Most families have complications now and then. There are always skeletons in the closet – some large, some tiny and frail. One family I know of is so complicated that they no longer talk to each other, or even acknowledge each others’ existence. It’s an all too familiar story. Things have got so difficult that it is easier to ignore each other completely than to try to cross the vast chasm of pain and trauma that lies between them. When they are forced to interact, they pretend that nothing has ever happened, and the intense pain between them is a huge elephant in the room.
It’s sad, being outside such a conflict and able to view it somewhat objectively, to hear what both sides are saying – particularly as they are singing the same, age-old song: “There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve done nothing wrong, but they have been so cruel and hurtful to me. I don’t understand it.” Both sides are saying this. Both sides have a list of grievances a mile long. Neither side discussed the grievances when they happened. Both sides nursed each grievance like tiny, vicious puppies until they grew into huge Doberman pinschers that guard the sides of the chasm, ensuring that no-one even tries to make the leap of faith to the other side.
Closer to home, my six year old finds it very difficult, when she feels wronged, to look past her own grievance and try to see how the other party might be feeling. And although I get very frustrated with her when she can’t see someone else’s point of view, the truth is that I sometimes find it pretty difficult myself. It’s a natural human reaction, when you feel hurt, to dig trenches, erect impenetrable walls, and snuggle down safely, cuddling your resentment like a teddy bear.
Recently, when I was incredibly hurt by a friend’s actions, I really wanted to throw a huge tantrum and tell him I never wanted to see him again. Instead, I learned from some very wise friends, took a deep breath, and asked him if I could come over to explain how I was feeling. To his eternal credit, he said yes, although he must have felt as though he was inviting an unexploded hand grenade into his home.
When I got there, I took care to tell him how I was feeling, rather than to criticize what he had done.
In doing so, I felt incredibly exposed and vulnerable. I felt as though I had pulled my beating heart out of my chest and handed it to him, together with a choice of weapons. I felt naked and defenceless. But the friendship was important to me, and I saw it as a choice between throwing the friendship away or trying to fix a recurring problem. As is so often the case, the problem was more with my feelings than with his behaviour, so I thought that bringing my feelings out into the open and explaining why I reacted the way I did might defuse them a little.
The wonderful thing is, it worked. He handled my heart very gently, and helped me tuck it safely back into my chest, and we finished the conversation with a better understanding of each other than we had at the start.
Sadly, taking that approach requires a high level of trust that the other party will respect your openness, or at least the ability to accept the consequences if they do not. Solving conflict requires a willingness to compromise on both sides, and the ability to move beyond the wrongs and hurts of the past. Above all, it requires both sides to stop looking for reasons to prolong the conflict. And it may be that when the trauma reaches a certain level, pain is all that you can see.
Sometimes all it takes is for one party to be open and say “You know what? I miss you. Any chance we can try to be friends?” But I think it does require that openness. Trying to pretend that nothing has ever happened leaves the elephant in the room free to trample you all over again.
Perspective is a funny beast. When you go looking for reasons to be upset or offended, you will almost certainly find them. Yet, by the same token, when you go looking for reasons to be uplifted and heartened, you will find those, too. What a shame we can’t buy rose coloured glasses for our relationships, and learn to take the optimistic view. Are your relationships half full, or half empty?