Avoid Heartbreak: Respond to Conflict. Don’t react to it!

Broken heart

Dr. Viktor Frankel was a prisoner in a concentration camp yet never reacted to his jailers. He believed that: “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Rather than obsess about the dangers surrounding him, Frankel created an internal space in which he thought positively about each member of his family and how much he loved them. No conflict from the environment was permitted in his thinking. His body was jailed but he chose to have a free mind.

 How to Reduce Family Conflict

Sometimes during intense family conflict, your partner, child or parent can feel like a jailer who is imprisoning you in their negative thinking. You have two choices: React to them in programmed, habitual patterns that lead to your old dance of conflict, anger, rejection and avoidance. Or, like Frankel, you can take a moment to create more inner space. Scan the room, let your eyes rest on something, notice what happens in YOUR body as you do that. Keep the focus on your inner space.

Think of something that makes you happy: a sunset, a pet, a loved one. Notice what happens in your body as you do that. Your breath softens, your pulse slows down. You start to feel calmer. Look out the window at the trees, feel the solidity of the floor under your feet or the chair under your butt. Notice the difference in sensations as you respond to YOU rather than reacting to your partner, child or boss.

Balancing Work and Family Conflict

To create balance in your life, with its competing work and family pulls, it is essential to create inner space, more room for a creative idea or resolution. When they are dissatisfied with you, give your partner, child, colleague or boss all the space they need to say or feel what they choose. But you must take a breath and allow enough quiet inner space to sense what you are feeling and decide how you will or will not respond to them.

If you react to irritating or challenging conduct, you surrender your free will and retort from a prison of old habits and family conditioning. To balance your work and family life recognize that you are working against traditional beliefs and expectations that have been ingrained through genetic, cultural, educational and extended family programming.

If your son complains that you were the only parent who missed his game, an exaggeration designed to induce guilt. Allow him all the space he needs to express hurt, disappointment and anger at your absence. Permit him freedom to experience his feelings. In truth, a very serious emergency occurred at work and you had to miss the game. Do not defend yourself. It is not a habitual occurrence so allow him space for his upset and then ask how you can make up for it.

Repair of Disappointment Cultivates Resilience

I guarantee your son will develop more resilience as a result. As humans: mistakes, regrets, setbacks, distresses, discontents and some frustration are inevitable. You do not regularly frustrate your son. Now give him space to expand his capacity for dissatisfaction. Encourage him to develop skill in awareness of the inner sensations that lead to hurt or anger. Be assured it will not be his last frustration. To disappoint him habitually without apology and repairs demands attention. But occasional disappointment is part of life.

Humans become stronger at the broken places and resilience develops when you apologize and make repairs. Remember that a free person allows others the freedom to express their feelings and sensations as well. A jailer shuts them down when they respond. A free person chooses her behavior, develops new neural pathways in her brain and reduces predictable reactions that often trigger conflict, pain and rejection

 How to Save a Marriage

Joe’s father would get quieter and quieter whenever his mother made a demand. As a child, it annoyed Joe and he swore that he would be a different kind of husband. So when his young wife, Liz, asked why he was not helping more, Joe reacted by angrily lashing out and defending himself.

Liz’s father was an alcoholic who was loving and kind when sober but after several drinks, he became vicious and angry. Liz reacted to Joe by panicking and ran to her room, a pattern she used throughout her childhood.

During couple therapy, I taught Joe and Liz how to eliminate the programmed knee jerk reactions many of us acquire in our families of origin. Joe learned to create some space and took a slow calm breathe whenever Liz made a demand. Once he had the space to choose and respond rather than react, he listened to Liz and asked her what she needed from him. He loved Liz and wanted to be there for her.

Although it took longer, Liz learned to scan the room, feel her feet on the floor and conceive inner space for that scared little girl still inside her. Once she felt the safety of her internal space, and saw the love in Joe’s eyes, she felt free to tell him that she felt frightened when he raised his voice and she reacted as if Joe was her out of control father rather than her loving husband.

Viktor Frankel was a wise psychiatrist who modeled freedom. Learn from him. Take the space you need to respond to your partner, child or colleague rather than reacting to them. Transform heartbreak into creative new rejoinders that enrich your life and theirs. It will lead to more positive parenting, less family conflict, help save your marriage and facilitate work life balance.

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