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.