{4:30 minutes to read} “If both people are right, why does it feel so wrong?”

Conflict is hard; family conflict especially so. Sometimes clients ask, “How can you spend your life dealing with this kind of conflict all day, every day?”

I often answer that it’s much easier for me because the conflicts are not my own. It’s not about my life, it’s about the client’s life. At the same time, when I sit with clients, I know what it feels like to be the person in conflict.

When in conflict, we all feel we’re right.

“I am right because of the circumstances.”

“I am right because you hurt me.”

Even the smallest conflicts often come down to right vs. wrong. You can have a knockdown, drag-out fight with your partner over something like leaving the toothpaste cap off because you both feel right.

Her: “He should put the toothpaste cap on because if he doesn’t, it will dry out the toothpaste.”

Him: “I’m running late. I really need to get to work because the bills need to be paid.”

Both of them are right and both want the other person to understand their rightness. They are imbued with right and wrong.

She may feel her time and feelings are disregarded by his unwillingness to put the toothpaste cap back on the tube. He feels she doesn’t understand the priorities.

She feels that he is saying:

“I don’t value what you do for this family as much as I value what I do. I disregard your contributions. Your time is worthless, where my time is valuable.”

His perspective is that:

“She doesn’t value how important it is for me to bring money into the family. She doesn’t realize how hard it is to keep this job. She doesn’t realize that I have to suck it up and hold my tongue and be on time. Can’t she do this little thing for me? She doesn’t value my contribution.”

The conflict is not about the toothpaste cap. It’s about the message and everything it’s imbued with in the context of the whole relationship. Perhaps the implicit message each perceives from the other is accurate, and it’s likely it’s not exactly what was intended.

When I am the person in conflict – when I argue with my husband about the toothpaste cap – I can understand that I feel this way. I feel charged – just as charged as anyone else – yet at the same time, I can create an observer of myself and say, “If I were mediating this, this is how I might see this conflict.” I can’t always free myself of the emotional ‘right vs wrong’ conversation, but it creates an interesting place for me to observe what conflict is like for all of us. That observation of myself in conflict helps me understand the experience of my clients in conflict without judgment.

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