Snakes & Conflict

I recently wrote this piece on my live-journal, but after the issue of conflict in relationships came up in my last article for BCN I decided that it might be helpful to share with you all here.

There’s a section in my favourite book, ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’, which I haven’t really understood up until now. The other day I was re-reading it and it suddenly made sense, as usual because I managed to apply it to my own life. Stephen Batchelor says (p. 68) ‘I misconstrue things: like entering the pottery shed in the yard to discover a snake in one corner. My heart accelerates and I am frozen with fear. Only when my eyes get used to the light do I realise it is a coil of hose.’ The revelation on my walk a few days ago was this: ‘it’s always a coil of hose’. In this article I want to get from that point to the resolution of conflicts. Too many people I care about have been conflicting recently and several relationships seemed in serious jeopardy. From the outside I can see that nobody is acting cruelly or crazily, but for those involved everyone seems polarised into people who have done right or wrong, and most people feel badly treated and are doing whatever they can to escape the pain of the situation, often to the extent of distancing from the people they care about. It’s only my position as a – relative – outsider to events that enables me to see this. My advice here is not from somebody who thinks they could do any better. In fact I am drawing on very recent experiences of my own where I behaved in a similar way and also risked one of my most important relationships because of it.

So what’s all this about snakes? Batchelor returns to the analogy later in the chapter saying (p.72-73) ‘when I see the snake in the shed, everything I have ever known or feared about snakes configures my sense of the world at that moment. And as I stand there frozen in terror, possible actions flash before me: do I rush for the door? Tiptoe out slowly? Scare it away? Kill it?’ Instead, Batchelor suggests that if we are fully aware we will see the situation more clearly and give ourselves more options. We can then ‘respond with care and intelligence to the snake’s presence. Or realise it is just a coil of hose.’

The snake is an example of the way we perceive the world so that it makes sense. People are always searching for patterns or meanings in things. In terms of visual perception we make sense of the shapes and colours that fall on our retinas on the basis of previous experience: that collection of lines is a chair; that blob of white on blue is a cloud. In terms of social perception we also try to make sense of other people’s behaviour using the theories we have developed over the years, based on our past experiences. And in both cases we are quick to fix our perception. For the snake phobic that long coil must be a dangerous viper, there is no other explanation. For the person who has been hurt in relationships before their lover’s silence must be coldness and mean they don’t really care about them any more.

I think we bring to every situation we find ourselves in the weight of our past experiences and the expectations and assumptions these have left us with: habitual ways of seeing the world and the people in it. As Batchelor says, these habits are like the path of least resistance: the rainwater on the roof finding the gutter as the quickest way from roof to ground. Somebody behaves in a certain way and we leap to the easiest conclusion rather than seeing the multiple different reasons they might have had for acting in the way they did. We look at the world through the lens of past experiences. And particularly when emotions are running high or there is potential for our self-identity to be threatened, we jump to quick conclusions and fail to see the complexity of the situation.

My recent example of this that finally helped me to understand the snake example was when T last came to stay. We hadn’t seen each other for two months and only had three days together with a lot to pack in: not a helpful circumstance for a disagreement. We got into a conflict that spiralled out of control quickly. Initially it was a small thing where we both felt the other one wasn’t taking quite enough account of our needs. I wasn’t giving T enough reassurance about his importance in my life given the amount of time we’d been apart. T wasn’t looking after me enough given what a major transition I was going through with moves and job changes and such. A small exchange happened where we both felt we’d been badly treated. We talked about it briefly and thought it was resolved. Then we took the tube across town. Neither of us was saying much. In his silence I heard anger. He was pissed off with me and that was so unfair of him when it was him who’d been out of order. He was hardly even looking at me. How could he be so cruel when he knew how shaky I was? If only he’d just talk to me. In my silence he heard anger too. He was right to think he wasn’t important to me any more. I wasn’t even talking to him. I was probably wishing he’d just go away. If only I’d just reach out to him.

The conflict escalated during the evening and the following morning we were both still raw and sore and exhausted. I got up out of bed and sat across the room. T woke up and looked at me but stayed in bed. The pain inside me bubbled up again. He wasn’t even going to come over and comfort me. This was just like that awful night with my ex. How could a person who loved me see me hurting so badly and not come and comfort me? I must have blown it. He clearly didn’t care for me any more and how could I have someone like that in my life? T watched me across the room. Obviously I was so angry with him that I couldn’t even stand to be next to him. I’d had to get out of bed to get away from him. There was no way he was important enough to me for me to try to sort this out. I was going to leave him just like everyone else had.

We were both bringing our past experiences, and the expectations and insecurities that came from these, to the present situation. I realised afterwards that, following my break-up with my ex, part of me is just waiting for lovers to change overnight and grow distant and cold. I’m expecting that to happen and, in some perverse way, part of me would find it almost gratifying because it fits a new tragic theory I have about relationships. Similarly, a part of T has been left by people who were meant to love him too many times, and is just waiting for his relationship with me to fit that pattern. Most of the time when T and I are being calm and rational those paranoid parts of us are hardly there at all and we feel secure and strong in our relationship. But when we’re feeling particularly emotional or tired, or when a conflict arises that triggers those buttons and awakens those demons, we are likely to fix the situation immediately as an emergency where we stand to lose everything. In the face of such threat we desperately cast around for a solution: freeze, run away, fight this person we love who we are suddenly able to see as a monster, destroy this horrible twisted pain at all costs. There’s a snake in the pottery shed!

We all make sense of our experiences in these ways, telling stories of our versions of events, working them up alone and with friends without realising that the other person is doing the exact some thing. And often the story is about fixing that consoling message that we are in the right and the other person is in the wrong. We’re the good guy and they are the bad guy. Think about it. If I had told you about that weekend with T and just given you my version of his angry silence after our argument and his not coming to comfort me the following morning would you have been on my side? If I’d added all the other evidence that he behaved cruelly or thoughtlessly would you have helped me to construct my story about how he wasn’t good enough for me? Would you have encouraged me to end the relationship rather than suggesting that that time he didn’t call might have been about him worrying that I was busy and wouldn’t want to hear from him, or that time I got so upset about what he said might have been because it reminded me of something my ex once said even though T didn’t mean it that way. I think that a lot of the stories around us (movies, books, news items, etc.) are told in simple either/or ways, so it is easy for us to assume that somebody is in the right and somebody is in the wrong in a conflict. And when we feel so shaky and under threat, all we want is to avoid that horrendous pain we’ve felt before happening again, particularly if we have a history of bad break-ups, being bullied or abused.

So what is the way forward? I believe that we can ‘de-escalate’ conflicts, taking the heat gradually out of them in the opposite way to the way in which we gradually add in heat and escalate the argument when we are fighting. I think that when we feel that tension and heat rising up inside us in a row it’s good to stop right there and take time away from each other to get ourselves in a better place to communicate: one in which we are ready to listen to where the other person is coming from. Instead of believing that we are right and they are wrong and coming to them expecting them to apologise for all their bad deeds, we need to approach them with a preparedness to hear their version of events. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and to see how they understood what happened and why it made sense for them to see it that way. We need to sit down and really be prepared to put our version to one side and hear them. And we need to take responsibility and, once we see where they are coming from, apologise for not understanding it earlier and for the pain we’ve unintentionally caused. As soon as one of us backs down in this way it makes it a great deal easier for the other person to do so.

But I’m also beginning to think that part of it is about faith. We need to have a little more faith in people. This person who we love and know to be caring, warm and kind is not likely to have suddenly become a cold, angry, callous person (and yes this even applies to my ex, I see now that it wasn’t as simple as that). Rather they are, like us, a person in a frightening and confusing situation trying desperately to retain an image of themselves as a good guy and to make sense of how things have got so tangled and twisted. And, just like us, this might well mean that they are shifting the blame away from themselves. All those old unethical psychological experiments tell us that all people are capable of doing cruel things given the right – or rather wrong – situation. We are not exempt from this, and neither are the people around us. And when things in these life experiments we’re running get highly charged and confusing, as they often do, we are all likely to fix ‘us’ and those around us as the good guys who have acted in a right and fair way and ‘them’ and their people as the bad guys who’ve been nothing but cruel, manipulative and thoughtless, managing things badly. I could easily write here about recent conflicts in my friendship group where this has been the case. I can honestly say, as an outsider, that I can’t see one person who has acted in a way that is objectively crazy or cruel. Everyone has acted just exactly like a person in a tough situation who perceives themselves to be under threat and is desperately trying to make sense of the situation and take the pain away. Unfortunately that means that people have been blind to the reasons behind the other person’s behaviour and haven’t tried to listen. They’ve even suddenly ended relationships and friendships rather than attempting to sit down and talk about it first. There are no snakes here people. There are only coils of hose.

In the next few issues I’ll be continuing these questions of relationships, considering some more of myths about love that we might want to challenge and the skills necessary for managing relationships. Feel free to email me with any suggestions, questions or thoughts you have on these topics.