Inter-personal conflicts are good occasions to introspect on contradictions in one's own stances and attitudes…

When we look around at all the things that are happening in the world around us, it's easy to conclude that we live in an age of conflict. But what is not as easily noticeable to many of us is that we also live in an age of choice. As a race, we humans have worked very hard ever since the Industrial Revolution to expand our choices, whether in the realm of goods and services or in that of human relationships. We all want choices and feel stifled and denied when these are taken away from us. Having said that, it is also true that we sometimes find it difficult to deal with expanded choice options. Whenever we are faced with choices we are hard pressed to make, we experience what is inevitable in modern life — conflict.

Opposing ideas

In its most basic form, a conflict is the concomitant existence of two opposing and apparently incompatible ideas, thoughts or feelings. It might be correctly argued that problems of conscious choice rarely remain conflicts for long, since, over a period of time, the human organism's natural need for harmony ensures some form of resolution, even if incomplete. The conflicts that would be of greater consequence and more difficult to respond to, since they are less accessible to the mind, are unconscious conflicts or what are also called intra-psychic conflicts. As can be readily appreciated, these conflicts exist within the individual's mind and represent the individual being at odds with himself or herself for reasons that are not readily apparent. But since we are social creatures, such conflicts invariably get expressed in the interpersonal space.

It is extremely tempting to lay the blame for such interpersonal conflicts at the opposite number's doorstep. In fact, this path is so tempting that most of us end up going down the victim road and feel sanctimoniously indignant at the opposite number's foibles. However, this road is really a cul-de-sac, simply because interpersonal conflicts have their origins within the respective psyches of the participants. In other words, the interpersonal domain is merely a stage on which intra-psychic conflicts are played out.

It is a fallacy to believe that confrontations worsen conflicts, as many of us do. Actually, confrontation is the only known manner in which a conflict can be resolved. And if confrontations do not seem to have produced the desired result, let us not ascribe blame to confrontation and abandon it as an invalid method; let us instead understand who or what we are supposed to confront to resolve conflict. As long as we think of confrontation as taking place between two people in an adversarial context, we will find an ‘ antagonist' to target. However, if we realise we need to confront our own unconscious mind with the object of understanding and dealing with whatever conflicts are housed in it, we will probably find that confrontation can cure rather than inflame. In other words, we need to use an interpersonal conflict to confront our own selves and not the opposing party, whether spouse, family member, friend, neighbour, colleague or stranger.

Confusing signals

In their earliest recognisable form, conflicts manifest as mixed signals. When accused of throwing mixed signals, one would be well advised to explore one's mind for clues on why this is happening, rather than throwing something at the accuser. First off, we need to own the conflict. By this I mean that the conflict needs to be recognised as a conflict and the responsibility for dealing with it should be completely accepted. We then need to understand the origins of the conflict, by establishing connections between the present behaviour and past experiences that may have resulted in the conflict having happened. The final resolution of the conflict involves making a considered choice. This is where most of us come croppers. For, given our cultural comfort with the concept of sacrifice, we make a lot of effort to not resolve the conflict, in order that we may earn ourselves the halo of martyrdom. Which is why we do nothing about unhappy jobs, abusive marriages, toxic relationships and the like, reassuring ourselves by believing that we don't have a choice. But the truth of the matter is that we are not ready to confront ourselves.

Lost opportunity

However, when we do this we lose an opportunity for personal growth. Every time we tell ourselves we have no choice, we stunt ourselves, for, learning how to use our conflicts to make choices is of critical importance in making our lives better. You don't have to stay in an abusive marriage or a toxic relationship or even in a job you hate. You do have a choice. Just confront the conflict to resolve it. Even Hobson gave his customers a choice: they could always have said ‘no'. And neither rocks nor hard places are going to earn us halos. Our conflicts are wonderful pointers to issues within our own psyches. Let us not fritter away the mixed signals we throw to others. Let us milk them for all they are worth.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com