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Keeping Relationships Healthy in Times of Conflict

11 tips for navigating relational strain across intense disagreement.

Source: Credit: fizkes/iStockPhoto

In this election cycle—complicated by a global pandemic, racial unrest, climate disasters, and economic challenges—tensions in our country feel like they are at an all-time high.

Many of us are finding our relationships deeply strained by disagreement. If we choose to hold on to these bonds, how to we hold on, given the challenges these relationships can present?

Understanding Collective Anxiety: The widespread tension we all feel

I was recently at a pet store when I heard a disturbance near the checkout counter. Two women, in two separate parties, had begun to yell at each other. I didn’t catch the whole conversation, but I did hear, “if you don’t like it, you can stay home,” and, “you talk like that, I’m going to punch you in the &$%^ing face.” Bear in mind, I live in a state with a low COVID case count. Both of these women were wearing masks and social distancing. One had young children in tow.

While it was absurd for these strangers to be screaming at each other next to a rack of cat biscuits, and I don’t condone speaking to others like this especially around children, this story also wasn’t surprising given what our society is going through right now.

Many of us feel stretched to a breaking point. Scholars have called this phenomenon "collective anxiety": the impact of threat on a whole community.

The large-scale tensions we face will often echo through our interpersonal relationships with friends, family members, colleagues, and even intimate partners. We can find ourselves caught up in overlapping and colliding waves of conflict, using all of our energy just to stay afloat.

Given our communal experience, further complicated by individual stressors, it is especially difficult in this moment to have conversations about painful and challenging topics with those we love—let alone to be cordial to strangers at the pet store.

The Somatic (Body) Impact of Living in Conflicted Times

Whenever we become exhausted from fighting for the things we believe in, and whenever we feel existentially anxious, our tempers can run short and our patience can wear thin.

There is a scientific explanation for why we feel this way. Stressors can impact us on not only an emotional level but also on a physiological level: interrupting our sleep, making it difficult to concentrate or make decisions, upsetting our digestion, blessing us with muscle aches and headaches, filling us with a sense of impending doom, and making us tired, irritable, and even irrational. The cumulative effect of this over a long period of time can lead to toxic stress and a host of preventable medical issues.

If you are experiencing these kinds of sensations, you are not imagining them; they are the body’s manifestations of anxiety.

Importantly, these manifestations don’t just impact our own person. Mental and physical strain easily and often spills out into the ways we interact with people around us.

Assuming that we want to keep our relationships healthy in times of conflict, here are some steps we can take to avoid going nuclear.

11 Tips for Keeping Relationships Healthy in Times of Conflict

  1. Be gentle with yourself. We can’t be effective in the world if we aren’t caring for ourselves and our own mental and physical health, especially because our mental health and our physical health are strongly linked. If we are tuned into ourselves and we know stress is impacting us, we should work on that first so we don’t take it out on the people around us. Do whatever it takes to de-stress and “lengthen your fuse”—Boxing, meditation, eating healthier, therapy, journaling, getting into nature, taking a bath, playing a video game, calling a good friend. If we want to keep our relationships strong, we will understand that managing our own anxiety and mental health is part of our social responsibility and the biggest factor we can control.
  2. Be gentle with others. As much as we might recognize that we are struggling right now, we should do our best to extend that same compassion to others who are also tired, scared, worried, sad, and angry. Even those with whom we deeply disagree experience real emotions and may have valid reasons for feeling the way they do (valid meaning logically consistent and sensical, not necessarily good or true). When you engage with someone on the "other side," try being gentle. Instead of flying into attack mode, take the time to ask about someone else’s struggles, fears, concerns, and values. Keeping our ear to the experiences and feelings of other people can lead to more productive and meaningful conversations. And if we show consideration and respect first, it becomes easier to ask someone else to do the same.
  3. Know your limits. In addition to self-care, we need to be aware not only of our capacities but also our larger limitations and histories: our traumas and pain, things that may trigger us or be too much and cause us to start exploding or shutting down. It’s not weakness to be aware of these things; it’s strength. When we’re attuned to these realities—when we work on them and have the courage to communicate with others about them—we are able to retain more control of ourselves; we can become more expansive and capable friends, family, and partners to those we love.
  4. Set boundaries and actively enforce them. For the health of the relationship, it's vitally important to communicate and agree on where boundaries should lie. That said, sometimes our attempts to create healthy boundaries will fail because there are people in the world who are abusive, belligerent, manipulative, don’t have the needs of others in mind, and will not listen to any kind of reason. These individuals typically will not recognize or respect healthy boundaries. If you believe you are dealing with such a person, it is sometimes the best strategy to walk away and protect yourself. It's also possible to show respect and concern from afar, to engage in limited ways, and to advocate for that person to get what they need without internalizing their discord. Remember that it is not necessary for us to be close to or show affection to everyone in the world. We get to choose who we surround ourselves with, and we should surround ourselves with those who will respect our well-being and right to exist, even if they disagree with us sharply.
  5. Express care and commitment. Make sure the person knows how much they matter. Without positive messages like “I care about you,” we often don’t know where we stand; this creates insecurity, a “walking on eggshells” sensation that can destabilize relationships and cause communication breakdowns. It’s easier to talk about hard things, and to be a little uncomfortable for someone (in a positive sense of growth), if we know they have our interests at heart. Don’t wait for the other person to say, “You matter to me. We can disagree and I won’t walk away. I am right here. Let’s talk.” Show leadership and be the first to say words like this. The strength of the relationship and the health of your communication depends on showing people they matter.
  6. Remember context. It’s incredibly important to understand that our national struggles are adversely impacting some people more than others. Events or issues that might seem benign or inconsequential to one person might have a real and present impact on another person's life or body. Privilege (racial, ability, wealth, etc.) is one way to unpack how this functions. To have strong relationships, we must make the time to really hear and try to understand experiences that are not our own. Without practicing empathy, we become stuck in our own small boxes of understanding and may miss important things that healthy relationships require, such as equality and sharing power.
  7. Speak for yourself. Crucial to the process of keeping relationships healthy is doing our best to speak for ourselves, not for everyone in the world. Offering ideas from our own perspective instead of making grand sweeping statements reflects the wisdom that we can’t know everything all the time. Using language like, “the way I see it,” “in my opinion,” "in my research," and “in my experience,” invite conversation and allow us to more easily tweak or adjust our opinions as we gather new information. It also de-escalates conversational tension and promotes curiosity.
  8. Practice healthy disagreement. Healthy disagreement looks like this: people with totally different perspectives, coming together as equals, to reason with and sharpen each other. This is what we mean by "resilience:" relationships that can handle the pressures of conflict without crumbling. Healthy disagreement should allow for strong opinions and strong emotions, but should not involve one person or group dominating, coercing, or controlling the other. Healthy disagreement seeks to share power, uses positive conversational practices, and makes sure everyone in the room has space to speak. Even if we vehemently and passionately disagree, we can still practice healthy disagreement. These kinds of conversations are the only way to build the trust, respect, and collaboration needed to facilitate real dialogue and create chances for deeper understanding.
  9. Beware of emotional abuse. Expressing strong emotions, making passionate arguments, or speaking our minds are great things. However, be mindful of using tactics or rhetoric that can be emotionally abusive. Emotional abuse looks like character attacks, slander belittling, gaslighting, name calling, stereotyping, mind games, shaming, or refusing to accept responsibility for wrongful actions. Instead of resorting to these tactics, it is worth the time to try to reason, engage imaginations, and persuade ethically. These practices help us continually resist the injustices of controlling behavior.
  10. Advocate ferociously and with great kindness. It is vitally important to fight for what we believe in and protect the vulnerable among us. As we advocate for a more just society and a better world, remember that kindness is tremendously important. We can’t call for the end of dehumanization while in the same breath dehumanizing the people we are angry with. Saying that we value human dignity but denigrating or verbally abusing people causes damage, resentment, and division. We embody our values in the words we choose. So be articulate, but understand that holding fast to kindness, and choosing to show respect even when it’s undeserved, makes our communication healthier and often strengthens instead of erodes our cause.
  11. Take a break! While it can be incredibly difficult to enjoy someone’s company when there is a huge and unavoidable elephant in the room, it’s not sustainable for relationships to be constantly in argumentation mode. Make sure to remember why we have these bonds to begin with. Healthy relationships focus on making memories, checking in on each other, and caring for each other. Prioritizing these activities keeps the relationship from devolving into a long and unending debate on topics too big for individuals alone to solve. In other words, it’s okay to take a break from the heavy stuff and come back to it later. It’s okay to compartmentalize. It’s okay to set a timer for twenty minutes, talk for those twenty minutes about hard things, then watch a movie. If that’s what you need to do for the health of your relationship and the stability of your support system, do it.

Many of us are tired, we are worried, we are frustrated. But even in our weakest moments, we still shape the world with our words and actions. Understanding this fact, especially in times of crisis and conflict, can protect and strengthen the social bonds that make us human.

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