Update: This is the essay I turned into my Conflict & Nonviolence class during college and while some of it has changed over the years, much of it still applies to me.
Experience with Conflict
If I were to write down a complete history of my experiences with conflict my first entry would probably be a fairly large file entitled “My older brother Tim”. Starting probably from the moment I was born and entered into our family, my brother and I fought rather viciously as children. In retrospect, Tim was probably dealing with the impact of losing his parent’s attention and his own staring role in the family. As for myself, I saw the whole thing as my attempts to defend myself from Tim’s aggressions. Although as I grew older I also began to realize my own contributions to our fights and how my willingness to jump at his bait contributed to our conflict. Also when Jonathan came along, I welcomed him with open arms, so for much of my childhood I alternated between hating Tim and just wanting him to act like a loving older brother. Much of our fighting erupted verbally, although we did tussle physically when we were younger. As we got older, it quickly became more of verbal duals, that in retrospect probably left bigger scars on each of us. It grew to its worst when I was in late elementary school and junior high. Our family dinners in the evening would sometimes end with me yelling my hatred for my brother and fleeing to my room to cry. Although concerned my parents eventually got to the point where none of their methods seemed to work. But it is important to state that these conflicts were not always one-sided on Tim’s part. I learned quickly that as the younger sibling, all I needed to do was start yelling that Tim was hurting me and my parents would respond with punishing him. Just as I felt that Tim would try to exclude me when he and Jonathan played together, I would try to exclude him whenever me and Jonathan played. Just as Tim learned all my buttons, I knew his and so as I was approaching high school it was a fairly even battlefield.
Now somewhere in those years between 8th grade and sophomore year, Tim and I began to get along. Something about being forced to spend 40 minutes together in a car every day on the way to high school, or my discovery that Tim had cool friends who he didn’t treat like me, or maybe figuring out how cool my older brother actually was helped me begin to like my brother. I am not sure what helped Tim begin to accept me more, but by the end of his senior year (he was three grades ahead of me), we were on the way to becoming friends.
As for now, Tim and I are much closer although our relationship is very different than my relationship with my younger brother. Tim and I enjoy being around each other and supporting each other in life. We share an interest in analysis of relationships, debate and a very similar sense of humor. Our current closeness may also be helped by the fact that with him having spent the past 2 years in London I have only seen him 3 or 4 times in the past 2 years (absence makes the heart grow fonder). But with the Internet and those visits our relationship seems much closer and family dynamics as a whole much more healthy.
Now as for how my sibling rivalry with Tim effected my current approach to conflict, I haven’t entirely figured that out. I know that my tongue and wit were sharpened in those verbal duels I used to have with Tim, so even today they tend to be my weapons of choice. However, I very rarely bicker with anyone like I did with Tim; in fact I can’t remember the last time I have had a shouting match with anyone. Most of my conflicts today are longer more drawn out misunderstandings and occur between myself and my close friends. Dealing with them often means long drawn out conversations instead of shouting matches.
Assumptions about Conflict
Conflict is something I see as blockage in relationships. It prevents greater understanding and is caused by misunderstanding, but when cleared away open up new paths and areas that were previously not accessible. My current approach to conflict has become much more direct over the years. My gut instinct towards conflict tends to be somewhat passive aggressive. I don’t like to admit my vulnerabilities either, which can lead to a need to hide how upset I am by someone’s comments or actions. Therefore my conflicts tend to simmer for a long time before they break to the surface. But once they reach the point that I see them as accessible, I want to get them solved immediately. Which leads to a rather interesting combination of trying to suppress the conflict until it reaches the point where I can no longer tolerate it, then I want immediate and complete resolution. This also connects to how I deal with my own pains and other things that upset me, although this is something that I am learning to change. I often show no or very little outward signs of being upset, but desperately want and expect my friends to notice something is wrong.
Other’s Perceptions of My Conflict Style
The following is a paragraph that my roommate/housemate for almost 4 years had to say in response to my email asking her about my conflict style.
“I would say that you generally tend to run away from conflict, but lately you have been better at addressing things, and have said as much. Usually when we’ve had issues as roommates, you kind of timidly bring it up, and you almost always have a solution to go along with the issue you have, or at least you bring it up intending to open dialogue about it, and that’s cool. When you think you’re in the wrong or feel the need to apologize for something, you’re pretty good at confronting that and explaining yourself and such, and don’t seem to need much prompting on my part. Um, sometimes when you’re mad at people you want them to automatically know, but you don’t actually want to tell them, and so you pretend everything is peachy when it’s not and so people have no idea and then go on like normal and then you get upset and wonder why they’re not addressing the problem. That’s your natural tendency, but like I said before, you know that and are getting better at being less passive aggressive. Most of this is one-on-one. In group settings, you tend to be the one that people come to when they have problems, and you get really frustrated with being the middle-woman, and you don’t really know how to address that problem, so it kind of sits there and becomes a stressor for you. It’s got to come out some way, and I’m not sure but I think it comes out by you wanting to take control in certain situations, perhaps as a way of taking some sort of control. I’m actually not sure if that’s actually how it does manifest itself, but I know it has to come out some way. Eventually you are able to sit down with someone and hash out what’s going on, or spend some time reflecting on why you’re very stressed if you don’t know what it is. If things are really bad you cry but I don’t think you like to let yourself do that if you don’t have to. When you are feeling tension in a group, you tend to “weed out” who’s causing it and go to them and tell them to stop. Sometimes it may be for the good of the group as a whole, but I think when you don’t have to, you do it for your own sanity.”
As a whole my roommates insights were right on to how I would describe myself. It should be noted that I wrote my own analysis of myself before emailing her and as one can see, she touched upon many of the same issues I did. I greatly appreciate the fact that I have friends that know me this well, and it has been a great help to my “sanity” through the years.
I think I am coming out of a period in which my interactions with conflict were dominated by passive-aggressive tendencies. Two big situations that brought that to a head for me, was living in Peace House for a semester, and a long painful relationship with a close male friend. Both situations forced me out of my comfort zone in dealing conflict and began to lay the foundations of my current attitude towards conflict. Especially my relationship with my close male friend drove home the lesson of how damaging repressed and ignored conflicts can become. Because of our difficulty in dealing with our situation and conflict, my friend and I almost lost our friendship. While it still bares the scars of our inability to communicate, we were able to survive.
I don’t think conflict will ever be something I “gain energy” from or even really love, however it is more and more becoming something I am willing to deal with. If I had to choose one way in which to describe how I have changed since coming to college, I would have to say my increased ability/willingness to be direct. I am learning that I have a great circle of loving friends and family around me, but in order to connect to that support I have to express my pain even when it means being vulnerable. I am learning that in order to have people stop repeating actions and behaviors that bother or upset me I need to ask them to stop. I am learning that I am neither as perfect or flawed as I sometimes suppose myself to be.