If simply understanding what it takes to resolve relationship conflicts, reading a book, listening to a CD, or watching a DVD would be sufficient to get the job done. As you may have noticed however, generally speaking, it’s not. “Just say ‘No’” or “Just do it”, or most of the other buzz-phrases of self-help advice that we hear on a daily basis don’t seem to be enough to get us to implement the suggestions offered by the speaker or author of the words. It’s not for lack of information and well-intended advice that doing the right thing, particularly in terms of relationships, is usually much easier said than done.
When it comes to dealing with conflict in relationships, for example, many of us are aware of the admonitions to speak from your feelings rather than your thoughts, judgments, and opinions, and to practice non-reactive listening without interrupting or “correcting” your partner, and to practice vulnerability rather than defensiveness when trying to settle differences. These practices are useful and if we can exercise them they will undoubtedly make a positive difference in the process. That, however, is a big “If”.
Yet, despite what many of us believe, the reason that “walking the talk” can be so difficult is not because we lack willpower, commitment, self-discipline, or sufficient motivation. Not that these factors don’t play at least some part in the process, but generally speaking, they are not the source of the problem. The real issue has to do with, in a word (or two, to be precise) what we refer to as “competing commitments”. Competing commitments (CC’s) are intentions that for a variety of possible reasons, we are less than fully conscious of, that are in conflict with conscious desires that we have been focused on trying to fulfill.
One of the questions that we most frequently hear from students in our seminars is: “I know what I need to do to improve my relationship, so why can’t I just do it?” It’s always the same answer. Competing commitments. The solution to what can be an incredibly frustrating situation is not to get rid of the CC, but to bring it into conscious awareness, so that we can recognize it, acknowledge it, identify the needs or desires that it seeks to satisfy, and bring it more fully into conscious awareness. In so doing, we can more capably fulfill it’s agenda without diminishing our ability to successfully meet the agenda of the commitment we are consciously trying to fulfill.
CC’s are the source of most conflicts that occur between partners in personal relationships. This is because we all have other concerns that can compete with our desire to achieve harmony in our relationship. Although it may seem when we are in the middle of a painful interaction with someone, particularly a loved one, that we want nothing more than release from the pain and frustration of a downward descent into the hell of verbal and emotional warfare, there may actually be other (usually unconscious) desires that we have that compete with this one and may distract us from it or even sabotage our efforts to get free. Examples include a commitment to:
- avoid the vulnerability that reconciliation often requires
- seek revenge or get back at one’s ‘adversary’
- be right about something a commitment to avoid humiliation
- be loyal to another person who may disapprove of this relationship
- demonstrate strength and not appear to be weak
- avoid the feeling of being controlled
- prevent others from taking advantage of me
- keep others from getting too close to me
- keep others from getting angry at me
- avoid punishment by lying or being overly accommodation
These examples represent a few of the commitments that compete with an intention to successfully resolve interpersonal conflict. Until the competing commitment(s) can be brought into conscious awareness and addressed, it will continue to impede our efforts to attain our goal of creating an outcome to our interaction that both of us find satisfying. And as many of us have discovered, unless both parties are satisfied with the outcome, the outcome will ultimately be unsatisfying to us both. Interactions that leave one person feeling good at the expense of the other feeling defeated or diminished have a way of coming back in the not-too-distant future in ways that indirectly but clearly express the disappointment and resentment of the partner who “lost” the argument.
“Winning” at the expense of another, is, in the domain of relationships, inevitably a Pyrrhic victory. Unless both partners feel satisfied with the outcome there will inevitably be consequences such as increased resentment, detachment, increased criticism, coldness, and avoidance that can cause long-term damage to the relationship.
Uncovering CC’s can help us to recognize whether our intended outcome is one that will ultimately lead to an increase in mutual satisfaction or to a decrease mutual fulfillment. Knowing that our partner’s well-being is a significant factor in the quality of our own life experience helps to clarify our priorities and and to act in accordance with them. We refer to this understanding as an example of “enlightened self-interest”. In engaging in a relationship from this perspective, we become less predisposed to assume an adversarial or stance when we are dealing with differences.
Another one of the reasons that CC’s inevitably show up whenever we focus our energies and attention on making changes in our relationship patterns, is that for every action that we take, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You don’t have to be a physics professor to know the truth of this principle. It seems to be in our human nature that we tend to resist change, no matter how well intended it may be, even change for the better. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Why do many of us believe that? Because we hold an underlying belief that things could always be worse and that as bad as they may currently be, there always is something to lose by taking the risk of making a change in my relationship or in my life.
When we fail to acknowledge our own natural resistance to change and our attachment to the status quo, it’s easy to become frustrated with ourselves, others, or circumstances that we believe to be in the way. Every new possibility contains the seeds of both desirable and undesirable consequences. When we can bring into awareness a recognition of the mixed feelings that we have regarding specific anticipated changes, it becomes possible to come to terms with this conflict and to eventually dissolve it. Since there can be no guarantee that a change in our way of dealing with others will always be a change for the better, it’s natural to have some ambivalence about, or resistance to change, even when one’s current situation is unpleasant.
While we don’t have to eliminate our competing commitments to avoid risk or prevent pain, unless we can acknowledge the specific fears or concerns that we have regarding our situation, we’re likely to become immobilized by the conflicting internal forces that are generally present within us whenever we are seeking any kind of a change. Once we have brought our CC into conscious awareness, we can begin to identify the underlying need or concern, and therefore address it. Investigating our ulterior motives that come into conflict with our conscious intent can illuminate hidden anxieties that we fear may cause us pain or loss if our intended outcome comes about.
One way to illuminate a concealed concern is to ask yourself if there could be a potential downside or negative consequence to the fulfillment of your consciously desired outcome. When we see ourselves doing the very things that we know don’t work, we may judge ourselves harshly as being stupid, lazy, or uncommitted. As many of us have discovered, the decision to “just do it” even when you know HOW to do something that you want to accomplish is not always enough to get the job done.
There are, of course, times when knowing the ‘how’ is enough, particularly in the realm of technical matters like changing a tire, mowing the grass, or programming the remote (well maybe not programming the remote). But when it comes to relationships and other matters that are less technical and oriented towards the more emotional or abstract aspects of life, all bets are off and instruction manuals usually are not enough to cut it.
Uncovering hidden commitments can be a daunting process in that it requires us to be willing to recognize aspects of ourselves that may be incongruent with our self-concept. Our conscious mind tends to feel more comfortable focusing upon and even at times distorting or exaggerating our more positive traits. Competing commitments sometimes reveal less attractive, but real aspects of ourselves that may expose tendencies that don’t reflect so positively upon us. We may, for example notice that we are sometimes willing to be dishonest in order to gain approval, or be intimidating with others who we assess as being inferior to or weaker than ourselves. We may find that we sometimes default to being manipulative when we don’t feel confident that we will receive what we want from someone.
The price that we have to be willing to pay in order to become more skillful in moving beyond conflict and into authentic connection is to risk the possibility of seeing ourselves more clearly, more accurately, more honestly, rather than through eyes that could be distorting our perception towards our ideal image of who we want to see ourselves as being. In a world in which many of us are satisfied to live with a certain degree of self-delusion, one might ask, “Why bother facing what could be some unpleasant truths about who I really am?”
Our answer to that question is because it is only by relating truthfully and openly with others that we can move beyond conflict, and experience the fulfillment and pleasure that comes with genuine and wholehearted connection. Uncovering hidden competing commitments cannot only promote deeper and more meaningful connections with others, but it can lead to the experience of a degree of self-trust, self-acceptance, and self-worth that is rare and valuable beyond words.
The price we need to pay in order to experience this transformation is the willingness to risk seeing ourselves as we are, warts, gifts, imperfections, beauty, and all. The desire to become free from the cycle of repetitive unresolved painful conflict can be the impetus that finally provokes us to begin the journey that not only leads to deep connection with others, but to the greatest gift of all, unconditional self-acceptance and self-love.
Enjoy the ride!