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The Sources of Relationship Conflict: A Tale of Two Boxes

Relationship Advice blog

Need some relationship advice? In addition to the tips and tools in the Relationship Repair Game, this blog has articles, inspirations and explorations to support personal growth, healing, and conflict transformation in relationships. 

The Sources of Relationship Conflict: A Tale of Two Boxes

Stuart Watson

“Nature has a three-track mind: it seeks to grow/mature, heal/cleanse and increase diversity/complexity for the greater health of the system.”

This quote from the card entitled “What is this Medicine” from Breaking Through: The Relationship Repair Game has resurfaced in my awareness as the most astounding, clear and hopeful way to understand the sources of relationship conflict between individuals, groups and society.  While I have known this conceptually, recent situations in my life have undeniably demonstrated these universal principles, and will forever change how I work with people in conflict. 

Essentially, each person (or organization/group) exists within a box. 
The floor, ceiling and walls are a durable, complex fabric woven of personality and ego identity habits, past wounds (and unconscious avoidance of them), nervous system wiring, and deep belief systems about self-worth, one’s purpose, relationships and life.  All of these habits, reactions and beliefs (many inherited) developed as adaptions to keep us focused and safe, as we respond to our environment throughout life. 

Yet it is still a box, limiting our ability to holistically interact with the full breadth of what life throws at us.  Meanwhile, evolution has its own agenda, it is perpetually surging through us, trying to surface those wounds for them to be healed, for the organism to upgrade to grow into a healthier, more adaptable version of itself.

I have tended consider the main purpose of counseling and mediation work as healing the relationship between those people, with benefits to all relationships. 
Now I vividly see that anytime a rupture, frustration, or wound is triggered between people, this is really each person sitting within and pushing up against the limitations of their own box, struggling with the edges of their own evolution.  The stress of a specific conflict has us push on all the sides, which tighten and constrict the more we resist the healing or growth that life is asking, and sometimes demanding of us. 

With enough safety and structure (often provided by a skilled therapist, counselor or mediator), each person will eventually break through and transform some personality or belief program then gradually settle into to a slightly larger box (until the cycle begins again).  “Breaking through” might look a lot of ways, such as grieving and releasing some old wound, re-connecting with a lost part of themselves, increasing their capacity for compassion, connection, humility or self-acceptance, or finding and trusting an un-shake-able strength at the core when all else falls away.  Unfortunately, when people are lacking the awareness, skills or support, these moments when life is trying to grow and heal us can be misunderstood and mishandled so that they sustain old wounds or even become new ones.

There is never a relationship conflict in which only one person is struggling to mature/heal/diversify, it is always both. 
For example, if I were my completely healed, whole, healthy and vibrant self, and my partner expressed anger and blame toward me, there wouldn’t be a charge or tension; I may simply recognize they were suffering, respond with empathy and support for their healing, and be curious if there was something I could learn about myself that is in my own blind spot.  No ego to protect, no defensiveness. If my angry neighbor came at me screaming and swinging his fists, I might feel fear and the effects of adrenaline, have immediate clarity and take quick action about the most effective way to protect myself now and in the future.  I likely wouldn’t be hampered with thoughts of “how dare he” or “I’m not going to let him bully me, I’ll teach him a lesson”. 

I’m definitely not my completely healed, evolved self, and neither is anybody else.  Luckily, Nature (evolution) will continue to set up these circumstances for us, to nudge us on our way.  In fact, Nature will use any circumstance it can to cue up the psycho-emotional blockage to be removed or re-configured.  It is so brilliant in the orchestration of this task that the same circumstance will surface different and often unrelated growth edges for all involved, with each person or group pushing the edges of their own, unique self-limiting boxes.  Here are two examples:

  • Susan, (who regularly denies her own needs in favor of serving others) reaches her limits and has an emotional break-down at work, leading her to ultimately reset these beliefs and habits with stronger self-care and healthier boundaries. Susan’s break-down triggers co-worker Leon to become aware that he was avoiding some of the shared work due to his competence insecurities lingering from a prior job, and to rewrite that story now with renewed confidence for the work he has been unconsciously avoiding. The circumstance further triggers their supervisor Laticia to restructure the overall system by clarifying expectations with the customers.

  • Elena overcomes a habit of “being nice” and not “rocking the boat” when she tells roommate Tobin that he is not doing his part in cleaning, then proceeds to hold Tobin accountable for improving his cleaning habits. This process triggers Tobin into a wound from his youth, when anything he did around the home was wrong or not good enough for his parents…a wound that is healed as Tobin begin to clean more and receive the other roommates’ approval and appreciation.

Ever noticed how a cat will use any hard surface to scratch against? 

That is precisely how evolution operates, it will use any surface to accomplish its task of growing, healing, and diversifying its participant subjects.  With this insight, I no longer strive to facilitate healing between people…I am instead inspired to assist each person or group in accomplishing the growth and healing they need.  The relationship conflict transactions are merely the format, or leverage in this timeless natural process, and the connection or reconciliation that occurs is a beneficial consequence of what is actually happening.  As a matter of full disclosure; while I know these universal principles to be true, I am still having difficulty trusting that the current chaos of the U.S. political system is a macrocosm expression of the these principles.

A version of this article is available on