Growing up in a house full of tension, you become conflicted about conflict
I grew up frightened of conflict but also slightly desirous of it. I felt trodden on, and that generated anger
“I was raised in a tense household. Always, there was something simmering. My father was an alcoholic, so there was all of the unbidden chaos that came with that.”
You generally either absorb and recreate the patterns you were raised with, or rebel against them. This rebellion need not be conscious. It might be a reasoned, concerted attempt to diverge from the path that has been laid before you and hack something different out of the wilderness for yourself, but it could be an emotionally fuelled attempt not just to break away, but to burn the bridge behind you; a reactionary life defined not by what you are, but by what you’re trying not to be.
I was raised in a tense household. Always, there was something simmering. My father was an alcoholic, so there was all of the unbidden chaos that came with that. Even long after my parents separated, he would appear at our house at all times of the day or night, his blurred outline darkening the little patchwork glass panels in the front door. He would pitch his shoulder into that old wooden door, working clumsily to force it in.
Every time, we crouched out of sight inside, listening to it creak and groan, thinking that this time, it was sure to give way. The neighbours would watch through their windows. No one ever did anything.
There was chaos in the wider family too. Mental illness. Never enough money. Always something to be tense about. Navigating all this was an intricate political exercise in pacification. Conflict, which had a habit of bursting out like watery sausage meat spitting through intestinal casing as it fries, would find us regardless.
My mother’s policy was not to aggravate things. We were already alone in a tiny boat on a great, wild, dark ocean. The sense was that whatever you do, don’t f**king rock it.
This was a coping strategy for her, and it made sense in the context of our lives at the time. It also resulted in us dealing with more nonsense than was necessary, because those who create conflict always take advantage of the conflict-averse. I grew up frightened of conflict but also slightly desirous of it. I felt trodden on, and that generated anger, which is generally seen as the intellectual property of young men: goodness knows they have a knack for it. But disaffected young women can be angry too – they just tend to wield it differently.
My mother’s policy didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t. It can be hard to keep your mouth shut when someone is being dishonest with themselves and others. When it happens, I feel rinsed with complicity and rushed back in time.
This is, of course, my problem, and not anyone else’s, but the result is that I could never fully quiet the angry voice; the one that wants to roar “We all know you’re off the wagon” when an uncle is talking about his sobriety while thinking he’s surreptitiously tipping whiskey into his tea. The voice is emboldened whenever I feel that tension in a room. It thrums with the desire to say aloud whatever hangs in the air between people, the things they bend around to avoid while they pass the salt. It’s that old, wild urge to flame through the pretence.
Seeking conflict is just as bad as avoiding it entirely; a healthy relationship with it is surely having the confidence to speak up when you really need to.
A colleague recently told me she can’t handle conflict. She hadn’t got any work done on a recent long train journey because the man across from her had taken up the whole communal table with his own laptop and other stuff. She spent the journey festering, infuriated by what she saw as his gender-based entitlement.
Preferring to avoid a potential conflict initiated by asking him to move his things, she expected him to simply respect her space, blaming him for what she saw as forcing her to either be passive or get aggressive. When he didn’t automatically move his stuff, she stayed quiet and engaged in conflict anyway, but only against herself.
Her upbringing was similar to mine, but she went a different way with it. Though conflict isn’t necessarily inherently aggressive, I sometimes seek it where silence is wiser, and she hides in the silence, even to her own detriment. We are both conflicted about conflict.