Letting go of drama: How to move on from past conflicts
How do we learn to let go of conflict in relationships? During those times when the drama of disagreement takes over, we can find ourselves caught in a spiral of negative thoughts that feels impossible to break out of. This article suggests ways to stop ruminating and take back control after painful conflict.
Please note: the points made in this article, of course, do not apply in any way to situations involving domestic violence or abuse.
Close relationships don’t always work out
Most of us have experienced a relationship where things have become extremely difficult. We may have been through a divorce or had a falling out with a close friend, sibling, or co-worker. We might have felt let down by a parent. This kind of breakdown could be with a person no longer present in our lives, or someone who we see on a daily basis.
We all develop stories about the significant events in our lives. We especially tend to do this after any kind of serious disagreement or upset with the people who are important to us. Much of the time, this is necessary processing of a difficult situation; we decompress, discuss and explain to others, and to ourselves, what has happened and how we have been affected by it. But there can also be times where we find ourselves fixating on past conflicts obsessively, so much so that it becomes a problem.
Finding where it hurts
Sometimes a painful situation is so “sticky”, so all-encompassing, that even long afterwards we find ourselves drawn into the same emotions as if the situation were happening right now. It can be extremely difficult to get our heads out of the drama. We might habitually organise many of our thoughts and feelings into those that act as evidence against the person who we feel has mistreated us. The battle over who was right and who was wrong feels more important than anything else.
We may replay old conversations, thinking about all the things we wish we’d said. We might find ourselves angrily fixating on how the other person was at fault, dwelling on instances we feel were particularly unfair or egregious. We could end up stalking someone’s social media, sometimes feeling angry if their life looks like it’s going well. Often, these are the darkest and most obsessive instances of rumination, the times where we feel most “taken over” by our memories. Afterwards, we don’t usually feel at peace and can actually feel even more entrenched in the negative emotions.
When we’re in the moment, insight alone will never be enough. However, just being able to gently recognise that underneath all of the rumination, much of the time what we are feeling is sadness or loss, can help us come back to ourselves.
Taking back control
At times we might hope, even many years later, that if the person would just apologise for how they’d treated us, we could finally move on. The desire to have a person who has hurt us admit the “truth” of what has caused us pain, is completely understandable. However, as that person may never agree with our version of events, or see things from our point of view, this can be very disempowering. Allowing our wellbeing to depend on someone else’s behaviour and choices gives another person control over our lives and emotions.
It is crucial to make clear that none of this means that a person didn’t mistreat us, that we were not wronged. All of those things may be true. Yet it is also true, that to be able to move past a situation that has caused us pain, we have to accept that we can only control our own choices.
A tough but important question to ask yourself is:
What is greater: my desire to heal, or my desire to be a victim of the conflict?
Strengthening internal boundaries
Reclaiming your thoughts
There is often a lot of talk about having boundaries in our relationships with others, but it is also important to strengthen our inner boundaries. Some situations can be especially activating and bring up a lot of thoughts and feelings about old conflicts. Internal boundaries ensure that thoughts get checked out before we take them on as "true".
- Does this kind of thinking help to give me more of the feelings I want to be having?
- What do I need to do, to regain my sense of self in this moment?
Finding peace and acceptance
It’s necessary and powerful to grieve after difficult and hurtful events. Sometimes a friend, partner or family member may have hurt us deeply. What can make all the difference is learning to notice the contrast between angry, obsessional thinking versus reflecting in a way that feels constructive and helpful to us.
Sometimes our anger can feel like a critical defence to have up in order to protect ourselves. When we think about past conflicts, it can become easy to see things in very black and white terms: we envisage the other person as a villain, while we are the victim. However, the truth is we can all be capable of making the wrong choices and all have the capacity to hurt others.
Considering another’s perspective or motivations can feel threatening, as it means making ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes we are just not ready to sit with the emotions of a difficult situation. But if we can begin to open up even the smallest possibility of being free from the harsh effects of anger and blame, we can attend to some of our most injured feelings.
Some helpful questions:
- If I were to let go of anger and blame, who would I be?
- Can I be in the here and now, rather than in the conflict?
- Moving forwards, what matters most to me?
We may never get to have the conversation we hope for, or the apology we’d like. But we can learn to live in the present.
Credit to David Kessler, who’s work on grief and divorce inspired some of this reframing of conflict in personal relationships.