He came to pick me up, and I was a little bit late. He was extremely angry with me. We were silent the whole ride home. When we got there, I went into my bedroom alone and cried. A little later, he told me that I was just over-tired.
Obviously, I had no idea how to deal with conflict.
Let’s look at this scenario in pieces:
- We were very young.
- I had apologized.
- Getting extremely angry at someone for being a little late is likely an overreaction (unless someone is usually late – which I am not).
- Being silent can be an okay means of dealing with a situation until we can calm down physiologically, usually about 20-30 minutes. After that, we need to deal with the upset.
- Going off and crying alone was my way at that time of dealing with feeling hurt and stunned at his reaction. But by not letting him know how I felt, he had no way to choose his behavior in other instances with me.
- Telling me I was over-tired was patronizing. It’s never useful to tell someone how they feel or what they are experiencing. It would have been helpful for him to have asked me what was going on, how I felt, and what I needed. I could have done the same for him.
As I looked back through my memory, I recognized this pattern with most of the boyfriends that I ever had – until I matured and learned how to deal with feelings and conflict.
I thought about what I learned in my family growing up that had to do with upset and anger.
In my family we had “family meetings” in which my mother yelled at us, and we were just supposed to sit there and take it. We had no opportunity to talk, to offer our own feelings, thoughts, perspectives, or needs. This teaches a child that conflict is dealt with either by yelling or shutting down. And it also teaches a child that her feelings and voice don’t matter.
Children need to be taught the language of feelings in order to have successful personal, intimate, and professional relationships. If we don’t learn that language as children, then we can learn it as adults.
Over time, I learned that having one person yelling while the other quakes in their shoes is not an intimate interaction that makes for a happy marriage. I understood that it must be a two-way conversation, in which I am entitled to have feelings and express them as well. In fact, I learned that if I don’t, then I can't show up as my true self, either in a conflict or in general. And then who is there for my partner to love?
Of course we carry these childhood teachings into our adult life, and play them out with our partners – over and over again, until we learn new skills.
This is why it’s so common that we end up married to someone that seemed different than our parent(s), but over time our beloved may resemble our parents more and more in certain emotional tonality and interactions.
And so we have the opportunity to overcome our own lack of skills with our partner and vice-versa. We become each others’ teacher: reflecting, growing, testing, experimenting, grinding against the unpolished diamond we each are, creating a marriage of shining, valuable, individual gems in an interdependent, healthy relationship.
If we don’t do that crucial work, and choose to leave the relationship, our childhood issues, in this case anger and conflict, are bound to arise over and over until we learn what we need to learn. I know this from personal experience.
If we want to be truly loved, we have to truly show up even with conflict and difficult feelings.