I just finished reading Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. This book is smart, provocative, and relevant at this precarious moment in history; I highly recommend it. Schulman provides a nuanced analysis of human conflicts, large and small, using examples from intimate partner violence, the criminalization of HIV status in Canada and Israeli aggression toward Palestinians in Gaza. She contends that by overstating harm, creating victim/perpetrator dichotomies and shunning the person or group we have identified as the perpetrator, we deny the possibility of repair and ultimately enhance the power of the state.
This is not a self-help book. Schulman is more concerned with how interpersonal conflict patterns are reflected in larger systems of oppression and control. My intention in writing this blog is not to advance a depoliticized reading of the book. Rather, I want to share some information that resonates with me as a clinician with a special interest in both intimate partner violence and high conflict relationships. This book has made me think about, among other things, the importance of hard conversations. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones we don’t want to have because they are intense and emotional, make us feel vulnerable and often require us to be humble. But these conversations are important- both as a way of resolving conflict and repairing harm done. It is relatively easy to decide that someone is “bad” or “toxic” and to cut off a relationship. Schulman argues that this kind of “shunning” amounts to “insisting on a unilateral reality” and denies the possibility of meaningful resolution and healing. It is far more challenging to engage in a conversation about the problem- to identify harm done, explore why and how it happened, and try to make it right. This sort of discourse entails facing the other person and facing ourselves. Hence, the emotion. Hence, the vulnerability. These are not fun conversations.
I would like to provide a few suggestions for making these difficult conversations a little easier to approach. But first, one caveat: when one person is exerting coercive control over another with an implicit or explicit threat of harm, that is abuse. In these cases, safety must always be the priority.
1. Have the conversation in person, or at the very least by phone. No texting or emailing. Don't hide behind technology. This is Schulman’s suggestion and I could not agree more. In a conversation, people join with each other. With email and text, it is too easy to fire shots and retreat. Furthermore, there is little potential for emotional nuance with text or email (sorry but emojis just don’t cut it). In a conversation, we have the added dimensions of voice tone, facial expression and body language, all crucial elements in how we exchange and process information.
2. Avoid blame. Focus on what happened, the causes and conditions, and how to make it right. It might be helpful to establish an explicit frame for the conversation based on this principle- to keep all parties accountable.
3. Listen with an open mind, don't interrupt and don’t simultaneously plan your response. Everyone deserves the chance to be heard. Denying someone a chance to be heard amounts to shunning.
4. Express your feelings and assert your needs and opinions but also acknowledge if you have done wrong. Own up to your mistakes. Schulman refers to the “adjustment of self that is required for accountability.” This is where it can get humbling- but it is also the starting point for healing and transformation.
5. If you have a history of interpersonal trauma, you may be “triggered” by the intense emotions that come up in such conversations; your nervous system may respond as if there is real danger. If you are unsure about the potential for danger in a situation, check it out with someone else. If real danger is a possibility, then please prioritize your personal safety. If the situation is objectively safe but you feel emotionally vulnerable, become familiar with strategies to manage your emotional response (DBT skills are great tools for managing emotions).
As onerous as these conversations may seem, they are necessary. The resolution of conflict depends on the ability of the agents involved to negotiate, to have hard conversations. And ultimately we have a responsibility to encourage negotiation, not only on an interpersonal level but in our groups, organizations and communities as well.
If you have read Schulman’s book or just have observations to share about conflict and negotiation- or if you disagree with something I’ve written and want to engage me in a hard conversation, please reach out. I would love to hear from you.
Julia Levine, LCSW, specializes in recovery support, self-harm behaviors, high conflict relationships and parenting teens.