Words are powerful. Once spoken, cannot be taken back. Argument is a war in which everyone loses. No minds are changed, and relationships are injured and may be lost. A battle to convince another that you are right is futile, and communication will not develop because neither can hear what the other is trying to say.
Our ancestors, like a pack of wolves, lived and traveled as a clan, a group of 25-35 adults plus children. Like a pack of wolves, our bond was our bloodline, and the fact that our existence depended upon teamwork as warriors to defend our hunting territory, and as hunters and gatherers to kill the beasts and gather the roots, nuts, and fruits so that the group had enough to eat. One person alone could not survive. There had to be enough adults, with the right skills, to hunt and gather the food to keep the clan alive for another day. They lived in a dangerous, unforgiving world where only the wisest, smartest, and strongest survived.
Dominance was gained by learning how to intimidate and frighten off an aggressor so that physical contact could be avoided. A physical wound would likely be fatal because medical care was primitive, and the clan had limited ability to care for members who could not care for themselves. It was a brutal existence. The individuals and the clan learned to defend themselves by roaring, growling, howling, screaming, waving their arms, rattling their spears and clubs and pounding on logs and drums, anything to make themselves appear bigger, stronger and fiercer than the intimidating force.
Do these behaviors sound familiar?
These survival traits are written in our DNA and are visible today from the smallest and youngest to the biggest and the strongest. When we want our way and are not able to get it, we tend to hiss with an intimidating face and escalate our fierceness by yelling, howling, screaming, roaring, waving our arms and anything in our hands, threatening, cursing and, if all else fails, throw whatever is in our hands and attack or run. These defensive and offensive instincts range from the subtle to the blatant in all relationships.
The marital conflict between Mark and Linda exemplifies these inherited survival traits. The morning had been shattered by escalating conflict as Linda and Mark prepared to leave for work. Neither of their two children was ready, and Mark was going to be late for a business appointment.
"If you had merely started getting yourself and the children ready 20 minutes earlier, as I suggested, we would not be in this situation.” He grumbled.
"I will not listen to you when you are shouting," Linda said to Mark.
"I am not shouting," Mark responded. "I am simply emphasizing my point."
"Do you have to have that angry look on your face and snarl in your voice?" She questioned. "When you verbally attack me like you are now, I feel so hurt and angry that I am unable to focus on your words." She explained as tears welled in her eyes. “Your whole posture causes me to feel anxious and to question if you love me." She murmured as she dissolved into tears.
Mark's angry expression turned to one of frustration as he uttered through clenched teeth, "Everything I do offends you and is judged to be wrong or inadequate."
His combative mood continued as he rose to leave for his appointment. "Even what I say and how I say it is judged by you to be wrong or said the wrong way."
"Are you going to run away now and leave me to pick up the pieces like you usually do rather than find a solution to save our sick relationship?" She asked through her tears. "How many unsolved conflicts already litter our life because you run away and pout?"
Mark spun around glaring and in a raised voice said, "There you go again blaming me for leaving the conflict when it is you who are unreasonable and shrill. Everything has to be done your way and in your timing," he hissed as he turned to leave for his appointment.
Conflict is Normal
The ways Mark and Linda are expressing and managing their conflict is normal. It is not suitable for their relationship or marriage, and it is not useful in solving the problems that separate them, but their conflicting behavior accurately expresses the intimidating action inherited from their ancestors.
Normal is neither positive nor negative. Good or bad is relative to the circumstances. If attacked by a person intent on harming, it would be normal for a person to fight for their life, run for their life, plead for mercy, fall over and play dead, and do everything in their power to survive the attack. However, if while having dinner in a restaurant, a person being served verbally attacks and physically intimidates the server by raising their voice, waving their arms and pounding on the table, this primitive behavior, though accurately reflecting the intimidating practice of their ancestors, would be wrong and socially unacceptable.
While Mark and Linda learn to conflict in order to work together and to coordinate their existence, conflict is also undermining their dignity and self-respect and threatens the survival of their marriage. Conflict is not about understanding the other person; it is about proving that you are right, and the other person is wrong. Conflict is a desperate effort to reassure our self that we are not inferior to the person with whom we conflict.
Three things should be considered when conflict is about to start.
- Conflict always separates, isolates, and alienates everyone involved.
- Conflict always inflates on itself until it obscures the issue, and it becomes the issue. This is why we frequently remember the conflict but cannot remember what started it.
- Conflict always continues to inflate on itself until it bursts into a multitude of disputes, and everyone is hurt, and nothing is resolved.
As far as we know, we human beings are the smartest animals on this planet. As smart as we are, why do we repeat things that never work?
Conflict never works, yet we frequently resort to it. Why? The answer is, we tend to judge life by how we feel rather than by what we know. Consequently, we think that reality is how we feel at any given moment and react accordingly. When, in fact, reality cannot be adequately determined by how we feel. The principle is:
"Our feelings are real, and we must deal with them because they are connected to something important in us. But our feelings are not reliable to tell us what is real."
Our feelings come unbidden, and they leave without warning. We cannot determine how we feel at any given time, but we can determine what we think and how we behave. If we live by how we feel, our life is out of control, but if we live according to what we know, we have control of ourselves, and we are able to act upon life rather than react to what life presents.
Our human thinking and feelings compel us to believe that if we are right, the other person has to be wrong. The idea that we can both be correct, and hold opposite positions or convictions, seems to be unreasonable and unacceptable. This emotional conviction makes us unable to reason, so we default to the belief that the other person must be convinced that we are right.
Copyright 2011 – Dr. Orville E. Easterly All Rights Reserved – Do not copy.