Sunday, May 22, 2011

Conflict, communication, etc.

I've been doing some reading recently and it helped me to better understand an idea that is central to how I conceptualize interpersonal relationships.  My husband and I have been married for about six months.  Since day one there have been a lot of external stressors putting strain on our relationship -- the process of changing his immigration status from student to permanent resident, his trouble finding a good job in a bad job market, and an ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife over his daughter.  There is going to be conflict in any marriage but all of the added stress made us both testy and so increased the likelihood of conflict.  As a result, our "honeymoon" period ended sooner than I would've liked and it was necessary for me to spend a lot of time thinking about (and trying out) ways to resolve conflict. 

(I have to admit, this was a VERY humbling experience for me.  I was a bit embarrassed to admit to anyone that I - a person who teaches other people how to communicate effectively and helps other people develop ways to solve their problems - was having problems communicating and problem solving with my husband.  I believed very strongly that if he would only listen to me and defer to my expertise on how to best communicate with one another we could resolve our conflicts in a way that was agreeable to us both.  Unfortunately, he didn't agree.  I went through quite an internal struggle before i was able to accept that I couldn't make him listen to me and I couldn't make him adopt my way of solving problems, even if I was thoroughly convinced that it was the best thing for us.  Ironically, once I was able to accept this I became less angry and was able to talk to him without becoming defensive.  This enabled us to reach an agreement and to talk openly about our concerns).

Anyway, this experience prompted me to return to a subject which I've thought about, read about, and wrote about extensively in the past but about which I recently hadn't given much consideration: ego and projection in romantic relationships.  Everything I've ever read about this topic suggests that a romantic relationship - and especially conflict within a romantic relationship - provides an unparalleled opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth IF you are willing to do the work.  (Are they kidding?  I was MADE for this).  So in the midst (and the aftermath) of the recent conflict with my husband I looked for a chance to learn - about myself and my husband.

Essentially, any time you feel deeply hurt, betrayed, or rejected by another person you can be certain that on a deeper level your sense of self feels threatened.  When someone triggers your core fears it threatens your sense of self and your ego immediately goes on the defensive to protect the image of "our seemingly solid sense of 'I,'" (Ezra Bayda, in "At home in the Muddy Water," pg. 87).  The ego typically reacts by getting angry and blaming the other person for hurting or betraying our trust.  When we notice ourselves feeling angry and betrayed (which is ho I felt in the conflict with my husband), we can use these feelings as cues that our ego (with a little "e," or self with a little "s") is at work.  Instead of acting on our anger or our desire to blame the other person we can stop and allow ourselves to sit with these feelings.  We can notice how much suffering is caused by the ego's need to maintain its own self image.  We can even observe how much we truly believe the other person is at fault.

I connected very strongly with something Ezra Bayda points out in his book, "At Home in the Muddy Water":

"Our desire to view the self as a solid entity is so great that we miss the readily observable fact that the 'self' is no more than a collection of self-images, identities, beliefs, strategies, memories, and projections.  As we observe ourselves over and over, we come to see how quickly this 'me' can change even from one minute to the next.  No matter how firm and resolute we are in making decisions and commitments, another 'me' will often arise, one who wants nothing to do with them...We finally get the picture that the seemingly solid 'I' is really many 'me's' who frequently disagree.  So why do we think that other people are any different?" (pg. 85).

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