Corinne Rechais is the Director of a mediation service (CALM Mediation) in London, UK. At the Civil Mediation Conference in London recently she mentioned that many/the majority of their community mediations were between people who had once been friends. That simple statement really stood out to me. What is it about friendship that may make us particularly vulnerable to conflict?
To find an answer it is perhaps necessary to take a step back and look at the nature of friendship. What happens when we become closer to someone? What differentiates a friend from an acquaintance? A few things are likely to happen as we develop a friendship with another person in our life. We will share a little more of ourselves. This may be content of our lives, for example what we do, where we live, what we like, what we don’t like. As our friendship deepens we may share more: experiences in our lives that have shaped us, our hopes for the future, our fears. We unfold in-front of each other, a phased exposure. We begin to trust the other. In addition, the two-way nature of this process creates a web of inter-connections that underpin emerging relational dynamics.
As we reveal ourselves and enter into each other’s lives, it is likely we will feel more vulnerable. In being more vulnerable with another the potential for experiencing deeper love may potentially increase, as also may the potential for greater hurt. In this potential for greater hurt, also lies the potential for conflict. We have revealed feelings and aspects of ourselves that matter to us at a deeper level. We are likely to be more protective of such feelings and more sensitive to apparent attacks or transgressions. The trigger for a conflict situation becomes lighter.
As we develop a friendship we develop patterns of relating. The nature, breadth, flexibility of these patterns can all contribute to, or mitigate against, the potential for conflict. If the patterns of relating we have are relatively fixed and narrow, when we encounter situations that are new or unfamiliar the potential for disturbance in the relationship is magnified. A response may be required, an approach within the relationship may be needed, that is beyond our relational vocabulary. Like learning a language, if you are not aware of the phrase how do you express the point?
In a friendship we may also develop patterns of relating that replicate those from previous relationships, or as Lynne Jacobs (2017) describes them, “Enduring Relational Themes”. These patterns or themes may be from healthy, wholesome and well-functioning relationships we have had growing-up. Equally they may come from more challenging relationships. We might even seek out friendships or relationships that replicate those we are familiar with from other times in our lives. Either way we may begin to see our friend in the light of that previous relationship. This is possibly reassuring and enjoyable if the relationship we are repeating was a healthy one. And we can also repeat damaging relationships. In the latter case we may revert to behaviour that we are familiar with from the previously unhealthy relationship and be more likely to drift into conflict.
An interesting paradox can occur, related to how we behave in friendship. As we become more open with each other, as we share more on one level, we also potentially share less on another. As we say what we like about the other, how much we admire, respect, love the other, we may well be less able to say what we don’t like, what we don’t respect, admire, love. It may somehow become strangely harder to hold boundaries that we wouldn’t think twice about holding with acquaintances or strangers. It can be difficult to move from boundaries that may be more habitually permeable to those that may be firmer, and then back again. If there are aspects of our relationship with our friend that we are unhappy about we may neglect to address them, or as an ex-manager of mine named it, “kicking it into the long grass Nick?”
Now, low grade niggles in a friendship may dissolve. We sometimes need to find a way to address or cope with our own pedantic needs without always layering it onto our unsuspecting friend. However, with more ongoing overt issues, for example your next-door neighbour, who is also your friend, playing techno music deep loud and late into the night on a daily basis, the avoidance of naming the issue, or firming your boundary, will very likely lead to conflict. Unless you are trained and honed to a deep level of karmic peace, your frustrations will “leak”. Your heightened emotions will come out in other ways with your neighbour and friend that are likely to precipitate and increase any conflict rather can create the conditions for settlement.
Writing this article I have highlighted aspects of friendship that may increase the potential for conflict. The aim of this is to raise awareness of behaviours, patterns, and pinch points that may be the spark for distressing dispute and hopefully reduce the potential of them tripping you up in your day-to-day life. Conflict with family, friends, and lovers can be the most painful of all.
Yet I wish to finish by saying that the great risk we take in life in opening up to another, is also the potentially the great liberator. It is only perhaps through taking the risk that we may dissolve the patterns that hold us in our place of tepid safety. Therefore, from a personal perspective if we are to embrace the potential for love and liberation, we also have to embrace the potential for exacerbated difference and conflict.
My balm for this challenge is dialogue. Dialogue both formal and informal, that uses the structures we have woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives and that also breaks new ground. I consider that the more practiced we become in having conversations, verbal and non-verbal, then the more proficient we will be in preventing, transforming, managing conflict. Recently on a Saturday morning in Soho, central London, I attended an “encounter group”, a gathering of 17 people, none of whom I’d met before, in an upstairs room on the edge of Chinatown. There were many things this experience brought me, one being the opportunity to practice being in relationship with others in a space somewhat less invested than a close friendship. I felt the opportunity to experiment, take risks, and broaden my capacity for relationship. Thanks to Jules and Rachel for creating the opportunity.
My wider call is for ever increasing and diverse approaches to dialogue; an evolution and revolution in how we hold conversations, worldwide; that this change may begin to address the nature of destructive conflict.
Jacobs, L. (2017) Hopes, fears, and enduring relational themes. British Gestalt Journal, 26(1), 7-16
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