In the sport of hockey, somehow it became acceptable — even preferred — for its players to not only skate around on ice and toss a puck around, soccer-style, with sticks, but also occasionally to break out in fights. You always know when one is about to happen. Somebody does or says something to piss another one off (on the opposing team), and their thick gloves come off, ready to launch into it. If you’re a hockey fan (and I admit, I’m really not), you know there’s trouble when the gloves come off. We’re in for it. Here it comes. No turning back. And then, for a bit, there’s a fight, and the referees pretend to get mad about it, like it’s the first time they’ve seen it, and then the players have to go cool down (as if they weren’t already in an ice arena) in a special place built for that on the rink: the Penalty Box, which is there, of course, because fights are expected and subtly encouraged by the presence of the penalty box. But only for a few minutes. It was not really a serious crime, it was just letting off steam. It’s just part of the game. It gives the spectators a show. It’s exciting. It’s expected. It’s part of life.
Real life for all people, including gay men, is the same way; conflict is a part of life. Human beings can be vicious little animals when we want to be, and it is a reality that at least some interpersonal conflict, personally or professionally, is going to be a part of our lives from time to time. And not just little ones, like who was in line first at the store checkout, or whose car got to the parking space first. It’s hard ones, like legal disputes (such as being the victim of discrimination or harrassment), crime (such as being the victim of gay-bashing, or robbery, because gay men are “assumed” to be affluent), landlord-tenant issues (I’ve seen guys on both sides of that one), homeowners associations, or some serious breach of interpersonal sociocultural protocol among gay peers (also known as, “oh-no-she-di’n’t”).
And, no, sorry; we can’t all just get along. Not all the time, anyway. As human beings, we are hard-wired to be scrappers, fighting for water or food, territory, mates, or social status. Whenever we perceive that there are scarce resources, there will be competition to get them in a zero-sum, “it’s them or me” situation. Gay men are conditioned to fight against nearly constant undermining, challenging, and oppression for everything we have. We try for win-win, but occasionally the battle is winner/loser, winner take all. Everyone wants to get their needs met. Many people want to get the goodies — the attention of the hottie, the recognition of the big boss, the job, the promotion we deserve, the contest prize, the winning bid on Ebay, the one-hundred-thousand “doll-ahs” on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
We’re also hardwired to be social beings. We want to get along, to make it through a day smoothly and pleasantly, to connect with someone who means the world to us, to have the good will of our neighbors, family, coworkers, colleagues, and the clerk at the grocery store.
The hard part is when we need to use critical thinking skills to negotiate between these conflicting survival instincts — between our lower instincts, such as anger, aggression, competition, dominance, fear and jealousy – and our basic goodness, generosity, compassion, and go-along-to-get-along in a diverse society.
Conflict is an unhappy given in life, but fortunately we have big brains and loving hearts to work on it. Our Ego exists to continually negotiate between our angelic Superego who wants to make peace, and our primitive Id who wants to knock their block off. Whether the conflict is intimate or work-related, ongoing or a sudden conflagration with a stranger, there are many approaches that can ensure everyone involved leaves the field of battle whole and relatively satisfied.
It would be wrong to focus on “being a victim” in conflicts just because we’re gay men, although we often are, from both men and, surprisingly frequently, from women. However, it would also be inaccurate and invalidate the experiences of our gay activist brethren and our forebears if we didn’t acknowledge how gay men can be the victims of other people’s discrimination, self-indulgence, aggression, greed, narcissism, and emotional/physical violence — from both male and female perpetrators. We are a minority group, and like many minority groups, people sometimes act out because they don’t like us — in a homophobic/heterosexist kind of way, or in a more selfish individualistic way, that anyone could be the victim of, not just gay men. Sometimes there is conflict just because we don’t allow a jerk (male or female) to push everyone else around, whether it’s toward us, or the people we care about.
In conflict, we don’t want to eliminate our anger. After all, anger is a normal human emotion and our anger, individually and collectively, is our defense against abuse, exploitation, or injustice. Rather, we want to manage our anger. We want to harness it, direct it, and make it work for us. We want to use it to fuel our quest for social, criminal, or civil justice. We want to state our case because we believe in values like fairness, equality, compassion, and co-existence. There are many different ways conflict can manifest, but here are some ways that conflict can be mitigated, in many or all circumstances. These are:
1. Calm it down. This means first calm yourself down. Shut up for a minute. Step back, look away, take a deep breath, sigh. Consciously relax your muscles. Announce what you’re doing: “I think we both need a moment to cool off. Let’s take five minutes and come back to the problem.” If the other person is being a jerk (and you aren’t; of course YOU aren’t) this technique reflects their own out-of-control behavior without escalating it by pointing out that he or she is the villain.
2. Listen. Invite the other person to present their point of view. Don’t interrupt; actually listen to what they are saying. Repeat it back to them and let them know they were heard, and that you want to understand the point they are trying to make (however idiotic).
3. Speak your piece. Make the best case you can for your point of view. State who benefits, and what good things get created or preserved by doing things your way. Keep your voice low, both in volume and in pitch. If the other person doesn’t have the self-control to listen courteously, stop talking. Eventually, they will run out of steam and begin to feel foolish. Remind them that it’s your turn to speak your mind and continue.
4. Avoid personal attacks. Be sure it’s the problem that you’re both attacking, not each other. Remember all the advice you’ve gotten about using “I” statements? It does actually work. Focus on what you think and feel, and why the other’s behavior — not the person’s person — is the problem. Admit when you have a role in escalating the conflict, and apologize for the parts of the conflict that are really your responsibility, or even your fault.
5. Be sure this is a fight worth having. This doesn’t mean rolling over whenever conflict arises, only that some disagreements are just pissing matches about who is conceptually “right”, with no real outcomes difference. Check in with yourself: Is all of this really important to you? Can you call a truce and let this go? If so, smile, shrug, walk away, and get back to something that actually is important to you.
6. If the fight is ongoing or pending, plan a strategy. Do you have allies who can help? Certain types of conflicts need to be escalated, such as enlisting the help of an attorney, your boss, a division chief, the police, a board of directors, union rep, mediator, government agency, teacher/principal/dean, or an advocacy group (such as the ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a trade union, a professional association, or others). Think about the steps involved in working toward resolution. Focus on the ultimate outcome that you want. Think about when is the best time and place to discuss the conflict and work through it. What is negotiable on your end, and what do you need to hang tough on? What is your opponent likely to insist on? The more thought you give to your position, the likelier you are to keep cool and be persuasive. Keep your eye on the prize: what is the ultimate outcome you are trying to achieve?
7. Ask your opponent for help finding a common ground. There must be some compromise solution both of you can live with. It may not give you the satisfaction of a clear win, but will preserve the relationship and maybe turn an opponent into a friend, or at least a collaborator with mutual respect.
8. Bring in a third party. If you’re both running hot and irrational and can’t reach a conclusion on your own, see if you can agree on a neutral third party to give you feedback and keep things calm. The ultimate arbiters are often the Law, policy, ethics, or values. Formal arbitration, professional mediators, tribunals, or the courts are also “neutral” bodies that help parties resolve conflicts. Conjoint therapy — for romantic couples or even roommates, friends, or colleagues — can help with this.
9. If the other person is drunk or unstable, get away. When I work with gay couples, I hear how their worst fights happen when one or both of them are drunk. But if you’re in public and your opponent is drunk, high, or under heavy prescription drug influence, there’s no sense to be found there and the conflict is likely to escalate to a dangerous level; if no physical harm is done, emotional harm is likely. The same thing is true if they are unstable due to a mental illness, personality disorder (which is another whole topic we can discuss), panic attack, or dissociative rage.
10. Let it go. Bring out your Inner Elsa (yes, the one from “Frozen”; everything is a show tune with me). It’s OK to end some conflicts without either party ever being proven “right” (think wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan; hung juries; certain legal settlements; or Ginger vs. Mary Ann, or Samantha vs. Jeannie; we’re never going to resolve some of these, even though, despite Barbara Eden being lovely, I think Samantha wins, hands-down. I met Elizabeth Montgomery, twice, at fundraisers for AIDS Project Los Angeles, and she was amazing, but that’s another story).
However, in my practice, I have worked with gay male clients where their situations were not so easy. They were the victims of domestic abuse, violent crime, sexual harassment, and certainly workplace bullying, which I have experienced myself and have a special interest in. In these types of cases, the resolution and working for justice against the crimes and their perpetrators is more drawn out, and sometimes therapy or coaching can help you get through a long, often arduous process, and I help guys with that, such as how to take care of yourself during a legal battle, for instance. Sometimes, there is no alternative to having a hard fight, because to not fight back would mean gay men are victimized yet again, and we have to individually and collectively put our foot down and say, as they say, “time’s up.” If you’re a drag queen at Stonewall and the cops are busting you up for no good reason, honey, throw that beer bottle as hard as you can.
But if you follow all these tips for resolving conflicts, or at least mitigating their severity, you will get to that lovely stage of putting it all behind you sooner. Bye, Felicia.
For help with these or other skills for a rewarding life as a gay man, call or text me at 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information or to book an appointment. For more information on how gay men’s couples counseling can help resolve domestic conflicts, visit here.
Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz (24 years), sex-positive, LGBT-affirmative, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized almost exclusively in working with gay male individuals and couples for over 22 years. He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), or via phone or via Skype, nationally and world-wide. Ken is available Monday through Friday, including evenings, and associate clinicians are available on Saturdays/Sundays. Your referrals are always welcome.