Managing Conflicted Relationships By Building Trust and Breaking Resistance

I believe that by doing the work to understand our own stress responses, we can begin to understand that others have faced the same challenges and can respond with the energy of compassion and connection rather than reacting with judgment and separation. I believe that at our core we all want connection. I’d like to share with you how I came to this belief through my own journey with conflict resolution.

We all grow up witnessing conflict and develop our own strategies for dealing with it. Then we tend to unconsciously follow those same patterns through life unless something comes along to interrupt that pattern. My dad's stress reaction was to get angry, and my mom would try to fix the situation; when she couldn’t, she blamed herself and had a sense of hopelessness. I almost never saw my mom be angry. She was a remarkably patient, kind-hearted woman, but I saw her as powerless in the relationship. She always forgave and moved on, which I admired but it wasn’t that easy for me. I was determined that I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of like she was.

I judged my dad for getting angry. I didn’t trust him to care about my interests, I saw him as invested in his own self-interest. In order to protect myself, I built my own walls to the relationship. My coping strategy was to respond to anger with judgment, not by arguing or fighting back aggressively (which is what I judged him for), but by withholding from the relationship. I resisted the relationship, in my own self-righteousness. I believed distancing myself was a more socially acceptable strategy to conflict. I tried to keep the peace in order to get along, but always judged my dad as selfish and difficult. My negative perception of him completely overshadowed my ability to see the good in him. I would look for evidence of his selfishness, and find that belief validated over and over.

We went on like this for over 45 years. Then things got much worse. My mom died of leukemia. She left me and my sister to deal with my dad without her as the buffer. Talk about a raw deal! Soon afterwards, I hired a coach while I was in my own career transition to coaching. No where on my radar was the thought that I would work on my relationship with my dad, but as I began working on other challenges, I found I wanted to address it.

I looked at the relationship with a fresh set of eyes. Rather than presuming I had it all figured out, I started to feel more open to trying new strategies vs. my tried and true pattern of disengaging. I started to contemplate the gifts to my life that my dad’s presence had created. I looked at the good things that we have in common, the values we share that he has influenced, like love of education, doing our part to make a difference in the world and commitment to family. I began to dwell on the good things about him. I became more curious about his life experience, including how he learned to deal with stress. I started to see that his anger was just a coping strategy, just like mine was. It wasn’t all of him, no matter how much I had wanted to be right and see it that way. Rather than waiting for him to get upset with me for not calling (out of obligation), I decided to be more proactive and look for ways to have more fun together. I shifted my belief from thinking the relationship could never get better to the belief that at our core we both really did want it to be better. I stopped resisting that possibility.

Today, our whole relationship has changed. As much as I miss my mom, I no longer need her as a buffer. I actually feel so blessed to have this time with my dad on his own and when the day comes that he is gone, too, I’ll be so much better off for having had this time in our lives together. Does he still get angry? Of course, but not nearly as often with me and when he does, when I’m not triggered I can remember that we both really want to be in relationship with each other and I look for how to make that happen.

My goal is to be triggered less and less, through compassion for others responses to stress, seeing that we all only have the tools we’ve learned from life. My new mantra is “let it go.” I ask myself, how can I just let go of my own resistance? Life’s too short to let my own resistance keep getting in my way.

Maybe there is relationship that you are resisting in your own life, either personally or professionally. What can you begin to let go of today? How might that change things for you for the good?

« Back to Blog