Conflict is messy. Not many of us are skilled at it. Sometimes, it is tempting to try bypass it altogether to “keep the peace.” I’m not talking about choosing a battle because a particular issue is not a big deal. I’m talking about when someone crosses a line and you feel violated but decide to swallow these feelings to “keep the peace.” The problem with this strategy is that there is no peace; instead the conflict is now stuck inside you while the person who crossed the line has no idea of its existence. For a one-time interaction, there might not be any repercussions, but if this dynamic occurs in an ongoing relationship, something will blow up further down the line.
This issue is ripe for me because I want to teach my children how to speak up for themselves, and the best way to do so is to lead by example. What makes this tricky is that I prefer to swallow my feelings rather than engage in conflicts with people if I suspect that I will be met with anger. This is especially true if I suspect that the person I am setting a boundary with is emotionally unstable. In other words, if someone crosses a line with me and I think that they are going to flip out if I tell them so, I am tempted to swallow my feelings and hope that it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, the “ignore it and maybe it will go away” approach is ineffective. When violating a boundary, a boundary-challenged person interprets silence as permission. Over time, that permission becomes license. Speaking up about it gets far more complicated the longer you wait. It gets even messier than if you’d spoken up in the first place, but it has to be done if you want to break out of the dynamic.
I have had some recent experience with this very topic, in which I became engaged in a messy conflict with our neighbor over the boundary between our properties. (I could not come up with a better metaphor for boundary issues if I tried). Because we had a complicated boundary issue in the past in which this person was using our property over well past the line (and making the assumption that it was hers), we now have stakes that clearly delineate the property line, so that there is no confusion about where it resides. I noticed that she’d planted something on our side of the line. Not far on it, but enough to be an issue, especially considering the history. I dreaded bringing this up with her. I noticed myself trying to make concessions to her so that she wouldn’t get mad. I noticed myself feeling as if I had to apologize for bringing it up. I decided to be direct, and was met with exactly the rage I’d feared. She yelled, cussed and hurled accusations before storming off and yelling “Fuck you, I’m done with you!!!!!” Even so, the boundary is now known and back to where it belongs.
Surprisingly, I feel more peaceful now that I didn’t swallow my feelings to “keep the peace.” The rage that I’d been so afraid of came out from under the surface. If I had swallowed the conflict, all of my anger and fear of her rage would have churned inside of me as long as I allowed the boundary to be violated. Instead, things feel clear and clean, regardless of the messy route I took. I feel peace knowing what the conflict looks like rather than fear of what it might be, should I speak up. Given the choice between being hated or occupying space, I choose to occupy. It turns out that the person most affected by hatred is the person doing the hating.