What is going on between people who love each other? Partners, parent/children, friends… The love is so clear and yet the mess is so big… So what is all this mess about?
Working as a Mediator and diving into many conflicts, I see mostly 2 things:
1. Misinterpretations as the source of pain: stories we have in our heads about the other and about ourselves
2. Core dynamics: certain Need that is not being heard since a looooong time (in this relationship, and often, already much earlier than this relationship…).
‘Conflict’ is precious beautiful moment where our utmost vulnerability is coming to the surface, and it asks much delicacy and gentleness (rather than violence).
Couple 1: misinterpretations as the source of separation
I mediated a couple (in their 40s). They just decided to separate 2 months ago.
It was clear to me right from the first moment that they love each other a lot, and yet, there was so much pain:Few months ago she heard him say to her: “you are not beautiful” which was extremely painful for her.
Believing he doesn’t find her beautiful (and deeper: “does he really want to be with me??”) has affected many situations and reactions since, for example:
They went to a party. Upon arrival, the party host said to the man while looking at the woman: “She looks gorgeous, doesn’t she?”. He didn’t reply. The woman concluded painfully: “He is ashamed of me…”
At the same party, the man ate a cake the host made which he found absolutely delicious and he was very outspoken about it. The host said to him: “Yes, there are not many vegan cakes here in the USA, ha?”. He didn’t reply.
The woman thought to herself: “Why he is not saying that yesterday I put hours into making him a vegan Tiramisu !!!” Which brought the same pain: “He is not proud at me”.
These 3 incidents left a mark and kept being a source of huge pain between them, and stood at the center of her decision to break up.
In the Mediation, we got the opportunity to check carefully what was going on for him:
– About the ‘You are not beautiful’: He made it more precise: “What I said was: ‘Beauty is not the main thing that attracts me towards you’ which was an expression of a celebration(!!) and a realization I had: I can now base my relationship not on beauty but on virtue, as beauty will anyway go away with age !”
It took 4 times back and forth until she could take it in and trust this is what he meant.
– About the host saying: “She looks gorgeous, doesn’t she?”, when checking what was going on in him, he clarified: “I didn’t like the host’s question. I don’t like questions that lead me to only one possible answer, this is a small talk, I don’t like small talks. This is why I didn’t reply”.
– And about the cake, he smiled: “What I liked about the cake was the amount of sugar that was in it (little), not the fact that it was vegan, so I didn’t know what to answer… ”
And what was his pain? He felt powerless in front of the huge waves of pain she experienced.… And he was sad as he REALLY likes her, he sees much fit between them and definitely wants to stay. It took another 4 times back and forth until she could start taking it in.
I find it so incredibly sad that 2 people who like each other so much separate in pain. And I see this same phenomena soooooo often and all around me.
Couple 2: Misinterpretation & Core dynamic
Few years ago this married couple (in their 50s) had a big fight about the placement of the garden’s fence (spoiler: It is not about the fence!). This memory is one that still today brought much tension between them and they couldn’t speak about it without exploding. So what happened?
The husband was working with the builder to put a new fence between their garden and the neighbor’s garden. While working, they realized that the old fence was actually being placed on the neighbor’s land. The husband thought to correct it and bring it back to its original place, but the wife was very angry about it. This had to do with an older history: In their previous house they had a very similar situation, back then it was to their disadvantage as they were the ones loosing an important piece of land. Back then, when the wife wanted to stand for the injustice, the husband was reluctant to fight further.
Having the husband now do (again!@#%) an act to their disadvantage brought a lot of pain in her: “You care for others more than you care about us” (which was a repeating pain). Back then the fight escalated to the point where the husband said: “if you continue this fight, I’m going to leave you”. That left the wife with a profound hurt: “Your relationship with the neighbors is more important than your relationship to me”, and a deep scar: “I don’t matter to you, I worth nothing to you”.
This is a core dynamic: When this Need (in this case: the doubt whether I matter) is not being heard nor held, and it doesn’t get the chance for clarification, it then comes back as pain over and over again in million of day to day situations (This is what I call ‘Repeating conflicts’: one time it is about the socks in the living room, the other time it is about the dishes in the sink- but the core message is the same: Do my Needs matter? Maybe some of you saw your parents having the same core conflict over and over again for 30 or 40 years… This is what Marshall meant when he said: “Jackals are very generous, if you don’t hear them first time, they always give you a second chance (and a 3rd, 4th…)”). When a conflict repeats, it is a sign that it is worth while to slow down. Taking time saves A LOT of time…
So we slowed down: When we checked with the husband whether “Your relationship with the neighbors is more important than your relationship to me” he was furious as this was by far not how he felt. His own pain in the matter was: “I said ‘I will leave you’ out of powerlessness. I didn’t know how to deal with the upset and with how different we looked at the situation. I just wanted to have peace with you…. I was very sad”
Hearing his sadness and seeing his love now landed as sweet balm on her aching open wound, and you could see the body gently relax and heal.
With love for conflict as a space of healing, and with care for gentelness in which a conflict is being held,