and not honoring the needs she expressed. As we worked together, she explored this conflict situation as if it were a dream, and her partner a dream figure.
Investigating this dream figure partner as possibly reflecting a part of her, she looked at the ways that she was not listening to herself. How might she not be honoring the needs she was expressing? (One way perhaps was by looking to her partner to meet them, and letting them stay unmet if that didn't happen.) Also, how might she not be listening to her partner (which in this case might be as simple as hearing their unwillingness or inability at this time to meet her requests)? And how might one of the character traits of her partner, seen as an inner dream figure, be a helpful resource for her in all this? (The traits Marlene identified were the independence and community involvement that had been part of what had attracted her to her partner in the first place.)
As Marlene began to develop those aspects more as resources for herself, and as she listened to her self more deeply, and found ways herself to honor her needs, she began to feel happier in herself and in the relationship. She also started to notice and appreciate the ways in which her partner did come through for her, and did listen to her. And as a result, in the less charged atmosphere and greater emotional space that opened up, she found that her partner was actually more responsive to her needs.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, an overly patriotic gunman walked into the local gas station and shot the Arab owner. Had he been able to investigate the reflection of the terrorist within himself, he might have been able to recognize the same helpless rage expressing itself on innocent victims that he was decrying in the terrorists' actions, and step back from committing the same actions that he condemned in the other. By recognizing the reflections within our own self of what we see out there, we can stem the drive toward polarization that leads to escalating violence and war both in our intimate relationships and globally, and begin to relate with more wisdom and deeper understanding. It can be our own small steps toward peace.
The good news is: Working with our anger to transform it into an avenue of insight takes change from where we can't effect it (the other person) and brings it into the realm of possibilityus.
As we transform our anger into insight, greater acceptance of others naturally blossoms from our own intimate understanding of the struggle we're all engaged in, and, paradoxically enough, we are better able to communicate and create positive change.
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