Throughout most of my life, I was taught to stand my ground in disagreements because being wrong equaled weakness. With my irrational fear of being labeled as weak, I thought I needed to find a way to “prove” that what I believed was the truth, rather than seeking understanding or other perspectives. Winning the argument was more important than knowing the truth of the matter; I had to avoid the label of “weak” at all costs. This need of mine to prove my beliefs right resulted in resentment from many of the people I interacted with and it took me decades to learn the error of my ways.
I eventually learned how to listen, empathetically trying to see other points of view, instead of always interrupting or just waiting to talk. Listening allowed me to get away from my long-standing habit of lacking empathy while in disagreements with loved ones. I had previously let my insecurities and fragile ego do all the talking which led to either misunderstanding or completely ignoring, others’ perspectives.
Over the years, this behavior and closed-minded way of handling disagreements led to further unnecessary arguments, break-ups, resentment, and grudges, among other negative outcomes. Since I believed that these negative outcomes were a normal part of all interpersonal relationships, I didn’t recognize that I lacked empathy or that changing this lack would benefit me. I also didn’t recognize that my insecurities were the root of the problem; heck, I wasn’t even aware that I HAD insecurities!
This all started to change in the months after I met my spouse Julie when I gradually discovered more about myself. Her perspectives put my insecurities in the spotlight; at the same time, I was doing some coincidental reading about empathy and empathetic listening. In disagreements we had early on in our relationship, I often found my side of the argument to be empty and lacking merit because I was still stuck in my ego-defending habits. These unbalanced and insecure habits around disagreements seemed pathetic and petty, and with awareness of them, I started working to change the habits.
Over time, we began to have discussions about how, in our separate pasts, our unhealthy habits with disagreements often led to resentment and unhappiness. Further discussions made it clear that things like defensiveness, competitiveness, manipulation, emotional or mental attacks, and other forms of negativity in disagreements only hurt our relationships.
We decided that we had to do things differently in order to make our relationship permanent. We loved each other and knew that having a deeply meaningful relationship, it would require hard work from both of us. It would also require accepting that uncomfortable conversations and disagreements are sure to come up. We agree that the work and the inevitable discomfort are more than worth it.
Let’s Try More Communication
With the recent trend of less and less communication in our world, it’s not uncommon to see groups of friends or families in the same room ignoring each other while everyone’s on their phones. While less communication can only offer imaginary benefits, more communication offers genuine benefits that foster deeper, more meaningful relationships. When it comes to conflict resolution or disagreements in relationships with loved ones, empathetic, open, tolerant, and non-judgmental communication allows disagreements to strengthen relationships. On the other hand, one-sided, intolerant, and judgmental communication allows disagreements to erode or dissolve relationships.
Even if both parties are being authentic, in matching their thoughts to their actions and words, being vulnerable, accepting themselves for who they are, and being able to speak their truth, disagreements are still inevitable. This is why we must not avoid conflict out of fear; it can only result in weaker connections. Difficult conversations are necessary if we want to understand one another.
If we aren’t honouring both the people that we’re in disagreements with, and their boundaries, the disagreement can turn into a heated argument, and those can turn into full-blown fights. These fights can bring out harsh words; manipulation, mental, emotional or physical attacks; defensiveness; and other negativity that can turn into permanent resentment, which Julie and I had both previously experienced many times.
Let’s Try Positivity & Proactivity
While avoiding conflict out of fear doesn’t strengthen relationships, avoiding conflict in a proactive manner can stop disagreements, in a positive way, before they start. Julie and I first decided to be proactive in arguments by honouring healthy boundaries. The boundaries we established were avoiding perfectionism and avoiding taking things personally, listening intently (not interrupting, not waiting to talk, not judging, not getting defensive), and clearly voicing expectations. To be proactive, we also knew we had to stay away from assumptions, “keeping score,” constant comparison, competition, and taking criticism as an attack.
We became keenly aware that none of these would foster our desire to continue to grow closer in our relationship and stay together for the rest of our lives, even though we had both been taught to defend our egos. We had both experienced other ways to quickly erode relationships, such as threatening the relationship (“if you don’t ____, it’s over” or “since you _____, you don’t love me”), or demanding that we remember everything we had ever asked of one another in the past, or bringing up unsolved issues from the past. We clearly see that it’s best to deal with the issue at hand and wait to discuss unresolved issues in a separate conversation.
Yet another way to avoid disagreements proactively is by establishing the trust that neither side will throw the other “under the bus” in public. This type of embarrassment can drive a deep divide between loved ones. For instance, if we expose each other’s weaknesses or errors made, in front of others, like bringing up failures, shortcomings, private things like struggling with weight, or other things that a partner might have insecurity about, resentment and frustration can grow.
If we aren’t proactive, and instead react to disagreements with things like the “silent treatment,” verbal abuse, manipulation, playing the “blame game,” or other unreasonable negativity, it can become easier for the other party to react by avoiding conflict of all kinds. We all know people who ended up deciding it’s better to avoid conflict altogether, because they’ve had to deal with this kind of negativity over and over, eventually knowing that they would gain nothing from communicating.
An example of this is when gaslighting or another harsh manipulation has severely damaged the relationship so that communication is no longer an option. When negativity is repeated like this, our survival response can lead to becoming numb.
What if all partners decide to have proactive conversations about the fact that we want to learn from disagreements so that we understand one another better when disagreements come up? What if all partners decide that there will be no attacking or defensiveness, knowing that the relationship isn’t hanging on a thread that can be severed by a single disagreement? What if all partners decide that vulnerability, truthfulness, and transparency are best, even though it feels like we’re exposing ourselves to attacks? What if all partners decide to establish a safe space first since both sides know that attacking the other can only hurt the relationship and lead to resentment?
Let’s Try Empathy
Empathy, or understanding one another’s point of view, is based on the knowledge that no two people see the world the same way. People can benefit greatly from choosing to understand each other in all circumstances. When we have disagreements, let’s seek understanding, not victory. There’s nothing gained if the only reason for disagreements is to determine who “wins”. Conversely, there’s so much to gain if disagreements lead to understanding and truth. What if both sides want to win together and work together to find solutions to all disagreements. This mindset helps us continue to grow together, and I hope you will choose and share this mindset as well.