Real Life Doesn't Care About Your Degree: Romantic Conflict in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
That's my brand, yes? It's all over my website, my resume, my course programs...
It's what I want to be known for in my field; and, more importantly, it's what I want people to see in my own life and actions.
I definitely pride myself on my ability to navigate the nuances of interpersonal communication and conflict resolution. In fact, it is because of this confidence that I agreed to work with my husband on a series of videos highlighting tips and lessons on "couples communication" during quarantine. We both work for a not-for-profit organization here in Denver called IMPACT Personal Safety of Colorado; Anderson (my husband/partner) started teaching for them almost seven years ago and I started teaching for them about two years ago after I took all of their self-defense and empowerment courses as a student. Their mission? "Restoring empowerment and choice by equipping participants with the emotional, verbal, and physical skills to move freely in the world." I mean... who doesn't want that!? Since we couldn't teach any courses in person while abiding by the stay-at-home order, we worked with the leadership board on planning a few different video series for people to engage with from the comfort of their homes.
Between his years of experience as an instructor with the organization and my Ph.D. in Communication (not to mention the fact that we were actually a couple quarantined at home together) it seemed like a natural fit for the two of us to take on this role.
But guess what? You can know everything there is to know about healthy communication and productive boundaries and you can have read all of the theory and taken all of the classes and it still won't make your relationships perfect. Real life doesn't care about your qualifications or degrees, or how many classes you've taught on communication wellness, or how often you practice the "magic formula." When a relationship is real, so is the communication. And real communication is messy work.
When we first agreed to this video series, my ego took over in many of my reactions and responses to how "other" couples would handle quarantine. Anderson and I were, for all intents and purposes, advanced communicators! This time at home would be a breeze for us and, naturally, so would the execution of these video classes.
Continue reading if you want to hear how absolutely and totally wrong I was about this fantasy relationship I thought would shine through in our video series.
We've created three videos and two trailers at this point.
Where are we in the quarantine timeline? Day 586? 587? I don't know anymore.
So here's what actually happened. During that time, the two of us have had more disagreements than I can count on my hands and feet. We've gotten frustrated so often with each other to the point of literal fuming. We're tired a lot because we are both still working full-time and when we hit our thresholds of exhaustion, we take out that depleted-energy-anger on one another; often delaying conversations and work that need to be done. Isn't it interesting how easy it is for humans to save their harshest lashing for the dearest loves? It's a necessary dynamic of interpersonal relationships: the closer you develop an interpersonal bond with another individual, the more frequent the emotional contagion. It's not necessarily an alarming fact, just an enlightening reality. If you want the deep, loving connections that your therapists and teachers and gurus tell you about, then the work isn't in eliminating the "not-so-glamorous" realities of having a partner... the true work is in the embrace of those realities.
Because that's the not-so-secret of communication wellness, folks. Conflict. Conflict isn't stopping you from the work. It is the work. Conflict is the most normal and natural part of relational communication. It's where you can learn the most about your partner and the most about yourself.
Hear me. I am in no way condoning any kind of aggressive or volatile conflict behaviors, nor am I giving you permission to accept these behaviors in yourself or in your partner. Conflict
doesn't have to do damage. Notice I didn't say "conflict doesn't have to be hurtful"; because any challenge to our perception or self-concepts can hurt our egos and that's a perfectly acceptable emotion to process in the face of disagreement. But you should check your language and motivation. When conflict—especially romantic conflict—doesn't operate out of a sense of validation for both yourself and your partner, that's the moment it becomes damaging. If you are, at any point, trying to win... then you've already lost.
Anderson and I have done as much as we could to try to incorporate the reality of relationship into these videos (at the sake of my pride, yes). And we both want you to know something—if you listen to anything we say—listen to this: trying to get rid of conflict in your relationship is not the end goal. The real endeavor is knowing how to accept and embrace what conflict can teach us. If you ever meet a couple that says they "never fight"... run away quickly because they are clearly trying to sell you something that will drain your wallet and heart. Because every one of those disagreements, frustrations, and hurtful messages we experienced in quarantine were a compliment to the late-night pillow talks, the spontaneous dances in the living room, the Netflix binges while holding hands and sharing snacks, the soft touch of a hand on the middle of your back that says "I'm sorry." Did you pick up that word? Compliment, not cancellation. It's about holding that tension compassionately and realistically.
So keep reading your books, keep taking your classes, and keep practicing your "magic formula." But the next time you come face to face with anger and feel as if you've failed for the one hundred thousandth time in your relationship, I want you to take a minute to breathe and drink in so much compassion for yourself and your relationship that it makes you uncomfortable. And then just before you burst with the awkwardness of your self-love, take one more sip.
Then repeat in 30 minutes when your partner does that thing that annoys you again.