Once we have encountered someone they are permanently recorded in our memory and not forgotten unless we suffer some sort of catastrophic, irreversible memory loss. The factual details are recorded in our Parent and our emotional responses concerning the person are recorded in our Child – see my previous article on Perspective for a description of the Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) model developed by Thomas A Harris.
Consequently under normal circumstances once we get to ‘know’ someone it is not possible to get to ‘not know’ them or, to use a more common term, ‘forget them’. I think that whenever we encounter someone, however briefly, we establish a relationship that we never really ‘lose’. My view is that it continues to exist in one of the four states depicted below – Harmony, Triggers, Conflict or Resolution.
Even if we never see a person again after a brief encounter, e.g. check-in staff at the airport, one night stand etc, if our parting was on good terms the relationship remains forever in Harmony with no chance of ever entering Conflict because we will never see that person again and we will have warm, pleasant memories of the encounter. If, however, triggers occurred, e.g. the service, sex etc was terrible, this may have led to conflict and the relationship then remains forever in Conflict with no chance of resolution as we never get to see that person again in order to attempt to reach Resolution and restore Harmony.
The more time we spend with a person and the better we get to know them the more chance there is of entering the Conflict state. In his excellent book ‘You Can Be Happy No Matter What’ Richard Carlson says:
“THE THOUGHT SYSTEMS OF OTHERS
We have learned that thoughts with recurring patterns become part of our individualized thought systems. Because our thought systems are self-validating systems (in psychological terminology, closed systems), we are unable to question them, and it will always seem to us that we are seeing life accurately and realistically. Because of this, we tend to question the ways in which others live their lives and the ways they do things, because self-validating systems are very protective of themselves. Information that doesn’t match our existing beliefs will be filtered through our belief system and judged as “inconsistent with the truth,” “a strange way of doings,” “weird,” “unusual,” “different,” and most often, “wrong.”
As we get to know another person better this tendency to question their thought system will increase, not decrease. The more opportunity we have to interact and spend time with other thought systems, the greater is the chance of conflict. This is why the most difficult relationship, for so many people, is marriage. For unmarried people, the most difficult relationship is commonly the person they are closest or most intimate with. In some ways, it seems ironic that we should be most bothered by those to whom we wish to be closest. But it can’t be any other way, unless and until we understand the psychological functioning of ourselves and our partners. Once we do, the opposite will happen. With understanding, we will gain new love and respect for those we choose to spend the most time with. We will retain our positive feelings for them as special and unique people. The issue of our differences will cease to bother us – perhaps it will even become amusing! We will begin to see people as characters, rather than adversaries.”
I agree with Richard…the closer we are to someone the more likely it is that conflict will arise. When we talk about ‘working at a relationship’ I believe what we are saying is that we need to work through resolving conflict whenever it arises and that it is particularly hard work in our closest, most intimate relationships. As time goes on and the relationship evolves the frequency of entering the Conflict state diminishes; in some cases to a point where conflict no longer happens between the parties.
As the diagram shows I believe that the route to conflict is via triggers. These are pre-existing psychological states many of which have not yet been resolved. For example some peoples’ rage is triggered when they are pointed at moving them to the Conflict state while others just shrug and think “hmmm… pointing isn’t polite” and their rage is not triggered hence they remain in the Harmony state avoiding getting anywhere near the Conflict state.
A relationship that has become stuck in the Conflict state is sometimes described as lost. However I believe that there is no situation that cannot be resolved. Whether or not it does get resolved depends on the desire of all parties concerned to reach resolution and return to a state of Harmony. Communication and negotiation play a very important part in resolving conflict – see my previous articles on Communication and Negotiation.
Here are some of the things that I think are common causes of conflict:
Lack of Expectation Management – This is one of the major causes of the build up of anger leading to resentment and rage. This, in turn, results in very serious conflict – see my previous article on Expectations
Mismatching – Mismatching is also a significant cause of conflict. One of our major issues is hoping to match ourselves with others before we get to know ourselves. How can we hope to enter in to an effective match with someone else when we barely know who we are ourselves? This is why I think that introspection is so important – see my previous article on Introspection.
Attachment to Things and Acts – For a variety of reasons we find ourselves drawn to material things and acts of others toward us. Here are a couple of questions we should be asking ourselves:
- Are we falling in love/in love with ‘Our’ things (Our Tune, Our Joke, Our Place, Our Gifts etc) or with the person?
- Are we falling in love/in love with the person or the way we’re being treated?
Where we are in love with things or acts, once others are unable to give these to us anymore a major conflict occurs. The reason being that we no longer have any reason to stay with the person(s) who is (are) no longer a source of the things or acts that we have fallen in love with. So we move on to others who can restore to us what our former partner/friends etc are no longer able to give and leave them devastated. If we are in love with the person(s) and/or simply appreciate them for who they are we stick with them.
Possession or Person – The treatment of a person as a possession always leads to conflict. Whether slavery (actual or metaphoric), excessive jealousy or perceived ownership, the person(s) who is (are) the focus of the possessiveness will eventually rebel either quietly or very loudly.
Contact – Some of us are contact junkies; others of us are quite happy to wait, sometimes extended periods of time, between contacts. This can be a very significant source of conflict. Contact junkies will terminate relationships (or, more accurately in my view, put them in an indefinite state of Conflict) because they are aggrieved that they are not being contacted often enough.
Dominant Parent and/or Child – Where one, both or all parties in a relationship have a dominant Parent and/or Child conflict is inevitable. This is because the weakened or absent Adult is unable to assert the necessary rationality that fosters effective communication and negotiation. If the Adult is dominant and strong in at least one party the conflict can be resolved quickly.
Mental Illness – This in my view is the most disappointing cause of conflict. In my experience most people have taken the view that they did not get involved in a relationship to deal with someone’s psycho behaviour. It is disappointing because all it requires on the part of the person(s) who are mentally healthy is a resolve to assist the mentally ill person recover be it depression, neurosis or whatever.
Negativity – Excessive jealousy, extreme anger (rage), resentment, blaming and fault finding are just a few of the excellent ways to move very quickly to a state of Conflict. My advice is to avoid expressing negativity inappropriately at all costs.
In summary I think that the trick is to stay in the Harmony state. Where this is not possible then the triggers should be removed and/or the conflict resolved as quickly as is practicable.
Stay strong and serene.