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S2 EP174 – The Challenge of Disengaging in Conflict

Episode Summary

Do you struggle with knowing when to communicate with your partner about a problem and when to disengage? Are you reactive in conflict with people who are important to you, and you often end up feeling angry and miserable? Discover the two choices you need to make to lovingly disengage in conflict and what the process of lovingly disengaging looks like. 


Hi everyone. Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding Podcast. Today I’m speaking about a very challenging topic, which is being able to lovingly disengage in conflict when you or your partner are not open to learning about resolving the conflict.

The reason this is so challenging is that we not only instinctually move into fight, flight, or freeze when the fear of conflict is up for us, but we are also programmed during our upbringing to go into fight or flight, which means to either get angry, blame, explain, defend, or to shut down, stonewall, and withdraw. This is likely what you learned to do as you were growing up from watching your parents or other caregivers.

How do you generally respond in the following situations? 

  • Someone you care about and is important in your life – your partner, a close friend, your employer, your parent, your child – says something derogatory about you or something you don’t agree with.
  • Someone you care about complains about a situation, seeing themselves as a victim.
  • Someone close to you makes irrational statements about themselves, about you, about others, or about a situation or event.
  • Someone you care about verbally attacks you and blames you for something.

Do you jump in and correct them, explaining, defending, denying, arguing? What happens when you do?

Do you walk away, withdrawing in anger, judgment, and blame? How do you feel when you behave this way?

The chances are if you respond in any of these ways, the conflict escalates into more attack, blame, complaints, verbal abuse, and other irrational behavior, or both of you retreat into distant, angry silence, inwardly blaming and punishing each other for your own misery.

What do you do when someone important to you angrily withdraws and shuts you out?

Do you question them, trying to get them to open up, or act overly nice to get them to stop shutting you out?

What might happen if you were to learn to lovingly disengage? What might happen if walk away with your heart open, with no anger or judgment, no rumination about how awful the other person is, praying for the person and bringing compassion to yourself? What might happen if you lovingly disengage and do an Inner Bonding process?

What might happen is that the other person is left with his or her own behavior to deal with rather than being able to further blame you. What might happen is that when the other person is no longer angry, blaming, complaining, attacking, or withdrawing and comes back to re-connect with you, you are open and ready for connection.

This sounds simple, yet why is it so hard to do? Why is it so hard to lovingly disengage?

Along with our instinctual fight or flight response, and having learned to react with fight or flight, there are two other answers to this question:

  1. One is that the wounded self believes you can control how another person feels, thinks and acts – that you can control getting another person out of his or her intent to control and into the intent to learn. The wounded self believes that if you say or do the right thing, you can control the other person into opening up to you and seeing things your way.
  2. The second is that the wounded self is terrified of feeling the existential life feelings of loneliness, heartache, and helplessness over others, believing that you cannot handle these feelings.

If you lovingly disengage, keeping your heart open to yourself and to the other person, you will feel the loneliness and heartache that is always there when someone you care about disconnects from themselves and from you. And you will feel the helplessness that you will always feel when you fully accept that you cannot control the other person.

In order to be willing to feel these painful feelings you need to know exactly how to manage them.

And learning how to manage them as a loving adult is not hard.

  1. First, acknowledge the feelings, embracing them with deep compassion.
  2. Then, sit with the feelings, keeping them company for a few minutes, the way you would with a child who is hurting.
  3. Once your Inner child feels heard and comforted, consciously release the feelings to spirit, asking for them to be replaced with love, peace, and acceptance.

When there is unresolved conflict in a relationship, this whole process usually takes less than 10 minutes. Of course, it takes much longer when the existential feelings of life are about loss, such as loss of a loved one. But when they are about someone important to you being angry or shutting you out, it doesn’t take long to let these feelings move through you.

While feelings of loneliness, heartache and helplessness over others were completely unmanageable as children, now they are easy to manage when you know how – and when you choose to operate as a loving adult, wanting to take responsibility for your feelings.

Once you learn to manage your feelings of loneliness, heartache, and helplessness over others, and once you accept your total lack of control over others’ feelings, thoughts, and actions, you will find that you can easily disengage with love.

But how do you keep your heart open and lovingly disengage when someone close to you is saying things about you that aren’t true, or saying things about others that aren’t true, or saying things about themselves or about life that aren’t true? How do you lovingly disengage when someone close to you is blaming you, complaining, withdrawing from you, resisting you, or attacking you? How do you lovingly disengage when someone close to you is behaving in a way that feels threatening to you – physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually?

There are two choices you need to make for you to be able to lovingly disengage.

  • First, you need to 100% accept that you have no control over the other person – that you are not the cause of the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior, and that there is nothing you can do about it.

For most people, this is extremely challenging to accept. Many people, when being treated badly by another person, say, “What did I do wrong?” This question comes from the belief that you cause others’ behavior – and if you are the cause of it, then you are in control of it. When you fully accept that each of us feels and behaves the way we do entirely according to our own thoughts and beliefs, then you will not be asking “What did I do wrong?”

People who tend to be caretakers believe that if only they are loving enough, giving enough, kind enough, caring enough, open enough, and put themselves aside enough, they can have control over getting another person to change, which is a totally false belief.

As long as you believe that there is some way you can have control over another person’s intent, you will likely stay engaged in situations that are not at all in your highest good.

  • Second, as I previously said, you need to be 100% willing to feel the painful feelings of loneliness, heartache and helplessness over others that occur when someone you care about disconnects from you. If you are not willing to learn to acknowledge, feel, lovingly nurture, and then release these painful feelings to spirit, you will protect against them by engaging with the person who is disconnecting from you and who is not open to learning with you.

Once you totally accept your lack of control over the other person and accept the responsibility for nurturing your existential painful feelings, then you can practice the art of disengaging. 

The art of lovingly disengaging looks like this…

  1. If you have attempted to learn with this person and they are not open to learning, or you know from past experience that this person will not open, you say to yourself, “I have no control over this person. There is nothing I can say or do to change this person.”
  2. You walk away, with your hand on your heart and bring compassion to yourself to keep from going into any blame or judgment. You offer a prayer, asking spirit to help this person come back into his or her “right mind.”
  3. You tune into your feelings of loneliness, sorrow, heartache, and helplessness concerning the other person, acknowledging them, holding them in your heart and nurturing them for a few minutes, and then asking spirit to take them and replace them with peace and acceptance.
  4. You do an Inner Bonding process to see if there is anything else going on with your inner child, or if there is anything your higher guidance wants to tell you.
  5. You do something you really love to do – walk in nature, read a book, listen to music, do something creative like draw, play an instrument or write, take a bath, talk with a friend (not about the other person), play with a pet, or whatever else feels loving and nurturing to you.

What you do not do is walk away in anger, blame or judgment, or ruminate about what you should say or what the other person is saying or doing. You do whatever you need to do to keep your heart open so that when the other person opens again, you have no residual resentment and are fully ready to re-engage.

In my work with couples, I am often asked, when I suggest lovingly disengaging, “Shouldn’t I communicate with my partner about this? Shouldn’t we talk this over?”

For example, Ginger told me that when her husband, Ron, became demanding sexually or started to complain about not having enough sex, she was sexually turned off. She would become defensive, explaining her feelings to Ron repeatedly, in hopes of getting him to stop. She hoped that if she explained herself enough, he would understand that his demanding and complaining turned her off. Sometimes Ginger thought there was something wrong with her sexually when she was not turned on, and other times she thought that if only Ron would stop demanding and complaining, everything would be okay. Yet nothing changed. No amount of talking or explaining helped.

Ginger and I discussed a new, loving action she could take when Ron complained about not having enough sex. Instead of defending and explaining, Ginger decided to just say, “Uh huh,” with a compassionate tone, and then lovingly disengage from the conversation.

“But shouldn’t I tell him why I am just saying ‘Uh huh’ and then walking away?”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“I guess so that he won’t get upset with me.”

“So, you want to explain yourself, yet again, as a way to have control over getting Ron to see you and understand you.” 

Ginger saw that much of her desire to “communicate” was really coming from her intent to control.

“When is it appropriate to talk about stuff?” she asked.

“When you are sharing your own new learning without an agenda to change Ron. Sharing your own learning can lead to deeper intimacy, while repeatedly explaining, defending, and sharing your feelings to control generally leads to distance.”

So, when do we talk and when do we disengage?

We talk when it is about sharing information or coming up with a plan. For example, it is appropriate to tell your partner if you are going to be home late – that is sharing important information. It is appropriate to discuss what you both want to do on Saturday night, or what movie you might want to see, or if you want to go to the party you were invited to. This talking is about coming up with a plan that affects both of you. However, if one partner gets controlling about the information or the plan, that is when you might want to stop talking and think about what action you need to take for yourself. 

Discussions when one or both partners intent is to control will break down.

When Ron tries to control Ginger with his demanding and complaining, and then Ginger tries to get Ron to stop trying to control her and become open to learning, they will get stuck, because in trying to get Ron to open and hear her, she is also trying to control him. Now, with both trying to control rather than learn, they can’t get anywhere.

This is when you need to disengage, open to learning about what you are feeling, and take loving care of your own feelings and needs.

The time to talk is when both people are open to learning and there is no agenda to get the other person to change. The time to disengage is when you find that you are feeling frustrated, sad, lonely, and helpless over the interaction. That is when you need to remember to lovingly disengage and then do your own Inner Bonding process.

Once you lovingly disengage and do your own inner work, then you might be able to go back to your partner and see if he or she is also open to learning with you. You will find that when both of you are open, issues are generally more easily resolved.

When your intent is to love yourself, rather than control the other person, then you can remember to lovingly disengage rather than go into fight, flight, or freeze. Imagine what you would do if you had an actual child who someone was yelling at or shutting out. Would you take the child out of range of being yelled at or blamed? That exactly what you do with your inner child when you are being yelled at or blamed. Would you let the actual child know that the other person shutting him or her out is about them, not about the child? This is exactly what you need to do with your inner child – tell him or her that the other person’s behavior isn’t about you while loving disengaging.

If you think back to the role-modeling you received regarding how to manage conflict, you will likely remember that your parents or other caregivers fought, complied, withdrew in anger, blamed, or resisted, or just shut down and ignored the conflict. Do you have any images of your role models loving themselves through conflict, and of healthy conflict resolution?   

Lissel asked me:

“When I’m in a conflict with someone I start to feel anxious, angry and withdrawn from the person. Then I start to think about the conflict, what I said, what the other person said, and it goes on and on. It makes me feel nervous. What to do in these situations?”

What I said to Lissel is that she feels anxious and angry and withdraws because she is abandoning herself rather than loving herself. There are only three ways of managing conflict that are loving to ourselves.

  • If the person who is angry responds to comforting touch, then reach out with compassion, offer comfort. Angry people are actually coming from fear, and a compassionate touch can often help them calm down and open to learning.
  • If you are capable of opening to learning about how you see things and how the other person sees things, and you think that the other person will open to learning with you, then it’s loving to yourself to open to learning, which can lead to win-win conflict resolution.
  • If you can’t open or you know the other person won’t open, then loving yourself means lovingly disengaging, which is very different from withdrawal. When you withdraw, you are angry and punishing the other person by withdrawing your love, but when you lovingly disengage, you are loving yourself by getting yourself out of range of the conflict. Then, do your Inner Bonding work and come back in 30 minutes to see if resolution is possible. If not, you need to decide for yourself what is loving to you in the face of the other person being closed to resolution.

We all need to accept that we can’t hear each other when we are angry, so there is no point in saying anything when one or both are angry.

If Lissel were loving herself through the conflict, she wouldn’t ruminate. We ruminate when we are abandoning ourselves and hoping to find the right words to control the other person.

Maureen asked me:

“How do I talk reasonably with my husband when he gets so fired up over any question that challenges his way of thinking?”

I told Maureen that it’s not possible to talk reasonably with her husband when he’s fired up. When we are angry, we are operating from the lower part of our left brain. The reasonable part of us isn’t even online. This is the time to lovingly disengage, and perhaps try to talk about it later, when he is calm.

Shelly asked me:

“My boyfriend can get mad and scold me like a child and uses an angry and intense tone. I ask him to please not talk to me that way and he often continues. I bring it up later and he does not seem to understand how hurtful this is and he does not apologize. I feel so disrespected and abused. It is damaging our relationship. I know that I should just leave when he behaves that way and if I do, he will then ignore me for several days, then he calls me. We are caught in this terrible cycle. I feel like we are at the end of our relationship, and I don’t know what to do.”

What I said to Shelly is that there is no point in continuing to ask him not to talk to her that way because she has no control over how he talks to her, or whether he will talk about it later or apologize. The only thing she has control over is herself. By trying to control him rather than lovingly disengaging, she is allowing herself to be disrespected and abused, and she is disrespecting herself. She is staying and being abused to try to control him into not ignoring her for days, but she needs to accept that this is what he sometimes does. When she shows up for herself and choose to love herself by lovingly disengaging and doing something that she enjoys doing, rather than continue to try to control him, things might improve between them.

Loving yourself and learning the art of lovingly disengaging in the face of conflict, can have a major positive impact on all your relationships!

However, remember what I said at the beginning: we are all deeply programmed to automatically go into fight, flight, or freeze, so it takes much Inner Bonding practice to develop your loving adult who can stay present with what is loving to you in the moment of conflict. Please don’t judge yourself in any way if you forget to do this and instead go into your learned reactivity. The loving adult never judges and knows that this is a learning process that takes time and practice. When you forget, open to your higher guidance for what you could have done differently and rehearse it. Rehearsal is a powerful way of retraining the brain.

Remember that becoming a strong loving adult and creating new neural pathways in your brain is a process. The more you practice and rehearse behavior that is loving to you, the easier this becomes, so please have patience with this learning process. Our brains have neuroplasticity, and research shows that consistent focus and practice over a period of months changes the brain. Through the practice of Inner Bonding, you will develop your loving adult capable of lovingly disengaging, rather than being automatically reactive.

I invite you to heal your relationships with my 30-Day online video relationship course: Wildly, Deeply, Joyously in Love.

And you can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

And we have so much to offer you at our website at

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I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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