The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ask Sahaj: My parents’ dysfunctional marriage still affects how I handle conflict

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy, will be answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: I grew up with parents with a modern mind-set but old-fashioned views about marriage. They stayed together despite years of emotional and physical abuse, which they tried to keep away from the kids, but it undoubtedly affected me. When either parent was in distress, the house atmosphere was volatile and fraught with tension. I learned to keep any emotions to myself to keep the peace.

Now I’m married to a wonderful man, but I still feel like I can’t open all parts of myself, and I suck at dealing with even minor conflict. Funnily enough, this doesn’t apply to my professional life, where I have no problem dealing with difficult conversations and asserting myself.

I want to move forward past my childhood trauma, but old habits die hard. Apart from formal therapy, what can I do to show up more authentically for myself and my husband?

– Trying to change the script

Trying to change the script: It makes sense that you fear conflict in your relationship — growing up, you saw what it can turn into.

By playing the role of a counselor with your parents, you may have been conditioned to believe that your loyalty to the people you love is demonstrated by how well you can keep the peace; you learned to contort yourself in ways that allowed you to ease tension.

Ask Sahaj: I’m trying to talk to my mom less. How can I stop feeling guilty?

Now, it sounds like to me, there’s an inner-child version of you that is scared of what it might mean if you or your husband aren’t always happy in the marriage.

Conflict avoidance is a people-pleasing behavior, and when it’s reinforced over the years, it can lead to discomfort around speaking up for what you want. But just because voicing your needs is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Of course, formal therapy can be a great tool to explore the narratives you’ve learned about conflict. But there are a few other things you can do to work through this struggle.

First, start to identify the (even minor) conflicts in your marriage. Check in with yourself at the end of every day for a few weeks, and identify how (perceived or stated) conflict impacted you. What happened that felt like conflict? How did it make you feel? What triggered these feelings? How did you handle them? How do you wish you handled them — for example, do you wish you’d said something?

Second, practice honesty in nonthreatening ways. In moments where you feel in control and have time to prepare, you can build more comfort around articulating your voice.

Third, spend some time reflecting on what you’re afraid of when faced with conflict with your husband. Is it yelling? Is it rejection? Is it being abandoned?

It’s important to remember that you and your husband are not your parents: Find evidence to prove this comparison wrong. What are you afraid of? How likely is it that that will happen with your husband? How can working through conflict benefit your relationship?

Your parents didn’t model conflict resolution — only conflict — so lean into finding ways to reframe how conflict can work in your relationship.

Finally, consider being direct and bringing your husband on this journey of growth with you. This might sound like, “I’m realizing I fear any conflict in our marriage, and it’s because of how conflict was modeled to me growing up. Can we talk about this?” Being honest in this way allows you to express your whole truth, while also allowing him to reassure you in ways your parents couldn’t.

It’s one of the greatest privileges to open ourselves up vulnerably and allow those we love to see us fully — and to prove our deepest fears wrong.