Understanding Relational Conflict through Creative Writing – part I

I used to have a re-occurring dream where I would tell someone off. Just tell them exactly what I thought of them, no holds barred. It was never the same person or situation but it was always something negative that they had done and it felt SO GOOD to just, let them have it. That dream has not come up in quite some time and I think it’s because I’ve been able to set a few boundaries for myself resulting in less opportunities for conflict and anger to build up to the point that it takes over my dreaming life. 

Whether it is a relationship with your boss, your partner, your parents, a friend or your children, we all have an internal sense of where our boundaries should be and when they’ve been violated, resulting in internal and sometimes, external conflicts. The clues are when we feel angry, when we feel bitterness, when our body is showing sign of exhaustion or pain, when we are irritable, etc. What is sometimes less obvious to us, is what boundary has been violated and who is responsible. 

Learning theories about boundaries and boundary setting can be helpful for most people (See -____) but even with this knowledge there still seem to be times when I find myself avoiding setting a boundary I’ve intended to set or when my efforts go sideways. In order to understand what may have gone sideways, I’ve found that approaching this issue ‘from the side,’ might be what is needed. 

Creative writing is one way to access other parts of our brain, emotions, and ways of knowing. When Virginia Woolf wrote, “Write it slant.” I think she was encouraging writers not to come at a subject head on, too obviously ‘on the nose,’ but to look at the subject in different ways in order to reveal it in a fresh way to the reader. I think we can do that for ourselves too. 

The following is part one of an exercise designed to help you find a new perspective on what is happening in yourself and in the relationship that you may be having conflict in.  

1. Think of a recent conflict between yourself and the person whom you want to figure out better boundaries with.

Write a short paragraph describing what happened: 

For example – My son called and asked for money again. I hadn’t heard from him in weeks. HE didn’t ask what was happening with his dad, who has been in and out of the hospital, he just went on and on about all his speeding ticket, the cost of rent going up and needing extra money for a trip he’s been wanting to take. His selfishness gets to me sometimes. I said some things that I regret but ended up sending him the money anyways. 

2. Choose two characters to re-enact this scene.

The person calling and the person answering the phone. Change the names and one aspect of their identity. For example: If your son’s name is John, you might change it to Cheryl, and make her an aunt, instead of your son. You would change your name and become the niece instead of the mother. 

3. Write out the dialogue in playwright style

Use exactly the words that were used in the original conversation, as best as you can remember them. You can also indicate if the volume was raised. I’ve written out the start of the conversation and then the last part of the conversation.

Cheryl – HI Aunt HIllary, how are you doing, it’s Cheryl.

Aunt Hillary – Oh hi Cheryl, I”m so glad to hear from you, I was worried when you didn’t call back last week. 

Cheryl – Oh yeah, sorry about that it’s just been so busy lately. 

Aunt Hillary – No worries, glad everything is okay with you. 

Cheryl – Well actually, I’m calling because I need to ask you something. I’ve had a few situations the past couple of weeks that have left me short for rent this month and I was wondering if you could help me out. 

Aunt Hillary – what happened? 

Cheryl – Well, I had a speeding ticket and then, as you know, the landlord upped the rent this fall, so it’s been more than usual and I haven’t gotten all the shifts I’d asked for at work. And then there’s the trip to Whistler I’ve been planning since the summer, which is coming up next month. 

(etc.) 

….Aunt Hillary – (loudly) You only care about yourself! You never call, you don’t care about your uncle. When are you going to get your life together and stop asking other people to pick up the pieces of your own mess!!…..

4. Underline words that are conflictual (name calling, judgements, swearing, etc.)

Once you’ve written out the entire dialogue, take a look at it and see if there are any clues from the words themselves (not the thoughts, judgements or or motivations of the characters) that anything has been said which has crossed a line. Think of name calling, swearing, insults, judgements, etc. Underline those things. In this case, the words at the end of the dialogue were Aunt Hillary uses the words “always” and “never” are judgements which cannot be proven in fact and therefor would count as a breach of fairness. Also assumptions about the other persons intentions would be a breach of a boundary because it is an assumption, not a known fact. Aunt Hillary assumes that Cheryl is asking others to ‘pick up the pieces’ indicating that Cheryl’s life is in pieces. Also, the last question ‘When are you going to get your life together….” is essentially a passive aggressive (See Passive Aggressive) question as it is based on a judgement that Cheryl’s life is ‘not together’ which, in this dialogue, seems to come from the idea that if Cheryl is short of money this month, her life has fallen apart which conflates this incident into a judgement of Cheryl’s whole life. In this case, the boundary crossing, in terms of words, is on Aunt Hillary

5. Fill in the action.

What was happening just before the interaction any action that occurred during the interaction, and what happened after the interaction, from the perspective of the character that you identify with? Write it as if an audience were watching it performed.  Write it in blue: 

Aunt Hillary drove away from the hospital, tears running down her cheeks, pulled up to the house and opened the door, the phone was ringing. She dropped her bags and ran to pick it up, bumping into a table on the way.

Cheryl – HI Aunt HIllary, how are you doing, it’s Cheryl.

Aunt Hillary slumped down into the nearest chair, coat and boots still on. 

Aunt Hillary – Oh hi Cheryl, I”m so glad to hear from you, I was worried when you didn’t call back last week. 

Aunt Hillary looked down at the floor, noticed that her boots were making a puddle of mud and looked around for a cloth and tried to grab for it, but found that she had to get up to reach it. 

Cheryl – Oh yeah, sorry about that it’s just been so busy lately. 

Aunt Hillary – (Reaching down to wipe up the mess on the floor, take off her boots and fling them towards the door). No worries, glad everything is okay with you. (Aunt Hillary unzips her jacket).

(etc.) 

….Aunt Hillary – (loudly) You only care about yourself! You never call, you don’t care about your uncle. When are you going to get your life together and stop asking other people to pick up the pieces of your own mess!!…..

…Aunt Hillary opens her computer and types in the password to her bank account and sends an e-transfer for $400 to Cheryl.

6. Underline actions that are conflictual (punching a wall, breaking something, shoving a person, banging on a table, etc.)

Underline these in red. In this case, the two characters cannot see each other, so, and depending on the relationship, Aunt Hillary, taking off her boots and cleaning the floor during the conversation, might not be perceived as rude, even if Cheryl was in the room. In other examples, someone leaving the room while the other person is sharing strong feelings might be perceived as rude, but might also be a self protection strategy if the strong feelings are being expressed in a way that violates boundaries (see above example). At the end Aunt Hillary sends the money. There is something here that feels like a boundary has been breached but it is yet to become clear what it is. For now, underline any actions that appears to violate a boundary, even if you are unsure what has been violated.

Cheryl – HI Aunt HIllary, how are you doing, it’s Cheryl.

Aunt Hillary slumped down into the nearest chair, coat and boots still on.

Aunt Hillary – Oh hi Cheryl, I’m so glad to hear from you, I was worried when you didn’t call back last week.

Aunt Hillary looked down at the floor, noticed that her boots were making a puddle of mud and looked around for a cloth and tried to grab for it, but found that she had to get up to reach it.

Cheryl – Oh yeah, sorry about that it’s just been so busy lately.

Aunt Hillary – (Reaching down to wipe up the mess on the floor, take off her boots and fling them towards the door). No worries, glad everything is okay with you. (Aunt Hillary unzips her jacket).

(etc.)

….Aunt Hillary – (loudly) You only care about yourself! You never call, you don’t care about your uncle. When are you going to get your life together and stop asking other people to pick up the pieces of your own mess!!…..

…Aunt Hillary opens her computer and types in the password to her bank account and sends an e-transfer for $400 to Cheryl.

One thought on “Understanding Relational Conflict through Creative Writing – part I

  1. Pingback: Understanding Your Conflicts through Creative Writing (part 2) | It's Not Just You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s