I talk a lot about conflict.
Mostly because I’m really good at it, and certainly not afraid of it. Conflict is my friend.
Understand, my mother was Lebanese and we are Jewish.
Really, just think on that for a minute.
Talk about preternatural comfort with conflict- internal, external- it has been my ‘way of life.’ For the majority of my life until my first child was born, conflict was my style of interaction, my first language.
In my house growing up, conflict was how we showed love, how we engaged.
There was yelling- lots of it, and a lot of loud laughing, hugging and passionate presence of mind, body and spirit. I grew up knowing my parents loved me dearly, and each other- largely because of that yelling, and the openness of expression. We were permitted to use swear words (as long as they were grammatically correct in context), but never, EVER, allowed to say “shut up.” We were encouraged to ‘talk back’ to our parents, and the worst thing I could do was to go silent in the face of a family argument. That was a bold, unequivocal sign of disrespect, it said, “you do not matter to me” or “you are not worth my response” and brought with it the kind of wrath borne of a family whose emotional center was alive and vibrant with intensity and fire-cracker energy, and the loss of which could feel like weightlessness, starving for gravity’s familiar pull toward the center.
When my mother stopped arguing with a friend of 20 years, I literally watched as the flame of their connection died in her eyes, and for good. She erased that same friend from her address book, quietly, but with irrevocable completion. When my mom was reunited with her estranged (from a small argument) brother after 24 years, I saw him come to life to her, in her cells, in her presence with him.
As long as there was conflict- we were alive and present with each other, showing up with the range of our emotions, the full-bodied love of our family, never in question, never withholding of its approval, reining in love or minimizing its capacity to overbear.
I argued my way through college, grad school, a few short relationships, until I met my first husband. He would say, “you’re yelling at me!” and I would say, “yes! Of course I am! That’s what people who love each other do,” and he would look at me the way my dog, Bisket does, when I sing opera to him. I recall early on, he was very, very angry with me and oddly stressed about it (red face, veins popping out all over, very spitty in his talking, etc.), and I was… calmly, confidently yelling. In my view, we were just talking something through at a variety decibel levels. In his view, we were falling apart. He said, “you KNOW WHAT YOU ARE??!!” And, I braced myself- not because if the anticipated insult headed my way, but because I needed to pull myself together to try not to laugh in case that’s where he was headed. And he was.
“You’re being a BITCH!” he frothed, looking like he was two seconds away from needing a manual defibrillator, and I … laughed! Really hard and for a long time.
“That’s all you got? That’s IT?!” I was wheezing by this point, “If you are trying to hurt me, which for the record is not the point of an argument, then tell me my butt looks fat in these jeans. If you want to win, to cause me pain, then go to something I actually care about. I already know I’m a bitch- it’s among my favorite things about myself (even though I actually do NOT like that word)!”
And, I thought to myself, he will never be a ‘worthy opponent,’ and it ended not long after.
To me, conflict was never intended to produce a winner or a loser in my view, it was a mechanism to work through the difficulties facing two people who aim to share space, stay connected and raise humans together- it was a mechanism for making things WORK, not breaking them. A ‘worthy opponent’- and in that space, proving he is fully capable of equality in partnership in the face of passionate fears, intensity of love, pain, the range of human emotions- that person who can hold me fully as a partner and mate, and be strong enough to build a rock solid love that would at times require us both to hold the other up, safely, and without hesitation.
I am married to that man today, and blessed.
He doesn’t like when I yell either, so I don’t. But, I do get mad, and we have found a safe space to use conflict as one way to get us toward a shared vision, when the path is unclear. We stay in it, we never ‘agree to disagree,’ because that is a fatal cop-out. We love, we argue, we laugh a lot, and we cry- we’re in this fully, and together.
Consider that conflict can be your friend, the one who hangs in there with you, and sees you through. The one who doesn’t give up, even when you’re sloppy and say the wrong thing, or use the wrong fork, or change your mind. Again. Give it a chance to hope you, to propel you forward, and to build authenticity and strength into your relationships