I was completely unprepared when the man attacked me. For a split second, I saw him out of the corner of my eye; a big guy, maybe 20 years old, with a broken nose and bared teeth. Then his arm slammed into the side of my head and wrapped around my neck in a stranglehold.
A surge of adrenaline kept me on my feet, fighting back. With one hand, I reached upward across the man's back until I found his hair, grabbed a handful, and yanked as hard as I could. The man's grip on my neck weakened, but in the next instant I felt his foot smack into the back of my knee, and I fell. He loomed over me, pulling his fist back for a killing blow.
"Tap!" I gasped, thumping his lower leg with my fingers. "I tap out!"
The man grinned. His clenched hand relaxed, and he extended it to help me up and dust off my karate gi. "What's the matter with you today, Dr. Beck?" he said. "You used to whip me like I was your bitch."
I laughed. "Hey, watch the sexist language," I said, "or next time I'll kick you so hard your gonads'll pop out of your ears."
The other men in the karate dojo, who were waiting for their turn to spar, cheered. "You tell him, Dr. Beck." "Dude, you know she means it." "Don't go talking trash to Mrs. Pain." These guys loved an underdog. My opponent put his palms together and bowed.
"I apologize," he said. "Won't happen again."
I bowed back. "Apology accepted."
As we sat down and the next pair of students squared off, I looked around the dojo affectionately. I was the smallest person there by a considerable margin, probably the oldest, too. And I was the only female. The men around me were big, mean looking, lavishly tattooed. Once they would have terrified me. Now I couldn't think of a group with whom I felt safer or more relaxed. I trusted my karate buddies a lot more than some of the PTA moms I knew—not in spite of the fact that we tried to clobber each other every time we met but because of it. These were the first people I'd ever really fought with, and as a result we were devoted friends.
I started studying martial arts in an attempt to overcome a lifelong fear of conflict. Until I was about 30, I spent most of my time trying to make sure that no one ever became upset with me. I tiptoed around disagreements, swallowed my opinions, tried to read other people's thoughts, and ran away at the merest hint of discord. Not fighting was ruining my relationships.
If this sounds weird to you, you don't understand intimacy. Conflict in close relationships is not only inevitable, it's essential. Intimacy connects people who are inevitably different—as the saying goes, if two people agree about everything, one of them is superfluous. Conflict is the mechanism by which we set boundaries around these differences, so that each party feels safe with the other. Whether the fight is an all-out brawl (someone jumps you in an alley and you struggle physically against that person) or the mildest tiff ("Watch the sexist language." "Sorry. Won't happen again"), conflict is the way we say, "You may go this far with me, and no further." Until we know we can make and hold such boundaries, we never become comfortable enough to relax, be our true selves, and open our hearts.
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.
Follow a Strategy
In real life, unlike in the movies, a fight between a martial arts master and an attacker takes about three seconds. That's because the master has spent years practicing strategies that minimize violence by maximizing effectiveness. Having a strategy for conflict is a way to keep your own interpersonal battles brief, clean, and useful. Here's one that helps in almost every argument.
First, vent "hot" anger; act on "cool" anger. Conflict creates anger, and anger creates a strong "fight" reaction. Acting on this impulse will help you avoid ulcers and feel better—but do it before, not during, a confrontation. I've had clients spend hours in my office yelling, swearing, and kicking a heavy bag (part of my karate equipment) as they connected with years' worth of pent-up rage. This reduced their emotional pressure so that they could fight calmly and powerfully in more volatile environments.
Second, tell the person exactly what's upsetting you. This information must be very precise and concrete. For example, instead of saying, "You don't respect my individuality," you should pinpoint actual behaviors: "When I expressed my opinion at the party, you said, 'You don't really believe that,' and went on to tell everyone what I did believe—as if you knew better than I did! I felt incredibly devalued and angry."
Third, describe exactly what you need to feel better. This is the most important part of healthy conflict strategy, the place where you take responsibility for helping your friend or loved one know how to meet your needs. "Let me be me!" is a useless demand because it doesn't specify any clear action. Instead, give instructions like "Next time you disagree with my opinions, go ahead and say so, or ask me to explain where I'm coming from. Don't tell me what I think, especially in front of other people."
Fourth, explain what the consequences will be if your needs are not met. In case the other person won't agree to your terms, you must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet your own needs without their cooperation. "If you keep dominating me during conversations, I'm going to call you on it, no matter where we are or who's watching. Then I will walk away."
It's important that the consequences you describe are what psychologists call logical and natural. (For example, screaming hysterically at someone who wants to drive drunk is not a logical and natural consequence; confiscating the car keys is.) Don't make overblown threats, and always follow through. Crying wolf creates diminishing returns—you'll have to bluster ever more ferociously, with less and less success, leading to lengthy, ineffective conflict.
The Paradox of Peace
After years of karate training, I noticed an odd paradox: The more comfortable I became with fighting, the less I felt compelled to do it. This effect spread far beyond the dojo. I had clean, positive battles with everyone from my academic advisors to my best friend, and felt closer to each person as a result.
One day I told my karate teacher that I didn't feel like sparring. I had no motivation to fight. The sea of fear and anger I'd contained when I set out to learn martial arts had gone dry. I felt completely confident that I could defend whatever was precious to me, and completely uninterested in proving it.
"I see," he said, and smiled. "You have become a warrior at last."