We always have the option to pretend that the things that hurt us are not that bad. You can have a heavy history of sour battles with someone, and pretend it all weighs nothing. The fear is that allowing the feelings that cause the conflict into view and trying to work things out will inevitably lead to more conflict, a fight to the death over who is the bigger asshole — who is to blame for everything.
To accommodate yourself to this internal dilemma you need to stop caring as much about the person, since if you cared too much it would be painful to sit with somebody who may be compelled, when the moment is right, to stick a finger into your deepest wound. This “compromise” agreement not to talk about the 600 pound gorilla in the room is a powder keg situation, both parties sitting on the explosive keg smoking cigarettes and acting as if there is no possible harm to any of it.
It is strenuous, wearying work, I find, to pretend that a relationship with someone who can’t help being insensitive, suspicious, antagonistic, untruthful (or worse) is actually fine. In psychologist Jeanne Safer’s book about sibling conflict, Cain’s Legacy, the author talks about what she calls “sibspeak”, the intimate language siblings speak among themselves, full of code words and often silent agreements not to acknowledge the painful sources of fundamental conflicts.
Avoidance is common in the secret language many siblings speak to each other, since there are often primal conflicts going back to earliest memories, things that trigger real hurt, fear and anger. Avoidance produces only caution, I find. I read the book, which describes numerous troubled sibling relationships, with interest. Reading her conclusions, the general principles she sets out, a series of steps to take for better communication with a sibling, this one jumped out at me.
This collusion to keep the dark, fearful, enraging things hidden is a trap. It requires ignoring strong feelings that are telling you important things. Things like: when somebody tells you angrily that they want to kill you, believe the strength of their feelings. Things like: after somebody hurts you, an apology — an expression of empathy, remorse and vow to do better– is necessary before reconciliation and forgiveness can happen. Things like: if even a small breach of this “agreement” not to talk about painful things leads to accusations and rage, there is a major problem.
Of course, you can always nonchalantly cross your legs again, after fishing out your lighter, and putting the flame to a new cigarette, being as careful as one can be sitting on a keg full of explosive powder talking about everything else in the world.