Oct 15, 2013

A Geneology of Conflict

I have been thinking a whole lot of things lately about how to improve myself, improve my relationships with my spouse and my children and also members of my ward. The problem is, I went through something pretty difficult, and so I've got some residual anxiety & emotional scars that have caused me to kind of curl up in on myself and isolate, and not get to know or trust people, including, sometimes, those closest to me. But now's the time in my life I'm moving forward & trying to become a whole human being, to be honest, for the first time in my life, I think.

I am examining the roots of what I might call, "social anxiety" or even "pathological constant skepticism & mistrust." And I realized the other day, my big trigger is conflict. Any conflict. Real, un-christlike conflict-- eg, Two people actively arguing, or just coldly not getting along, or throwing subtle barbs at each other, or a person who likes to gossip/be mean, for me would mean, OK, now I do not trust any of you as far as I can throw you. In fact, my feeling of annoyance is such that I actively dislike you.

Not very christlike. And how is that any better than what they're doing? Everybody sins differently. But that's what a trigger is, it's something that taps into a sore spot & you find yourself being less than logical & capable of seeing a bigger picture/person.

But for me, it goes further than that. *Any* conflict immediately makes me feel either angry or guilty, depending on the situation. Or both, usually. For instance, in a meeting with ward members the other day, one person hesitantly suggested something. New to the ward, clearly shy, he was just trying to do his best. And then the other person responded with dismissal & defensiveness. Probably mild, it was, and probably the person didn't think much of it. But for me it was a nuclear explosion, or a slap to the face, or something. I wanted to snap or leave the room or berate the person. I didn't, of course. I know I'm a little screwed up.

It also extends to stuff I'm actually supposed to do if I'm going to be a good wife and mother. I *hate* (that needs to be capitalized, italicized, underlined and bolded until it creates a permanent imprint in the eyeballs of those who read this so when they look away there's this glowing, white afterimage seared into their retinas) disagreeing with my husband. To the point where, in the past, I've gone with what he wants unless it's an emergency. And in those cases, I've just put my foot down, haven't discussed things at all, and have felt terribly, terribly guilty.

every time I tell my kids to do something they don't want to do, I feel guilty.

every time my kids misbehave & I have to punish them, I feel guilty.

every time I sit them down to talk to them about something they need to work on, I feel like a monster. Who lectures, and crushes peoples' spirits.

I still do these parental things because I've read enough literature on parenting, child development, adoption and attachment that I know by heart what I need to do. But it causes so, so much guilt.

Only lately have I been able to see, just a chink of light in a long, dark tunnel, how discussing things we disagree about together (Jeff & I) could actually be a bonding and loving thing. Theoretically. Hopefully. It's important, though. He is a discusser. A loving man who isn't afraid of conflict, who has actually been hurt & saddened by my lack of ability to engage in productive conflict. Discussing things together, presenting our points & deciding, together, what to do. Trusting him to love me even if I disagree with him.

The thing is, some of that came from my first marriage. I'll go into that just a little bit.

My first husband was a person who, most of the time, was completely mellow & mild-mannered. Genteel, I think, is the word most people would have used to describe him (before his whole ugly story came out.) But he did not handle conflict well. He'd escalate really fast. And we're talking escalating at the level of, we're disagreeing about how to make biscuits. He's getting a little annoyed I'm doing it my way, not his. I stand my ground, saying they'll be fine & so he runs into the bathroom with a knife and threatens suicide.

Yeah, to you, that seems really wacko, I'm sure.

But the thing is, my Dad did the same thing. Sans knife and suicide threat. When we got into disagreements, he'd either make fun of me (tell all the kids at the table to stick their tongues out at me, tell me how silly I'm being) or he'd storm out of a room & slam the door. If (as teenagers are apt to do) I insisted that we have something out, he'd escalate to the point of throwing stuff, yelling in my face.

The thing is, my Dad's a good guy. He just can't handle conflict. At all. I see the way he and my mother interact & I used to put it on a pedestal--they don't argue much. But he makes a passive-aggressive remark about how he wishes we could do things a certain way & she takes it in stride & moves on. She doesn't always ask his input before she does something she knows he might not agree with. He does things he doesn't want to do even though he doesn't want to do them & doesn't argue. And occasionally he walks out of the room & shuts the door. And often he plays piano for hours on end, or computer games for hours on end, or reads for hours on end.

Anyway, all I knew growing up was, conflict was bad. Bad.

And if I feel a need to disagree with someone, that should be kept to myself.

Problem was, I couldn't. I didn't do a good job of that. I have another, conflicting trait that rears up inside of me and takes me over, and that is a strong desire/need for resolution. I can't let things hang, I can't let them fester. It *kills* me when I know someone's not happy with me. I feel this huge drive to go them & apologize & ask how I can make things better, even though it may not be welcome/the right time. So, growing up, I was the kid who tried to resolve bad feelings & therefore, engaged in a bit of conflict. Sometimes more than a bit. I think of my fifteenth year & it seems like one long, unending shout/scream/anger/pushing away/abuse fest.

Of course, that was the year my mother was almost dying for 8 months.

And there's a lot to be resolved when you're fifteen. In that phase of figuring out how you're not a child but not yet an adult (queue the Britney Spears music.) Also, let's face it. Family. There's a whole truckload of stuff to be resolved.

Thus the geneology I'm about to embark upon.

My family, just like most families, has its share of difficult history. On my dad's side we come from almost pure LDS pioneer stock. I had ancestors in the Martin Handcart company, yeah, the one that lost half its members to cold and hunger on the frozen prairie. One of my direct ancestors is fabled for having carried 16 people across one of the rivers on her back. Another is that famous one you read about from time to time in the Ensign--she swam across a river with her 6 year old son on her shoulders.

On that same side of the family (my Dad's) is a line of ancestry that is quite interesting to examine. The Curtisses. Matthew Curttis was an east-coast farmer, and I suspect, intellectual, because at least two of his children, Theodore and Olive, attended New York University and became proficient in several languages. This is how they became converted--through elder Lorenzo Snow (also an intellectual, from an intellectual family) who got to know them at NYU. Back then, that was a very unusual thing--for a woman such as Olive Curtis (Coombs) to be educated to that degree. I have to think that family has always emphasized learning, thinking, intellectualism.

They became poets, artists, musicians. Logicians. Mathematicians. Theodore's grandson Theodore wrote four hymns in the hymnbook. And his son, Reuben, was a pastor in the Army and became a famous speaker at stake conferences, who painted magnificently realistic paintings and drawings of landscapes and people.

There's another element to this, however. Theodore (the first, the one who settled in Salt Lake City) had, I think, what they called back then, "melancholy." I can't diagnose it officially of course. I'm not a professional and we're talking snippets from journals and family histories. But it's more a *feeling* I get. There's a flavor to that family. Intellectual. Somewhat emotionally divorced from conflict. Hands off, about conflict.

Theodore's son, Theodore the second, ended up separated from his wife because she wanted him to be a polgyamist, and he'd seen his father suffer as a result of polygamy, so he said no. She decided to leave him. He decided to leave Utah. He went east and wrote for a periodical there--he was famous for being liberal and an advocate of the mormons. But he died in poverty, away from his family. He didn't engage in any sort of resolution, he just left. The family only heard of him at the end of his life. They were told by the hospital that was caring for him that he was a pauper, and alone. They asked if there was any family who might come and help him. Did they?

I don't know.

Fast forward to my grandmother. My grandmother is a wonderful but complicated individual. And (and this is still just a *feeling* for me, I can't prove it) she is almost entirely Curtis. She is an intellectual. She is an artist--she has painted many beautiful, striking landscapes. She did a painting of my mother that I love, and of each of her children and their spouses. She is a musician--she plays many instruments as well as singing. She is a character--she and grandpa used to dress up as clowns and entertain people. She has a mind that bends and stretches and examines and imagines and jokes and is utterly brilliant, dryly hilarious and creative. She's like nobody you've ever met before. I love talking to her. Her sense of humor, and the way she expresses herself--it gets at the very edges and corners and deep places in my soul and expands into them, making me more sure of and glad and proud about who I am. There's a very primal aspect to it.

She is also frightened by/very bad at conflict. Or at least, in engaging in conflict resolution with her spouse.

My belief (from what I've read and feel) is that, in Grandma's Family, conflict was resolved in a very Curtiss-like way. Mainly avoidance with an edge of gallantry, and a bit of high-handedness on the part of men--so, men took care of women. Fathers took care of families. They stayed calm, cool, collected and intellectual, and they adored & looked after their women & expected some obedience and adoration in return. It's interesting... this is soooo out of this world different from how my family is.

With grandma, it was marrying grandpa that kind of changed that. Grandpa was (is) much more matter-of-fact about resolving conflict. He had a temper which would explode at times and then die down & that was supposed to be OK. (And I think it can be OK depending on how you work it out with those who live with you.) He was kind of a jock in some ways. A man who got impatient with silliness. I'm going to go on and say, he was and is a wonderful, artistic, brilliant, hilarious person as well--this is what brought him and grandma together. There wasn't a bad bone in his body. He did tend to lose it at times, and my Dad has spoken of having to cut his own willow whips from the backyard, but he was a good, loving father & husband.
He & grandma just didn't know how to find common ground in the area of conflict resolution. Their ways were just so, so different.

And it kind of made my grandma be broken at times. She really struggled. She, used to being kind of looked after, nurtured, and deferring in return to the authority of the men in her home, was in a situation where things were kind of more bland, matter-of-fact, offhanded, sometimes joking a little at her expense maybe. She couldn't handle that every well. I've been told she had several breakdowns. SHe still does, now. She'll get worried that someone doesn't like her or someone means harm to her and instead of going and resolving it she allows it to build in her head until it becomes something real and insidious and then spectacular and strange things happen as a result. We've learnt to deal with it and love her. But she's a broken woman when it comes to conflict.

Add to that a certain social difficulty. Brilliance often accompanies difficulty in other areas. My grandmother really struggles with social cues. She sees hostility where there is none, and accidentally is harsh when she doesn't mean to be. I don't think it's a thing she can help... she really does struggle in that area of cognitive ability. Heavenly Father gives abundantly in some areas and he allows us to struggle in others. I say "us," because I am this way as well. I see hostility where there is none at times. I struggle with a lot of confusion at times about what I might have done to make someone upset, and often they're not really upset at me. I worry all the time that I might accidentally say or do something offensive or hurtful, because it's happened in the past where I didn't mean it. I mean, I'm getting much better. As I grow older and learn more, I have become better attuned to social cues, which allows me to get closer to someone, which allows me further insight, and thus the upward spiral has been from the akwardness of adolescence when sometimes I was frightened to even look someone in the eye and smile, even if I knew them, because I was not sure how I was coming across.

There's aspergers in the family. I have a cousin with it. By the way, he served a full time mission and has done really well, and is brilliant at a lot of things, particularly mathematics. But I think some of us could all be put on the spectrum there somewhere. I know I could be. I know my sister Laura is, with her auditory processing stuff she struggles with & her social fears, similar to mine though perhaps, more pronounced & difficult. I know my Dad could be. He's brilliant, but he's also different. And he struggles with social cues, though for him I think it's less of a struggle because he has learned not to mind, and to find the people who are comfortable with him. He doesn't get close to a whole lot of people & he doesn't (seem to) mind that much. He has my mother who he loves, and us, and that's enough for him.

This is all Curtis. The brilliant, the creative, the humorous, and the emotionally (& physically) distant.

There, I said it. And I'm sorry. I know my family reads this. Sorry, Family. Actually, I'm really hoping, as I write this, that it helps more than me to be writing it.

The other side of my family has a different spectrum of issues.

My mother's father is a man who came from a turbulent sort of family. HIs father was the son of a rich cattle rancher who made some poor decisions, including (unfortunately, possibly) his choice of a wife (though I'm glad he did choose her, or I might not be here. Strange, how these kinds of musings cut both ways.) She was troubled, from a family that was very tight, close, loyal, who'd gone through hard times and weren't always ethical in the ways they handled those hard times. She embezzled from the ranch, and drank, and she and my great grandfather were, by all accounts, a wild and crazy pair.

But there was my grandfather, and his older brother.

There's a picture of them that just makes my heart swell. He's sitting with his brother & they're both blond-haired, large-blue-eyed, cupid lipped little boys staring out of that frame. So innocent. So big-hearted. Because let me tell you, in spite of how he handles conflict, my Grandfather has the biggest heart of anyone I know. He passed that on to my mother. They both like to think they're sensible and practical when it comes to people, that they're discerning and skeptical and good at judging character, and to some degree they are, but a much bigger part of their interaction with people is their tendency to immediately just want to love and be loved.

My grandfather was raised by his aunt. She did a wonderful job. It was not easy, the circumstance, but she's credited, rightly, as being the family hero. Because of her in part, my grandfather made better choices. But it was also because of him. His big, soft heart wasn't the type to endure the chaos and harshness of a life of rowdiness too well. He chose not to drink, He chose not to gamble, and he chose to marry young, and he chose to become a teacher, and he loved all his students, and his family.

But, conflict.

He couldn't handle it. But in his case, it was fear. It all goes back to that chaos of his family of origin, his big, soft heart he had to protect. He just knew he couldn't handle people he loved hurting the way he saw his family hurt, and hurting each other the way they did. So he reacted, a lot, to the mistakes his children made (or things he saw as mistakes) with anger fueled entirely by fear that they'd mess up and hurt themselves and break his heart. He had a very set, structured idea of how to be happy in life--be perfect. Don't make mistakes. Then you don't get hurt, so you're happy.

My mother struggles to be OK with mistakes her kids might make. She gets worried and feels very vulnerable at the thought that something might happen to one of us, or we might do something stupid to hurt ourselves. Growing up, I wasn't a victim of the sort of harshness my grandfather ended up unintentionally unleashing on his children, particularly my mother, because of his fear. But I had a degree of it, and I could sense it with every fiber of my being.

Don't make mistakes. Indescribable, unthinkable bad things happen when you make a mistake.

So, when I would make a mistake growing up, there was this sense of shame (fueled by fear) so strong and palpable, I just couldn't acknowledge it. Often even to myself. So my mother would sense that (and likely be frightened by it--how can my child not admit to mistakes, she's going to make more if she doesn't learn) and sort of ground my mistakes into me. Not just by coming down on me hard, punishing me hard, chewing me out quite thoroughly, but also telling others. Talking to her friends in relief society. Talking to my Young Women leaders. Talking to her therapist (OK, that's allowed, but man, it still bugged me) talking to my teachers, talking to a random fireman or the Sheriff's department... she made sure to grind my mistakes into me hard, so I'd not want to make more. All the while the sense of shame & fear I felt at even the *possibility* I might make mistakes completely immobilized & paralyzed me emotionally so I couldn't process anything other than: I am a bad person. I am a bad person. I am a bad person.

And as someone who needs to resolve things, who'd like a clean slate, who needs the emotional zen of knowing what my standing is with everyone & that I've done all I can to make sure they aren't hurt by me or for me, that was a little bit of hell.

I was kind of scapegoated growing up. It just happened. When people struggle with conflict, it's quite easy to put all that ire, worry, fear into one kid & then the other kids provide much less stress, much less "conflict." The concept of the scapegoat is an ancient one--collect all your sins, funnel them into one place & then burn them away. Simple. Much less stressful than having sins scattered all over creation, having worries come from this kid and that kid and that kid... much easier to identify a source and only worry about that.

How does this relate to things now?

I feel like the world is falling every time I disagree with my husband. It is both an emergency and a reason to be incredibly ashamed.

... but I'm working on it. And this is part of that.

I love my family. All families have "stuff." This is my family's "stuff." Why am I posting it for everyone to see? Because people might identify with me & be helped by it. Maybe my family will. Maybe my Dad & Mom will. I want people I love to feel the sort of freedom I don't feel yet but can see in my future--freedom to really be vulnerable & love each other with no reservations. To be able to love each other not just in spite of, but because of weaknesses & disagreements. To enjoy the different flavors--even those that have a bit of bite-- in our family stew.

And I have to say that I am grateful to my parents. They work hard at being good parents and good people. Neither of them came from easy situations, but both of them have made things easier on us kids, just like my Grandfather made some decisions that made my mother's life better. And my hope is to continue that trend--make things even easier on mine. That's why I'm doing this.

And that is how I feel about that.


mom2ky said...

Thank you for telling "your" story. I can relate to A LOT of what you described, and it helped me to realize that I am not alone. Every family has or has had their issues. I think you are an amazingly talented and beautiful person who I admire very much. :)

Sarah Dunster said...

I figure we all have the stuff :) And thank you. I really appreciate that. I admire you, too.

Amy said...

bless you Sarah...your post was very encouraging to me. I know I am not alone, and I am a constant work-in-progress.

Sarah Dunster said...

I'm glad it was, Amy. I feel like we all struggle with something like this. It's good to talk about it and know others are working hard, too, to be better.

Michelle said...

Very powerful and insightful post! It seems that emotional and habitual patterns like this take lots (and lots and *lots*) of time to work through, but recognizing the pattern is a big step in that process. I haven't gone through the *same* things you have, but similar - similar feelings and doubts and worries - and so I really connected with this. Thank you for sharing. It's a brave thing to do, and I know that you've helped me and you've helped people who have read this and maybe not left a comment, as well. Thank you.

Putz said...

a non family member writing to my old old old friend<><>my family rideled with suicide, insanity{my grandmother put her daughter in an oven to cook her} jack mormons, single house holds,in 1863 daughter being snatch by her father off a boat when she came to utah, theifs,etc<><> sounds like we are typical in non typical settings . ..but are still in the running<><>,.for what am not sure but hopefully eternal exaltation<><>enjoyed your family rant<><>some of my earlier points and my book ignoble enigma covered my family quirks as you just did<><>it was fun to write a 900 page book<>><<>by the way i still love your whole fam<><>as always the putz

Putz said...

p p p p.s. i, on my paternal side, I have edith martin, my grandmother, Joseph martin, great grandfather, leading a blind girl across the plains and rivers in 1853 and the barlow side with my great, great grandmother leaving her child behind who was my great grandmother in England in 1863