Stress and Relationships: When To Disengage From Conflict

Why It Helps To Re-Examine Your Habitual Style Of Relating To Others

Sometimes it's important to stand up for yourself and sometimes it's better to walk away from a conflict. Here are some thoughts on determining which to do. Getty Images

We all face situations in life that cause stress and perhaps demand a response from us. But deciding which response to take can be one of life's great challenges. There's a fine line between facing problems head-on, and perpetuating them by focusing too much on them. A similarly fine line resides between letting other people's behavior roll off of your back, and being a doormat. Most of us tend to err on one side or another: we're either doggedly standing up for ourselves and sometimes steamrolling others, creating extra drama when we face those who don't like to be steamrolled; or are accommodating others to the point that others are taking advantage of us and we feel completely trapped.

We can either 'let it be' most of the time and occasionally find ourselves twisting into a pretzel trying to work with a maze of sticky situations, or fight every battle that comes and sometimes feel we're always fighting.

Where's a happy medium, and how does one find it?

  1. An important first step is to become aware. Taking a look at our habitual responses, and seeing where they're getting us. Most of us try to have a response that fits each unique situation, but we do have fallback stances that we take when we're stressed, and these responses usually skew in one direction. Still not sure? Ask five people who know you--ideally from different areas of your life, with varying degrees of closeness to you. You should get the idea.
  2. Once you've determined your regular style, start looking at your trigger situations—those situations that require a response from you—as opportunities for growth. The next time you feel yourself wanting to attack or retreat (natural responses to stressors, by the way; that's what your fight-or-flight response is for), see if you can just sit with it for a few minutes before reacting. (A brief meditation or prayer can be helpful here!)
  1. Then when you do respond, try to stretch a little and respond in a way that's slightly outside of your comfort zone, in the opposite direction of your 'default response'. Resist the urge to control the situation, if that's your usual style; or take charge of things a little more than you normally would, if that's unusual for you. Taking this mindful approach can be an important turning point in finding greater balance in your responses. Give it a try and see what happens.

    When's the last time you needed to disengage? What's your habitual style for relating to people? As you examine these questions and explore your answers to them, you may deepen your understanding of the role you play in the conflicts and stresses of your life. This can allow you to decide if you need to focus more long-term attention on changing your style to become a little more assertive or a little more accepting, or if you're generally happy as you are. If you find yourself facing many similar conflicts in your life, this may be a clue that your style could stand a little tweaking. Sometimes a small shift in your habitual response style can translate into a great reduction of stress in your relationships. Look a little deeper within and see what happens. (Note: if this brings up deeper issues than you feel comfortably exploring on your own, many people have found themselves dramatically less stressed with a few sessions of counseling around issues like these; if you need support, don't be afraid to seek it!)