Before I began studying karate, I thought of myself as peaceful, but the truth is that I was simply terrified. Repressing my own needs and walking on eggshells made me skittish, obsequious, and angry, not serene. I was a far cry from the martial arts masters, who train in meditation as well as battle, becoming comfortable with violence in the service of a quest for peace. The reason I felt so safe in the dojo was that I knew everyone there had spent countless hours both ridding themselves of pent-up aggression and learning to fight without causing harm—which, by the way, is a whole lot harder than simply lashing out. Even people who never set foot in a karate studio can use these disciplines to help create rewarding, intimate relationships.
Why is conflict management so important? Because many of us, when upset, go coldly silent, flatten into a doormat, or explode like Vesuvius. Even if you never make these mistakes, I guarantee you'll have to deal with people who do. The only way to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum is to learn the delicate art of managing conflict.
The first step in learning to fight right is a conceptual one: We need to fully understand that conflict is not a rare and evil force but an unavoidable and potentially positive one. Before I realized this, I shared a behavior pattern that is ubiquitous in our culture. Because we assume that "good" intimate relationships will always be conflict-free, we refrain from setting boundaries in order to avoid fights and we withdraw or blow up emotionally when unexpressed grievances become too intense to tolerate.
I can't count the number of relationships I've seen destroyed by this pattern. Addressing issues the moment boundaries need to be set is a much, much better way to build lasting intimacy. In fact, I guarantee that every time you successfully discuss a problem and set a boundary with someone you care about, the two of you will feel closer after the "fight" than you did before it. This is only true if you know what you're doing. The advice below should help.
Agree on the Rules of Engagement
The reason sparring with my karate buddies felt so safe to me was that everyone knew and followed clearly articulated rules of engagement: wear protective gear, bow to your opponent, stop the instant someone "taps out." Creating similar rules for arguing with your friends and relatives—a kind of personal Geneva Convention—can prevent a world of emotional pain.
I learned this from Eileen Borris, PhD, who is both a clinical psychologist and an international dispute mediator. When she isn't doing marriage counseling, Borris facilitates negotiations between enemies like the battling factions in Bosnia. No matter what the scale of disagreement, she says, the most crucial step toward a positive, fruitful conflict is for all the parties concerned to sit down—at a time when they're not arguing—and agree on what constitutes a fair fight. Ideally, the participants will actually type up a list of rules, post it in a visible place, and promise to abide by it.
This isn't something you need to do with every minor acquaintance, but in an intimate relationship it's invaluable. I've watched seemingly doomed marriages recover and thrive after both spouses collaborated to create and post combat rules like "No name-calling," "No threats," and "Express feelings, not insults." These rules protect against abusive behavior and force the combatants to actually discuss their disagreements and hurt feelings—the process that lies at the very heart of intimacy.
When my children were 2, 4, and 6 (during my Eggshell Period), I believed that any show of anger was taboo. My kids were running roughshod over me, particularly at bedtime. We all got so exhausted that I finally sat down with them and asked what they thought I should do. To my surprise, they recommended that I "act mad" when they wouldn't go to bed. We defined exactly what that meant to them. That night, I tucked them in as usual—and as usual, they popped right out again. So I "acted mad," yelling that they'd better get their rear ends back in the sack, or else! They made a show of resisting, but just beneath their surface fussing I could sense that they were actually relieved. From then on, we all got a lot more sleep.
We Hear You!