Emotional Needs and Resolving Conflict

Theneurowire
8 min readSep 23, 2022

We’re all insecure and ignorant at times and we all act out on our insecurities and ignorance in ways that hurt other people. This is called “being an asshole.” Some of us are especially experienced at being assholes in our relationships. It’s perplexing when you think about it — being an asshole to the person you supposedly adore — but that’s what we do. And we all do it, even if some of us do it more than others. Conflicts are inevitable in any relationship, and so it’s not so much about figuring out how to avoid conflict altogether, but rather about how you deal with conflict in your relationship. When resolving a conflict in a relationship, there are four questions you must ask. 1. Is resolving the conflict even worth it? 2. What needs was the offender trying to meet? 3. Is the other person on board? 4. How can we fix this? While you’re reading through this, it may be useful to think of a couple ongoing personal conflicts you have or have had in your relationships. We’ll take the questions one at a time. 1. Is resolving the conflict even worth it? Good question. Petty arguments in your relationship are probably not worth the hassle. The way your girlfriend complains about work all the time or the way your boyfriend talks really loudly when he’s had a few drinks and it annoys you. At worst, these situations call for simply confronting someone and asking them to stop. But your ability to handle even simple conflicts will be determined by how secure you are as well as how sturdy your boundaries are (more on that soon). If you’re insecure, then every other fart in the wind will become a crisis. And if your boundaries suck, then you’ll be blaming yourself for everything and scared to death of confrontation. Relationships There’s a lot to be said about being able to let things go and knowing when to pick your battles. As the problems get more serious, choosing whether to engage in conflict resolution or not is a more legitimate question, especially if the issue at hand seriously compromises your values in an inalterable way. In some cases, someone does something so horrible that you will never be able to resolve it. For instance, your spouse slept with your best friend or you find out about something your partner has been keeping from you for a long time that they should have told you. No matter how much work you put into fixing the relationship, it’s unlikely to ever be enough. Broken trust issues are similar. With trust issues, I always use the analogy of a china plate. A relationship is like a piece of fine china. Breaking that trust means breaking the plate. With a lot of care and effort, the plate can be restored, but if it gets broken again, it becomes that much harder to put back together. Eventually, if the plate is broken enough times, it can never be made whole again. It’s lost forever. In a situation where someone has broken your trust, you must ask yourself if you can see it ever being possible to trust that person again. If not, then you’re better off simply moving on. As a bit of a side note, there are familial relationships where it’s basically impossible to not engage in conflict resolution with them. You only get one family, and even if you wish you could ditch them sometimes, you can’t. One way or another, you always end up back with them, problems front and center. So you may as well make the best of it and try to resolve some of your issues together. 2. What need was the offender trying to meet? So you’ve decided you do, in fact, want to resolve a conflict in your relationship. Congratulations, this is the first step to becoming less of an asshole. The key to resolving conflicts in your relationship — or any personal conflict for that matter — is compassion. And by compassion I mean seeing past the individual offensive behaviors and looking at the emotional needs that are motivating those behaviors. The wife who tries to make you jealous is doing it because she’s not feeling loved or validated enough. The overbearing and controlling boyfriend is afraid of being left and is trying to meet his need for security. The girlfriend who calls you an insensitive prick is frustrated that her need for connection is being ignored. Seeing another person’s needs behind their annoying behavior is not easy. It takes practice. This is especially true in our relationships when the object of our affection disappoints us with their behavior. Our relationships are steeped in complex emotions (not to mention our own emotional baggage), and so we’re terrible at seeing the situation objectively. But the best method I’ve ever come across to develop compassion for another person’s needs is an exercise I actually learned at an Integral workshop put on by the people who work for Ken Wilber. In the workshop, they referred to it as the “1–2–3 Shadow Exercise”, which is a fancy reference to Jungian Psychology. You can call it whatever you want. I call it practical. 1. Write a letter to the person being 100% honest while describing how you feel. Write down everything you would like to tell this person if you could. Don’t hold anything back. Let all the anger, hatred, and pain come out. Ex.: Dear John, I’ve never told you this, but you change when we’re around other people. You go from being a kind and compassionate man to being a dick and looking down on me. Remember that time you made fun of me in front of Kim just to make yourself look good? It’s so fucking weak. You’re obviously insecure around people… You don’t have to spend more than five or ten minutes on it. The important part is that you get all of your primary complaints out and make sure you put your genuine feelings into it. 2. Write a response letter to yourself from their perspective about the issue. This is where things get a little tricky. Now, take out a new piece of paper (or open up a clean document) and write another letter. This time it’s from them and to you. In this letter, try to take their perspective in defending themselves against your complaints. Make their defense as reasonable and plausible as possible. Ex.: Dear Rachel, I’m sorry you feel like I’m arrogant in social situations. You’re right that I probably feel insecure at times, but I feel a need to cut you down because you dominate every social interaction we’re in. You know I’m a quiet guy. So why don’t you ever ask me for my input or encourage me to be a part of the conversation more? … Try to empathize with them as much as possible as you write. If you find yourself continuing to blame them or make them look like an asshole in the second letter, then you’re doing it wrong. Start over and honestly try to inhabit their perspective. What you may find when doing the second letter is that you actually uncover legitimate criticisms of yourself that you were not aware of before. If this happens, then you’re definitely on the right track because not only are you beginning to see their perspective and emotional needs, you’re also beginning to get a more objective perspective on your own behavior that you didn’t have before. 3. Write a third letter, this time from an objective third-person perspective. The final letter is from an anonymous outside observer. Now that you’ve written an angry letter from your perspective and a defensive letter from the other person’s perspective, it’s time to inhabit an objective third-person perspective and put the whole conflict in proper context. Ex.: Dear Rachel and John, it seems that the two of you are both insecure in larger social situations. You’re both choosing to deal with your discomfort in different ways that are not helping the other person… The whole exercise takes maybe 30 minutes and the results are incredible. Not only do you feel less attached to the hurt and pain afterwards, but you’ve also forced yourself to empathize with the other person’s needs and taken a more objective perspective on the conflict yourself. 3. Is the other person on board? At some point, you have to confront your partner about the issue. Sometimes the issue will force itself, but usually one of you needs to speak up about what’s going on. This isn’t easy, or fun. In fact, it’s downright uncomfortable. People who are codependent have particular difficulties with personal confrontation and will go to great lengths to avoid it or pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But you must open up a dialogue about the issue. Even if you’re afraid that the conflict might lead to your relationship’s demise, it’s the only way forward. You have to address the problems that are causing your pain if you want to have any chance at a solid relationship, not just a mediocre one where you sweep everything under the rug. Another cold, hard truth: just as you can’t force somebody to change, you can’t force somebody to resolve a conflict no matter what kind of relationship you have. And any attempts to coerce or Healthy Relationships bribe your partner into it will only piss them off and push them away more. The reason is that coercion negates the person’s autonomy and personal choice. Conflict resolution is worthless unless it’s based on the free will of both parties. So even if you do decide that a relationship matters enough for you to change it, and even if you’ve gone through the work to widen your perspective and understand the other person’s needs, you still can’t force the other person to do the same. They have to reach the same point on their own accord, or not at all. If the other person is not on board, there’s nothing you can do other than to wait silently, or move on. 4. How can we fix this? Once you and your partner are openly communicating about the problem, it’s time to find a resolution. The key here is to focus less on specific behavior and instead focus on needs. For instance, if your boyfriend is always criticizing you, don’t blame him or tell him to stop being critical. Tell him that it’s important for you to feel that he supports you and approves of you and when he criticizes you, especially in front of other people, you don’t feel that way. He’s likely to tell you that, in his mind, his criticisms are his way of supporting you. From there, you two can agree to find a new behavior that you’re both comfortable with. For some of you, I’m sure the thought of speaking about this stuff to the people you love strikes you as weird or uncomfortable. You may think your partner will get really uncomfortable and brush you off. I thought the same thing. And sometimes, you will be brushed off. But it’s been surprising how universal this method is. Speaking to people’s emotional needs is not only universal, but I’ve found that people jump on the opportunity when presented because it’s presented to them so seldom. But the best part is that the process itself validates the important feelings underlying the problems — your boyfriend is critical of you because he cares, your girlfriend is arrogant only because she feels insecure around you, and you get angry because you’re afraid she won’t like you anymore.On and on. This is vulnerability in action. And it’s the glue that binds our relationships together and holds us clos

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