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How to Heal Your Most Vexing Relationship Conflicts

Updated: Mar 10


Everybody has at least one relationship that drives them crazy.  Often there is a long history of behaviors and slights so the mere mention of that person’s name makes your shoulders tense or face twitch.  Even when the conflict clearly stems from unpleasant behavior from a demanding parent or self-absorbed sibling, you may be surprised to learn they are likely equally unhappy with you. It takes two people to be in a miserable relationship but luckily, it only takes one to heal the rift.

Joanna (not her real name) was stuck in her relationship with her grown step-daughter, Heidi. She described Heidi as a narcissist, oppositional and low-functioning after a recent visit left her frazzled and angry. We (she and her husband) were so thoughtful and accommodating, the exhausted step-mom reported, but Heidi did nothing but complain and start arguments. Joanna’s gentle attempts to prevent fights or defuse those already in motion meant constant vigilance in her own home. At least, that was how Joanna saw the situation.

Heidi is uninterested in working on this problem so while her exact viewpoint is unclear, you can bet she thinks Joanna is to blame for the tension in their relationship.  They are in what some psychologists call gridlock and others a closed feedback loop.  Both describe a relationship stalemate where each person believes the other person makes them behave the way they do. Molly does not trust Darren because he is cold.  Darren is cold to Molly because she does not trust him. Or Stella criticizes her brother Marvin because he doesn’t tell the truth. Marvin believes he cannot tell the truth to Stella because she is so critical.

We can imagine Heidi behaves like an irritable teenager because her stepmother is treating her like one. The less capable she feels fighting her own battles due to “gentle”, persistent intervention, the more she lashes out and regresses. Or maybe she resents Joanna meddling in her relationship with her father. Because they are stuck, at some level Heidi believes her behavior is a reaction to Joanna’s behavior. If you think, “yeah, I was an ass and need to apologize,” there is no conflict. You have taken responsibility for your behavior and are making amends. If the struggle continues, it is because your moment of clarity is followed by that pesky little “but”.   I should not have yelled at you but your mother was just here last month! Back into the closed feedback loop we go. (I yelled because you have your mother visit too often.)

In a closed feedback loop both parties are unaware of how their behavior feeds the cycle of misery. It is the other person’s fault, period. Because Joanna tries to be kind, she assumes Heidi is the one in need of correction and does not see how her best intentions may feel like criticism or bossiness. Even if the gridlock started with hurtful behavior, such as unfaithfulness or a verbal attack, the reaction by the person on the receiving end can cause the wrongdoer to reframe the narrative. I cheated on you because you are distant. No, I am distant because you cheated on me. You were distant before I cheated on you and now you are using my slip-up as an excuse to shame and punish me. And we are in gridlock.  You are not responsible for the other person’s behavior but if you are stuck, be aware of what your actions and reactions kindles conflict.

If you are in an abusive situation or in physical danger, stop reading and get out.  Examine how you got into your perilous situation from a safe distance if you wish but this is not an invitation to take responsibility for someone else’s mental illness or cruelty.  However, do not be too quick to label another person as mentally ill. In long-term relationships, everybody is mentally ill from time and time and we all have been nasty (because the other person drove us to it).  Just kidding. Blame is a hard habit to break.

Happily, there is a way out that does not depend on the other person. The closed feedback loop is a blame loop. If you are willing to let go of blame and the need to be right and take complete responsibility for your part in feeding gridlock (even if you did not start it), you can heal even the most vexing relationship conflicts.

Discover how to deal with your most vexing relationship(s) even if the other person is uninterested in helping. Join us on Saturday, March 31 for the all day interactive and dare we say, fun workshop on Healing Relationship Conflicts.

If you are interested in participating in The Way of Wholeheartedness: A Course in Relationships, click here for more information: The Way of Wholeheartedness: A Course in Relationships

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