Friday, April 18, 2008

Where things went wrong

There are a few ways for a relationship to succeed:

1) The Perfect Relationship (conflict-free)

One is for the parties in question to be so perfectly matched that conflict never arises (A sad fact of conflict is that often when it arises it creates other messes, schisms, blemishes.).

Therefore, a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow.

a) The Perfect Relationship (a little less perfect)

The parties in question don't acknowledge any blemishes in the perfection. They don't allow themselves to notice if they feel disappointment or annoyance. Therefore there is no conflict.

Therefore, a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow

b) The Perfect Relationship for one (less perfect for the other)

One person prevails in the relationship and the other accedes. The one who accedes treats the Other's wishes as their own. The one who accedes submerges his/her will to the Other.

There is no conflict

Therefore a conflict-free relationship generates no messes and love can thrive and grow

2) The Imperfect Relationship

Conflict is acknowledged as an inevitable consequence of humans trying to work together. Furthermore it is acknowledged that conflict can be a source of other conflicts, schisms, and messes.

Therefore, there need to be effective tools to minimize the damage a conflict can cause, and tools to clean up its effects.

--good will sets the stage for successful conflict resolution. An understanding that the other person probably means no harm predisposes the best results

--conflict is often caused by misunderstanding: sometimes there is no conflict but misunderstanding creates the impression that there is. Some conflict can be eliminated by clearing up misunderstanding. This requires talking.

--conflict is often caused by genuine differences in priorities. Negotiation is the framework for deciding whose need is the most pressing in a given situation, or if it's possible for some elements of the needs of each to be met. If one's needs are deemed secondary in one circumstance they can receive assurance when to expect their needs will be met.

--conflict is sometimes caused when one person wants another to change behavior, especially if the behavior is annoying.

--strong feelings can arise in conflict. Sometimes these are the result of fears and beliefs. People often judge their own feelings (and those of others) very heavily. They may fear negative feelings mean something very bad about themselves. They may be afraid to talk about them, and so try to ignore them. In those circumstances feelings can fester and become resentment. To choose to be vulnerable instead, and share them with their partner can be frightening (because sometimes this can activate the partner's fears and negative feelings), and it can also be liberating. Being vulnerable opens up the possibility of hurt, but it also
opens up the possibility of understanding, relief, deeper intimacy and love.

The relationship is not conflict-free, BUT there is the ability to clean up the messes, heal the schisms, create more intimacy, and the imperfect relationship can thrive and grow.

4) Poison

Person A has a wound and believes something is wrong with him/herself. Person A is deeply ashamed of this. A believes that if person B is unhappy with his/her behavior that he/she, person A, has been very deeply insulted. Person A believes B should not feel any criticism toward him/her self. Or, if any criticism is felt, B should conceal it. To acknowledge conflict is to criticize, and this is not tolerable. To acknowledge conflict is grounds for deep resentment, anger, and wounded feelings, and that justifies retaliation. Retaliation happens at Person A's choosing, and can be delivered in circumstances far removed from the original offense. It can be demonstrated in obstructionism, subtle gestures of contempt, acts of hostility that are difficult to read but the feeling of having been stung is unmistakable.

Person B believes that direct acknowledgment and addressing of conflict is desirable. Person B asks directly for what he/she wants, and asks for an accounting if an agreement hasn't been kept.

If person A and person B are in a relationship, they have a serious problem. To have conflict is forbidden, and in fact generates more. There is no means possible to clean up conflict, so the air gets more and more polluted. Person A, no matter how gently and respectfully approached with conflict believes he/she has been violated. Person B believes that direct acknowledgment of conflict is the key to resolving it.

Therefore B's way of resolving differences is deeply offensive to A. Attempts to bridge gaps are seen as intrusive and threatening to A. Their methods are diametrically opposed.


Douglas W said...

I have read this. But I think I need to read it again, and possibly again after that, to fully comprehend the possibilities of the various kinds of relationships you describe.

I need to consider the definitions of the terms that are central to your discussion.

Conflict can mean a disgreement, an argument, or opposition, but can also indicate simply a difference, or variance. It can indicate a tension between two states.

Ying and Yang are in opposition yet are perfectly complementary.

I am not sure that a Perfect Relationship is necessarily one that is conflict free, but an imperfect relationship is one that lacks love and understanding.

To love another as they are, with all the things that are different about them, and to endeavour to understand those differences can be a challenge. But when that happens then harmony settles over the relationship.

On the other hand, even though Ying and Yang are opposites yet complementary - if Ying has square edges and Yang has round edges and neither are willing to modify their shape slightly, they will never fit together.

In that case square-edged Ying mist go in search of a square-edged Yang; and round-edged Yang must seek out a round-edged Ying if they are to find complementary partners to complete the circle of their existence.

excavator said...


If I'd used 'idealized' instead of 'perfect', that may have made my meaning more clear.

I think there is a lot of belief about that a relationship that has conflict is not 'perfect', mainly because there aren't the skills to compassionately manage the feelings that might rise in response. Therefore it's easy to get entangled in some of the more uncomfortable aspects of conflict. I think there's often an unspoken imperative that there should either be no conflict, or if there is, one should keep it to themselves.

Your definition of conflict is congruent with mine. Some have very low tolerance to conflict,tension, variance, difference. For some who have a hypersensitivity a small difference can be very threatening.

When I talk about "The Imperfect Relationship" I could also have used the term 'realistic'.

Frankly, I'd prefer 'realistic' to 'idealized' any day. I think there are lots more interesting possibilities in a relationship that has the skills to manage conflict than one where no conflicts ever arise.

Douglas W said...

Thanks Debora. That clarifies what you were saying. The idealized relationship and the realistic one.

Yes, there are plenty of people aspiring to some fantasy of an idealized relationship... the fairy tale marriage... and the "they lived happily ever after" ending.

Then there's the reality of life and of people.

Mercurious said...

Hmmm. Interesting post here. Personally, I don't know that there is a perfect relationship, and I'm not even sure it would be desirable.

Joseph Campbell observed that marriages (and similar relationships) are vehicles for our personal development and growth, and so we should actually celebrate the opportunity to accommodate another and reconcile differences.

But I'm new to your blog and perhaps don't know the backstory here.

I admire you for your late start into the parenting thing. At 52, my kids are now grown. This has some advantages, but I secretly miss being dad to little people.

I'm likely 5 or 6 years away from grandparent status, so until then, I'll have to envy you.

excavator said...


You are right. In the absence of "the Perfect Relationship" being possible, I think the best we humans can hope for is the ability to clean things up, and heal wounds and rifts.

Actually, I think the latter is more desirable than the former--because I think the healing process brings deeper connection and intimacy, when done with authenticity.

As I mentioned to Doug, substitute the word "idealized" for "perfect" and you'll see that I'm not seriously advocating for 'perfection'.

A lesson in my own opacity.

DrK723 said...

As a relationship expert, I have to disagree with the first part of this article. I don't believe that there is any relationship without conflict. As a matter of fact, when couples tell me that they never argue, it's a red flag for me that they don't feel comfortable enough with one another to do so.

The later points are really good! I'd like to add that there are skills couples can learn to handle their conflicts when they arise. I offer a free teleseminar, "The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship." To hear it, go to:

excavator said...

Hi, Dr. Karen

Hi! I'm curious how you found my blog.

I'm disappointed to have not made clear (as evidenced by the above responses) that I wasn't serious when I described the 'perfect' relationship. I'm very aware that there is no conflict-free relationship, and that it really isn't even desirable. I'm aware that this is an idealization, an infantile aspiration; better indeed is to acknowledge that conflict is inevitable and to have the tools to deal with conflict as it arises. Furthermore, I'm aware that conflict is NOT the enemy, and instead can be a key to ever-deepening intimacy.

So, what I'd tried to illustrate is that there is the unattainable 'ideal' (the 'happily ever after') which is simply trumped by reality. (Although, there may be a lucky few who actually are so in sync with each other that their conflicts are minimized and they come as close as possible to this ideal, but this isn't typical.) What's left next is a striving to attain this unattainable; some people do achieve a kind of stability by one part of the couple sublimating their every desire to the other (so there is no conflict). I think that the style of marriage that many of us grew up witnessing was this style: the husband as head of the household and the wife's job to make sure this role was affirmed and not undermined.

To the extent the husband's wishes were reasonable, and to the extent the wife could swallow her own desires and make his hers that sort of relationship was successful and stable.

We all see how realistic THAT was. I think there were a lucky few who attained happiness this way, but the vast majority simply are not cut to fit.

What I wanted to show is that there is a Way that accepts the reality of conflict and doesn't require unreasonable sacrifice. I wanted to show that conflict is inevitable, and if we can't live in a conflict-free world the only thing that can approximate 'conflict-free' is the ability to HEAL conflict, and negotiate differences.

I believe 'what went wrong' in my own marriage is that my partner has a persistent belief that the ideal is not only possible but mandatory. And every conflict represents a betrayal of the ideal. To negotiate is merely to participate in that betrayal. I think he believes that to express unhappiness or disappointment is a direct attack on the soul of the other and that one's duty is to absorb any of those feelings and keep them to oneself. He sees himself as keeping faith with this and can't understand why I can't as well. Deeply-rooted resentment is the result.

It's an intractable situation and this blog's purpose is to figure out what to do about it.