This article first appeared on Happify
Yesterday, a friend was sharing an argument she had with her husband the night before. It was over the groceries—something minor, like buying a brand of cereal the children won’t eat.
Earlier this week, a client complained about something similar. A disagreement with her partner escalated into casting blame and engaging in petty behavior. “I grabbed my pillow and slept out on the couch all night” she said. Since then, they were doing everything they could to avoid each other—something nearly impossible to do in the tiny New York apartment they share—because they were both determined to hold their ground.
And then, this morning, a fight blew up between me and a dear friend. It was over something our daughters were doing to help each other move out of their dorms. As our texts became increasingly harsh and we started veering off the issue at hand, I suddenly realized what was really going on.
It wasn’t about the moving at all. It was about the fear, stress, and tension we were experiencing. That my other friend and client were experiencing. That all of us are experiencing right now.
If we’re having tensions at home or with friends, we need to find a way to meet them with awareness and compassion. Because this is not the time to let little—or not so little—things get in the way of connection. Right now, it’s our only source of support. And we have less of it. With that, here’s a two-step process for avoiding these social distancing-induced fights.
Disagreements and squabbles are normal. But there’s a difference between a quarrel over a single, discreet issue and one that spins like a tornado, sweeping old arguments and annoyances into its wake. Those are the kinds of clashes that can quickly go too far, ending in harsh words that can’t be unsaid.
It’s important that you have a way of knowing when things are getting out of hand. Do you feel it in your body? Does the conversation get snarky, or do things get blown out of proportion? Do you veer away from the initial issue, or slam the door and walk out? Being aware of the general trend allows you to realize it’s time to stop and breathe. Ask for a moment of silence if you need one. When I noticed the texts with my friend were getting harsher and that we were talking in extremes (“You always…”, “She never…”), I put my phone down and walked away from my desk. I sat down on my bed, put both hands on my chest in a loving embrace, and breathed with nonjudgment until I felt calmer. This gave me perspective, because that’s what self-compassion does. I could recognize that our argument was not about the details of the move, but about the fear and helplessness we were each experiencing in our lives.
I called my friend. I apologized for my behavior and told her I was feeling scared and lonely. My partner and parents were halfway across the world, and I was managing all alone in a small space with four kids. Almost instantly, her tone softened. She shared her own challenges—her fear over whether her cold was indeed a cold or the virus. She didn’t want to needlessly go to the hospital, but she also felt that perhaps she should have it checked out because one of her children had a lowered immune system. We supported each other with love and advice, we cried a little, and we laughed a lot. We even found a simple solution to the logistical issue that had started it all.
So, think about what you really need when you’re fighting over the last toilet roll, the empty bottle of jam in the fridge, or why the garbage wasn’t taken out last night. What do you really need? Because once you ask for it, you can solve your issues together.
Believe it or not, creating conflict is actually a subconscious way of creating connection. When my client walked out of her bedroom that night, she hoped her partner would come and hug her, even though that’s not what she thought she wanted in the heat of the moment. My friend and I would each have spent the day longingly scrolling through our WhatsApp feeds, waiting for a message from the other, had we left off in a fight.
We don’t have to use unhealthy forms of connection. We can directly ask for the love or support we need. Because now, more than ever, we also have the time to listen.