We all believe it is ideal not to fight, this is a complete fantasy. The only way to have real intimacy is to be authentic about our differences instead of swallowing our secret truth. We all want to avoid the messiness of conflict and being uncomfortable which is short term thinking. We all make excuses easily “I didn’t want to hurt you” which is really about avoiding hard conversations which leads to a mountain of resentments long term.

How To Make Conflict Work For Real Intimacy

We all believe it is ideal not to fight, this is complete fantasy. The only way to have real intimacy is to be authentic about our differences instead of swallowing our secret truths. We all want to avoid the messiness of conflict and being uncomfortable which is short term thinking.

Conflict offers the opportunity to learn more about yourself. Conflict offers you the opportunity to learn more about the other person.

Since that’s a new way to think about conflict I’m going to say that again. Conflict offers the opportunity to learn more about yourself. Conflict offers you the opportunity to learn more about the other person.

If you are going to face up to conflict more often you have to change how you feel about it. Feelings are all wrapped up in avoiding conflict. We perceive conflict as scary & too often our experience is that it is ugly. We all want to be nice & liked, who needs to be uncomfortable?

It’s similar to the growing weariness about the war in the Ukraine. It is messy & painful to even look at the pictures. F.D.R had to sneak supplies to Europe in WWII because Americans wanted to avoid the cost of it until Pearl Harbor. The price of doing what is right is hard to pay. Yet doing what is right is exactly what matters. Facing conflict in interpersonal relationships is right & it matters.

Do Americans believe doing the right thing instead of insulating themselves with lies still matters? I hope so. 

Conflict is a source of growth that takes courage because both people will have to look at themselves as having a part in the problem. Blame is such a comforting one way street that we all love. Conflict requires listening & taking a look at yourself.

We all love the power plays to shut down conflict: Loud shouting, the silent treatment, name calling & swearing, not being forthright & stashing resentments silently until we are self righteously entitled to cash them in. This last stashing of resentments is such an ordinary activity it’s amazing any relationships survive.

It’s important not to squelch disagreement by using a power move. Healthy relationships understand disagreements are part of the package & that’s how we respect the differences. Trying to get rid of disagreement is often about a need for control. 

I used to do group therapy & I loved how it could move people to embrace change. Group therapy is ONLY effective when there is enough safety to wrestle with conflict. When people wanted individual attention & my group size shrunk I gave it up because groups dwindled into being only about support. Groups need to offer both support & challenge just like an individual therapist. If you are in therapy and not being challenged to look at yourself & it is just support there is something wrong. If you are afraid to conflict or even disagree with your therapist something is wrong. Honesty is the path to Trust & Conflict is an ordinary part of that process.

If the work of love is about being a better person then a willingness to conflict is an important way to go about that. Conflict provides that window into how you need to improve. Avoiding conflict interrupts your progress towards better mental health. So my mission is to convince my audience about the importance of facing up to conflict and of course that includes being choiceful about it. I’m not advocating constant conflict, I am encouraging the risk of conflict to be truly known by those you love.

So I’ve invited a guest to help us explore conflict & offer advice about doing it better. I want to welcome Tonya Lester, she is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, private psychotherapist, Psychology Today contributor and author. For over 16 years, Tonya has taught couples and individuals how to manage their minds and emotions & develop relationships that are mutually respectful. She has a new book out  Be Difficult: A Guide to Speaking Up, Facing Conflict, and Changing Your Life.

Let’s begin Tonya with adding your thoughts to my intro about avoiding conflict & why it is so pervasive?

Tonya: You know, we are taught that getting along easily & having total harmony is the goal in all relationships. & of course, we know maybe intellectually that you cannot be known by your partner, or by anyone else, if you’re keeping quiet in the ways that you disagree, or you’re feeling hurt, or you’re going in a direction perhaps as a couple that isn’t where you want to go.

But we really equate harmony with love, & harmony with connection. Where in fact, the only path to emotional intimacy is through conflict. & of course, as you referenced, we’re not talking about drag out fights where there’s name calling, & you both walk away feeling shattered. We’re talking about clearly narrating what’s going on with you, sharing what you’re imagining about the situation, & inviting your partner to do the same.

& I loved how you made it more global, talking about how we do not want to see the mess, right? It’s how we’re programmed, & being able to see the mess in a global way, & then in our interpersonal relationships is 100% the only way to take meaningful action.

Rhoda: I am thinking that one of the after effects of the pandemic was that so many couples may have either increased their conflict avoidance to get along in shared space, or increasing their conflict with each other & ended up parting ways. What are your thoughts about that?

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Tonya: Yeah, it’s interesting, I’ve seen the same thing. So, with this set of people who maybe were increasing their conflict avoidance, I think most of us who went through the pandemic with other people would agree that some of that was just adaptive, right? It’s extending some grace to ourselves, & those around us, & trying to just get through. 

Hopefully now that there’s some breathing room, if people are having a lot of trouble going back to healthy conflict, that would be a great time to read a book for example, together, or to bring in some professional help, or just to set aside, I’m constantly suggesting to people to do like a Sunday meeting, maybe for an hour where we say, we’re going to talk about hard things. We know that we’ve fallen out of the practice of bringing up difficult things in the moment.

& so, we’re going to set aside this time, get our cups of coffee, brace ourselves & say what needs to be said, & maybe finances, or child rearing, or whatever, we’re going to have a container in the same way, of course we do with couples in couples therapy, where we’re going to contain these hard con conversations. That’s what I suggest for conflict avoidant couples who are trying to make a change on their own.

For people whose conflict went way up. What I found, & I’m curious if you found this as well in your practice, a lot of times people were fighting & bickering over the small things, in order to avoid deep underlying issues that probably existed pre-pandemic. But pre-pandemic, everyone was allowed to stay busy, stay distracted, avoid, avoid, avoid, pretend that the deeper issues weren’t happening.

& then suddenly, there you are, basically sharing three meals a day, not being able to rely on our other supports. & what I found is that some couples actually became much stronger, it was like okay, well, it’s just us, here we are, now we have to deal with it. But then of course, as you’re saying, some couples really fell apart, or & what I find quite sad actually, is that some couples, the bickering was a way to avoid the hard conversations that perhaps would’ve led to a different outcome, had both parties been committed to staying together & working it out. But yeah, it put pressure on the system, right? As I say, therapy puts pressure on the system in a good way, the pandemic put pressure on the system often in a very destructive, terrible way.

Rhoda: Yeah, I agree, I really do. I met a young couple once at a gathering, & they asked me what I do, which I usually try to avoid. But I told them, & they said, “Oh, we’re getting married, what’s your advice?” & I said, “Talk about hard things. That is my number one advice, & practice now.”

Tonya: That’s right, practice now. That’s funny, my cousin is getting married, & they sent around any advice, I think they’re compiling a book. & I said the Sunday meeting thing I just said, that was my suggestion, & I laid out, “Talk about sex, talk about finances, any hard thing every single week, make it a practice.”

Rhoda: I just had a session, & somebody talked to me about not having sex, & I said, “Well, you know, you’re not having sex, you have the most power. The person who has sex the least has the most power, you’re the roadblock, so you really need to think about that, & talk about it, because that’s disturbing to your partner.” So, yeah, I love that you included sex, because a lot of people don’t talk about sex. I did a workshop once, & this guy, he was older, but he raised his hand & he proudly said to me, “I don’t talk about sex with my clients.”

& I was like, “Well, you’re doing them a massive disservice, & I have no idea why you’re thinking that’s a good idea.” I just shot him right down, because I thought, do not influence this group of people to think that’s normal, you know?

Tonya: Absolutely. Sex is part of life, right? & we’re talking about life in therapy, yeah.

Rhoda: & 39% of Americans are not having sex, which I find disheartening, you know? But it is what it is, hopefully we can keep changing it. So, I mentioned in the intro that people love to use power plays & conflict in order to be the top dog, in order to win. What would you like to add to the list of ways to manipulate, which prevents more honest communication?

Tonya: One that I’ve been seeing a lot in my practice is blame shifting, & so, taking the, a partner comes forward with a complaint, & the other partner shifts right? Maybe to something that, some offense that they’ve had, & so, they aren’t going to talk about what your problem is until their problem has been discussed, right, as a way to derail the initial conversation.

Or they will be attacking the way the first partner brought up the issue. & of course, there are good ways & bad ways to bring up a hard issue, but if every time you try & talk to your partner, & they say, “Well, if you hadn’t used that tone of voice, or why did you ask me right as I’m walking out the door?” You might be dealing with someone who’s blame shifting.

& the last way, & I think this is very corrosive, is that, you bring up a problem, & just bringing up the problem is so hurtful to the other partner, that the partner who was upset ends up comforting the other partner. & so it’s like we can take a grandiose position of anger in order to derail, or we can take a collapsed position, but the results are the same. It’s a way of not standing up, being the adult in the conversation, & being able to stick with your partner through these hard conversations.

Rhoda: Taking the easy way out, instead of dealing with something that really can change your future, & make things better. I love you adding those too, that’s really good, thanks so much. Now we’ve heard about what interrupts more honest communication, what tools can my audience use to have more respectful conflict dialogue?

Tonya: So, I often suggest that people start—& of course, I’m long married, & I do this myself, is just narrating what you are seeing going on with as little reactivity as possible. & so, it might be something like, I notice that I’m always the last one home, & yet I am in charge of making dinner, & no one else has even started anything. & so, I rush in at the last minute, everyone else is relaxing, & I’m frantic, that’s what I notice is happening.

& then you say what it does for you, & so, I might say, I find when I walk in the door, I get enraged, like I feel my blood pressure fly to the top of my head, because I think, & I have all these stories about you guys not caring about me, or how exhausted I am. Even though, intellectually I know that well, you do clean up, & I have taken on this job. So, what’s amazing is if you can play both sides of it, & just say like, I understand that there’s two sides. So we’re saying, narrate what you feel, narrate what’s going on for you & your thoughts about it. & then ask for what you need.

& don’t worry if you don’t know precisely what you need. I think this trips people up, is that they’re upset, & they’re like, “Well, I don’t even know what to ask for anyways, what’s he going to do about it? He doesn’t know how to cook,” or “what’s she going to do about it? I do all the grocery shopping, so she doesn’t even know what we have.”

So, I think you can say, you can be simpler & say something like, can we sit down & reorient who does what, because I don’t want to walk in the door & be angry at you, the first thing I walk in. So, narrate what’s happening for you, narrate what you, & I’m sorry, narrate what you see happening, narrate what you’re telling yourself about it, & then request a collaborative solution.

Rhoda: Yes, I like that, that’s really very clear. I know you are right about putting pressure on the system in your book, would you share how to ensure our relationships can survive the healthy pressure required to evolve & grow?

Tonya: So, putting pressure on the system is essentially about leaning into healthy conflict. So, it’s essentially saying, can I share who I really am? Can I share disagreements & preferences with my partner without that being seen as an attack, or dismantling the whole relationship? The best way to make sure that your relationship is pressure on the system proof, is to start it early, like we were saying before.

If you get married, or just get together, & at the very beginning of the relationship, you say something like, hey, it’s really important to me that we are able to talk about hard things. How should we set that up in our relationship? I don’t want to do it in a way where I’m blurting things out, & I don’t want it to just feel attacking & hurtful. So, what is that going to look like for us? & then you can collaborate with your partner on how is this going to be normal?

By far, the worst thing to do is say nothing, get used to harmony, fall in love with this idea that you are a couple that never fights. The worst thing a couple can say to me when they walk in is, all our friends are jealous of the relationship we have. Either I know that’s for sure not true, or it’s because it’s fake, right? Or it’s because you’re acting like there’s no conflict, & that’s not what’s real, so, let’s stop pretending that a totally harmonious relationships are real.

So, if you find yourself in that position, you need a reset, & of course, therapy can help a lot, but even to sit down & say, I want to know you, & I want you to know me, & I think we’re avoiding hard conversations, & I want to talk about how we might start to have useful conversations. & as I’m sure you say all the time with your clients.

This is why people say, use “I” statements, it’s because it’s better to start with, I feel like this, & this is what I’m thinking, as opposed to, you do this, you are this, yeah, yeah, yeah. But I think that we can always course correct, I think that when a couple collapses under the pressure, it’s because there’s no infrastructure for going through hard times, & we’re all going to go through hard times.

Rhoda: Absolutely, yes. Suffering is a part of life. So, being able to talk about it & recognize it is incredibly important. Certainly, women are taught to be caretakers, & in accommodating others they pay a great cost to themselves. For all those women & those men who are lopsided in accommodating others at their own expense, would you define the five costs?

Tonya: The five costs of being like people pleasers & over accommodating? Okay. Well, lack of being known, I think about this all the time, if we are people pleasers, we are keeping others from knowing who we really are, which is the bedrock of emotional intimacy, so I’d say that that is one.

Two would be that we don’t get to openly share our vulnerability, & where we need support, & get help ourselves, or it becomes a mentality of I need to do everything by myself, which is very isolating, & how people find themselves quite lonely in relationships.

Three, you don’t—especially in parenting, you’re not teaching other people to develop the skills they need to manage themselves. I think constantly, what am I modeling for both my son & my daughter, in terms of how they’re going to be healthy adults in healthy relationships.

Four, this is something I say all the time, people pleasers are the biggest liars. You cannot people please, or be a perfectionist without really lying all the time, because you have to tell people the things that they’re not going to be happy about. & so, this can be the root of financial infidelity, which I don’t know about you, I’m seeing this constantly right now in my practice.

Rhoda: Absolutely.

Tonya: & lying about finances is a huge betrayal, it shakes the bedrock of relationships, & very similar to sexual infidelity. So, if you’re people-pleasing, & you are protecting other people’s feelings around disappointment, or around conflict, if you just have an agreement, say about money, you’re going to find yourself fibbing & lying, & that would make you just enormously anxious.

& then the fifth one I would say is, there’s so much that needs to be changed in the world, as far as gender equality. It is not happening fast enough. The problems that my mother had in her relationships are too similar to the problems I have in my relationships, & I hope that for my daughter it will be different.

& there’s only so much we can do about the world, right? We can march, we certainly can vote, we can donate to important causes. But what would happen if we all overthrew these issues of over accommodating in our own relationships, right? What if there was a seismic change in terms of how we were all reacting individually, & there was no over accommodating. The world would change, the world would change, I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

Rhoda: No, I don’t either. I’ve been working with somebody & she said, “I think my husb& really is very surprised at how much I’ve been speaking up.” & I reminded her, I said, “Well, he didn’t marry you that way, & you’ve really changed, & you’ve worked hard, but you’re happier, because you have a more honest relationship, but he’s still getting used to it.” & I think there’s just something about that authenticity that is so important in a relationship, where you really don’t have squat.

Tonya: That’s right, 100% right, because now he knows her, right? Before it was just pretend.

Rhoda: Okay. I believe that being difficult means learning that anger is a legitimate tool in the emotional toolbox, that exploring the smaller bits of anger, such as irritations, or annoyance, is a way to delve into knowing your wants, & learning to speak up more. What advice do you have about anger as a way to learn more about yourself? Because I think so many people are resistant to that.

Tonya: I think that, I tell people often that anger is fuel, & that nothing changes at all without anger, right? We can say that individually or collectively. & so, if you’re feeling angry, it’s because a value has been activated in you, a boundary that you might not have even known you had, has been crossed.

There is something that needs to happen, action needs to be taken. & I think where anger gets a bad rap, is if there’s instant reactivity as though a match has been thrown on gasoline, & the whole house burns down, which is of course what people are afraid of, in that, people are afraid of their own anger, & that’s why.

Whereas anger, if totally accepted, & you use it as a way to get curious about yourself, you know, I have something I refer to as the weather vain emotions, right? & anger is one of them, & it’s everything from resentment to irritation, to of course, righteous anger, which is maybe where we move into a more grandiose position, that was totally wrong.

If we can take a step back &, observe what has happened here? Really give ourselves compassion for being so activated, & then give ourselves some space to think about how to best respond. I think as long as there’s some space between the activation & the response, then anger is a wonderful tool, & very important. & to not have anger, it’s like walking around without skin, you’re not protected, we’re supposed to feel, we’re supposed to feel angry, because otherwise we wouldn’t defend our.

Rhoda: I like how you labeled it a “weather vain emotion,” I think that’s really cool. I have not heard that. One of the fun things about doing the podcast is getting different language, & different ways of talking about it, because I find that we do repeat ourselves, but different combinations of words connect for different people. & so, it’s one of the fun things I benefit from the podcast.

In general, there is a culture of being cowardly about addressing hard things, or entitled exploding. How can people pleasers find more courage to speak up & risk conflict?

Tonya: So, I think if you are a people pleaser & you are afraid of conflict, I think it’s very useful to write down what you’re going to say ahead of time. Because not all of us can think on our feet, & I’m sure you’ve had couples come in where they say, when she’s mad at me, she can talk in perfect paragraphs, & I get overwhelmed, & I don’t know what to say.

Or as soon as he starts saying what’s mad, & asking me why, my mind just goes blank. If you can sit down & really, & you can use the frame I laid out before, about this is what I see, this is what it means to me, & this is what I would like to see change. You could write that down, that might be very useful. You could read it to the person who needs to hear it.

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