Conflict is not abuse. Even toxic behaviors are not necessarily abuse.
I will use one of my own toxic behaviors as an example. Pettiness. Getting very angry with someone over very small things.
Once I was riding in the car with a woman I greatly admire. She is one of my heroes, actually. It was early morning and she took out her breakfast.
“A SNICKERS Bar?!?”, I blurted out, in shock and amazement. I was angry, and disappointed.
Her posture changed. It looked like the wind had just gotten knocked out of her. Like anyone who gets attacked, she defended herself. “Yeah, of course.” As we kept driving, she kept going back to the incident in different ways. She would mention how in Seattle, it seems like a really nice city, where people eat healthy a lot. She talked frequently about her eating habits.
OK, that’s enough. The point is that the comment really hurt, and I can tell. My pettiness poisoned our interaction. The poison wasn’t fatal, but it was poison.
Now if you are thinking to yourself, “but eating healthy is good”, you are really missing the point. There is a positive way to bring that up, and a toxic way. How do I know the comment was toxic? Simple. Her body language was that of someone who just absorbed a body blow.
My pettiness was toxic, but certainly not abusive. If you want to know why it was not abusive, ask yourself two questions. Who in the story is receiving blame? Is anyone getting blamed?
Conflict is also not abuse.
Conflict is any situation where one person wants one thing and another person wants something contradictory. If one person is a yes and the other is a no, that is a conflict.
And it does not matter whether anyone actually says yes or no out loud. The conflict exists anyway. In fact, the most toxic conflicts are often those where no one actually says what the conflict is about.
All human beings (including me, by the way) act differently under conditions of conflict. As a result, until you’ve been in a conflict with someone, you really don’t know how they act in conflicts.
In any stressful situation, people often regress to their least admirable or most basic behavior. Conflicts definitely fit that bill. People often revert to fight, flight, freeze or fawn behavior. So conflict can easily look like abuse because it can involve yelling, shutting down, or just trying to escape the situation.
Let’s go back to the Snickers bar. That’s a conflict. She wants to eat a Snickers bar. I don’t want her to eat a Snickers bar. Now, if that is as far as things go, then I am the one with the problem, and maybe I should go see a therapist to deal with my control issues. But maybe we can use this conflict to make genuine progress.
At least in this case, I genuinely want her to be healthy. I genuinely feel protective of her. The conflict is a sign, a signal, a message. It’s a sign that I need to tap into those feelings of protectiveness.
And from that perspective, it should be clear that getting angry with her does not protect her. It merely makes her defensive. She is not focusing on being healthy. In fact, and this is crucial, she is not even focusing on the conflict itself! She is, instead, just focusing on my anger.
For now, if you have never used this method of analysis before, I hope to persuade you simply to think about that reality. What happens when two people are no longer even looking at the conflict? What happens when one person’s anger becomes the focus?
When you see a conflict, are people focusing on shared goals? Are people focusing on the actual conflict? Are they focusing only on someone’s anger? Or are they just blaming people?
If they are just blaming people, at least one person is abusive. If they are focusing on someone’s emotions, or on what someone said in the past, the conflict is “merely” toxic. If they are focusing on the conflict itself, then the situation is functional. If they are focusing on shared goals, then the relationship is healthy.
In other words, healthy relationships have conflict. This means that, even in a healthy relationship, there can be yelling, shutting down and fleeing.
Conflict is not abuse. And that’s good, since conflict is inevitable.