Conflict is a potent gateway to our inner experience. Most of us fall into one of two camps - we either avoid conflict like the plague or we thrive on it and are like a moth to a flame.
The former results from our nervous system being conditioned to go into its ‘flight’, ‘faint’ or ‘freeze’ mode; the latter from our nervous system going into its ‘fight’ mode. All of these states are part of the sympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic part of our nervous system is where ‘rest and digest’ happens. To be healthy - both physically and emotionally our nervous systems need to be able to flow easefully between the sympathetic and parasympathetic modes. What’s more, healthy relationships, including being able to turn towards and navigate conflict transformatively, also require an easeful flow between the sympathetic and parasympathetic modes of our nervous system.
This is because our ‘social engagement system’ resides in the parasympathetic part of our nervous system, and so when we are stuck in the fight, flight, faint or freeze of our sympathetic nervous system we lose our ability to socially engage in a healthy way. Instead we become dissociated and go into auto-pilot. Being in auto-pilot means we revert to the childhood survival strategies we developed at a young age to cope with and avoid the pain of conflict as it played out in our families.
When we are not connected with our ‘social engagement system’ our capacity for empathy disappears and we are no longer able to consider the needs of other people. We are in survival mode. For some this might be a ‘people pleasing’ strategy, for others it may be going into intellectual combat and for others still it may be disappearing by going quiet and not getting involved.
Very often conflict remains subterranean. This can be more destructive than when it is in the open because there is little opportunity for it to be transformed. It tends to simply fester and get bigger and bigger and then eventually burst out in reaction to something relatively small and insignificant. When conflict gets to this point it is much harder to relate with it in transformative ways.
So many of our relationships and collective efforts are being hindered by our lack of capacity to navigate conflict in transformative ways. Few of us grew up in families, homes or schools where conflict was navigated in healthy ways and so not only did we not get taught these skills, but many of us also learned to fear conflict.
Reframing as conflict "rupture and repair"
When conflict starts to show up in our relationships and groups it is actually a healthy sign. It means there is enough trust and safety in people’s nervous systems, and the group culture that binds them, for them to feel like they can risk some rupture in the relationship.
Reframing conflict as rupture and repair can be very useful as it makes explicit the repair aspect of transformative conflict. Conflict is transformative when we are able to do the vital work of repairing our relationships when there are ruptures. The process of rupture and repair requires us to be in healthy relationship with the full spectrum of our emotional responses - our fear and vulnerability right through to our rage and hatred.
It requires us to be aware of how the victim-persecutor-rescuer dynamic of the ‘drama triangle’ (see image on the right) plays out in our psyche - and to take responsibility and experience and express remorse for how this may have impacted others. It requires a willingness to do the inner work needed to change these conditioned behavioural and relational patterns so that we liberate ourselves from the power-over model of relating that our patriarchal culture conditioned us into.
As we learn to lean into this process of rupture and repair we start to feel how fresh and energising conflict can actually feel, when we trust that we - and ideally, our collaborators, friends, family and lovers, are willing to make a mess in our honouring of what feels true in the moment and in our trust that we are all willing and able to do the vital and regenerative work of repair.
Why does patriarchy persist?
In their potent book Why does patriarchy persist?, Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider carefully explain how it is our lack of capacity for this process around rupture and repair that sits at the heart of enabling patriarchy to persist.
Without the capacity to healthily engage in rupture and repair we unconsciously shape our lives in ways that are intended to avoid feeling the pain that comes when we lose love. Boys, in particular, are conditioned from a young age to shut off from their feelings and their capacity for empathy. And girls, in particular, are conditioned to 'people please' by denying the truth of their experience.
In place of authentic relationship we have created a culture of 'relationships' - a tragically watered down imitation that deliberately avoids intimacy and authentic relating, in our attempts to avoid feeling the pain of losing love.
When we have the courage to learn how to tolerate the discomfort that the threat of losing love generates in us, we begin to learn how to turn towards the transformative process of rupture and repair.
Could it be that embracing this approach to conflict transformation is what is needed to execute a death blow to patriarchal culture and it's destructive power-over ways of relating?
Books on transformative conflict
Conflict is not Abuse by Sarah Schulman (excerpt from Goodreads)
"From intimate relationships to global politics, Sarah Schulman observes a continuum: that inflated accusations of harm are used to avoid accountability. Illuminating the difference between Conflict and Abuse, Schulman directly addresses our contemporary culture of scapegoating. This deep, brave, and bold work reveals how punishment replaces personal and collective self-criticism, and shows why difference is so often used to justify cruelty and shunning. Rooting the problem of escalation in negative group relationships, Schulman illuminates the ways cliques, communities, families, and religious, racial, and national groups bond through the refusal to change their self-concept. She illustrates how Supremacy behavior and Traumatized behavior resemble each other, through a shared inability to tolerate difference.
This important and sure to be controversial book illuminates such contemporary and historical issues of personal, racial, and geo-political difference as tools of escalation towards injustice, exclusion, and punishment, whether the objects of dehumanization are other individuals in our families or communities, people with HIV, African Americans, or Palestinians. Conflict Is Not Abuse is a searing rejection of the cultural phenomenon of blame, cruelty, and scapegoating, and how those in positions of power exacerbate and manipulate fear of the "other" to achieve their goals."
Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindell
(excerpt from 'Good reads') Using examples ranging from disputes in small organizations to large-scale conflicts in countries around the world, this volume offers practical methods for working with conflict, leadership crises, stagnation, abuse, terrorism, violence, and other social action issues. It brings an understanding of the psychology of conflict and the knowledge that many disputes can be traced back to inequalities of rank and power between parties, providing tools that will enable people to use conflict to build community.