There’s been a lot of conflict in my Spring.
This makes sense to me because I tend to anticipate that in every relationship, no matter its terms or content, some variety of conflict is bound to arise every three months or so. It might be something small (hey could you make more of an effort to xyz for me?) or it might be something large (my needs are not being met and/or there is a rupture in trust), or it might be something somewhere in between those things (idk, I’m freaking out and need support/to be left alone).
I’m reading the Science of Trust, and although that book encompasses research primarily on single-partner romantic couples, I’m finding that it’s informing my practices pretty much across the board.
Did you know that the vast majority of conflict with your spouse is not resolvable? I didn’t! Fundamental differences in character, personality, values, and lifestyle are not things you “resolve”. So revisiting a topic seasonally or periodically is just a surprising fact of an intimate relationship with another human. Who knew! Ideally though, you don’t find yourself in unmoving gridlock on those topics. The Science of Trust is a data-driven primer on recognizing gridlock, and heading it off at the pass.
That said, boundaries are real and important and there are some things we can’t or won’t come back to intimacy from, once they have occurred.
Most of my boundaries honestly trace back to my childhood, when boundary transgression was a) happening all the time and b) not a thing I understood because I was a child. So for example: If someone leaves my circle of impact or influence, I do not follow them and will usually take steps to limit their access to me. I assume that they had reasons for their choice that were sound and made sense for them. Those reasons may or may not have anything to do with me. All relationships are at-will and I don’t need an explanation from anyone who wants to take their leave of me (nor is an explanation helpful, regardless of what we, in our hurt, might sometimes believe). I limit contact with folks when this happens since, in the past, I have suffered for not doing so. Angry drunk emails or text messages are one example. Manipulative behavior is another. History revision is yet another. So is stalking and information stock-piling. If someone wants to take their leave that’s fine, but they will need to do some work either before they do or after, to clarify things with me. So while I don’t take it too personally when someone cuts loose out of my life, I do for sure take steps when I realize it’s happened to keep myself healthy, safe, and only as accessible as I’d like to be. Whether it’s putting texts and emails through a filter, blocking my visibility (and theirs), or just seeing what they’re up to less frequently, those are choices I make for me, because they have consistently benefitted me in the past.
Another example of boundary setting is that I don’t engage with people who demonstrate the urge to hurt others when they are angry. I simply don’t fuck with that. Charity, generosity, and the ability to find gratitude and grounding in situations with high emotional charge is a fundamental set of requirements I have for any human close to me. Humans are flawed, and might enact these things imperfectly. That’s okay. But to engage with me, I have to believe a human will not nuke me from orbit. I’m not willing to use those tactics, and I won’t engage on unequal ground. If your primary advantage is that you’re willing to be nasty, or see another human being’s narrative as a threat and are willing to treat it as such, well. I’ll just see you later, and by later I mean never again. I have plenty of experience with that dynamic, and it interests me Not At All. Enjoy that.
Sometimes, though, we fuck up! We might walk out of a room or the house to find space and center, not realizing that the person we left doesn’t know if we’re coming back. We might shout a thing because we don’t feel heard.
I’ve had some combination of all of these things over the last season, and let me tell y’all: conflict is hard. Repair is hard. Rebuilding is hard. Taking a moment to ask yourself, “Am I misreading?” or “Is what I’m interpreting consistent with how I know this human and their ways to be?” or “What am I missing?” before speaking or writing or posting… is hard. And we should do those things. But perhaps we should be most willing to do them for the people who are also willing to do those things.
One thing I have no patience for is a thing that in the past, family members of mine have done or do. The process goes like this:
1) I’m mad, but don’t feel entitled to be mad because I’m MADDER than perhaps feels justified, or the reason I’m mad reads as controlling, entitled, or insufficient.
2) I will go looking for reasons to be as mad as I am! That sounds good.
3) I will go combing through the internet and social media and whatever they’ve published recently and whatever friends we share in common to find additional reasons to be mad at them, without regard for their boundaries, sense of safety, or just general manners and consideration.
4) Build a narrative where they are, legit, the worst.
5) Stew, and wait for a catalyst for an argument or conflict.
6) Unload with both barrels on a person who is not armed.
7) *optional — Trash talk that person, seeking validation for the narrative built in Step 4, using the outcome of an unfair conflict for which that human was not prepared in Step 6 as additional justification.
I have often found that when this process is occurring, the person engaging in it is profoundly and deeply depressed. It happened with my own mom, and legit, I love her and was fully prepared to terminate my relationship with her over this. She is my mom, and we worked it out, and we don’t engage in this kind of conflict anymore and I am pretty relieved about that because it scares the bejesus out of me. But it’s happened enough with a wide enough collection of humans that unless you are legit, my actual mom, my general response to finding out someone is at Step 3 is to lock down and brace for impact, knowing that when it comes I will have to dig deep or run hard. I prepare for that person to forget every kindness I’ve ever given them. I abide, knowing that any and all efforts I’ve ever made for them will be eclipsed by the supernova of their feelings. I brace for that, rightly. If someone gets to Step 3 carelessly enough that I’ve found out about it, Step 6 is where they’ll go.
We see this all the time. How many friends have you seen dig through their partner or spouse’s email or text messages? Or comb the facebook feed of a former lover? Folks will sift through tweets and dating site activity. I have fully watched friends do this to people with whom they went on three dates. It consistently reads to me as masochism that quickly externalizes to sadism when the correct information is discovered. And I get it. We want answers. We want to feel correct. We want our feelings to feel grounded in some objective reality. Anger can feel bonkers, and we want to feel less bonkers. The problem is, that if we’ve gotten to Step 3, we are the ones transgressing.
I just expect that my pals don’t tell me everything. Hell, my spouse doesn’t tell me everything. The only creatures in my life who tell me everything are my cats, and they have pretty simple emotional lives for which I am entirely responsible. They also only say Meow, and I’m left to interpret the rest. We have different levels of intimacy and comfort with different human beings and the kinds of things we are willing to share are bound to vary based on how each relationship and person in it stands, day to day.
But just like I don’t tell my family of origin erry little thing about my life, I don’t share my full information set with every human I would call a friend. There are probably two humans on this earth who know ALL MY SHIT and I pay one of them. I am not an open book, because open books are things. I’m judicious about what I ask and what I share, because 9 times out of 10, Answers aren’t the things we need. What we need is connection and reassurance. It’s so much harder to say, “We haven’t talked in a while, and some of that is my fault. We’ve both had a lot on, but I want to reconnect with you,” than it is to say, “WHAT THE FUCK ASSHOLE, YOU ABANDONED ME. EXPLAIN YOURSELF TO MY SATISFACTION.” It is a lot harder to say, “I get the feeling that you’re holding back with me lately, and I am wondering if there is something we can do to foster more trust and openness between us,” than it is to say, “YOU ARE KEEPING SECRETS.” It is a lot harder to say, “I’d like to trace the source of this conflict with you so we can resolve it together,” than it is to say, “HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS YOU DID WRONG BOW DOWN AND GROVEL. FEEL BAD.” And above all, it is harder to listen than it is to speak.
The requirement that someone share something about what’s going on with them, no matter how hard or personally I might want to take them holding back, is controlling behavior. It is especially controlling if we are not being as forthcoming about our own shit as we expect others to be. I take controlling behavior for what it is: a warning.