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Seminar transcript: Resolving Complex Conflict
Transcribed by Ana Pejcinova, PhD

Structure of Chronic Conflict

Martyn Carruthers presented a seminar on resolving identity loss in Warsaw, Poland in 1997. During a demonstration, Martyn coached a person with chronic conflict to identify a congruent life goal. The underlying conflicts had a predictable structure.

  1. This demonstration was part of a seminar on Resolving Complex Conflict.
  2. The audience were therapists, systemic coach students and practitioners.
  3. This transcript is part of a larger strategy and is not a complete solution.
  4. Martyn explored and exposed a common structure of complex conflict.

Question from class: How do you think that this complex conflict structure emerges so predictably?

Martyn: Imagine you are a young child about three years old. Imagine that you have two parents who are in conflict with each other. You are about this big [points to knee level] between two giants. Imagine that you have these godlike beings on each side of you, and that you rely on them for your life. How does that feel?

Student: Vulnerable. Dependent.

Martyn: Imagine that your parents are fighting with each other, and using you as a part of their fight … imagine that they both want your allegiance, and that they criticize each other in front of you. Imagine that they each want your loyalty … perhaps to irritate or score points with each other. How might that feel?

Student: Scared … no I would be terrified. I feel sick and disoriented when I think about it, and I suddenly remember times when my parents would fight over stupid things, like which programs I should watch on TV … which were best for me. They could get really upset about what I watched.

Martyn: And if this fight over TV programs continued into other parts of your family life … how might that have been for you?

Student: I would have nowhere to run. I would feel disoriented … I feel sure that I would get sick. But they both wanted me to be happy … no … they both wanted me to be grateful for their making me happy. But they wanted me to show my gratitude in different ways … my mother wanted hugs and my father wanted me to be stronger. That meant to not show emotions. I’m sure that I felt sick when they did this.

Martyn: Thanks. [To class] Many children in such situations feel sick. It’s common. And such children often cope by creating two masks for themselves: one for each parent. Imagine you are a young child and, if you can put on a mother mask or a father mask, it is like magic, the giants relax and may even stop fighting. And you soon have two extra personalities for times of need … or for survival.

Now you can live, now you can be healthy, partly because of your excellence in mask-making. You have created an effective strategy for growing up with immature parents. If, as a child in this situation, you don’t create such masks, you might be in deep psychological trouble. Creating and using those masks helped you cope with being a young child of parents who didn’t solve their own conflicts – although at the high price of carrying your parents’ conflicts into your everyday adult life.

So, two masks – but who are you really? A horrible answer may be, “Who cares?” If you are a child between two giants and you must create two masks or personalities to stay well or to stay sane, you may decide that there is something wrong with you. Your masks are accepted and loved – the real you is ignored! The next step is often to hide your real self … perhaps for years … perhaps for decades.

For example, a male child may try to be a Mother’s Little Prince with Mother and a Daddy’s Tough Boy with Father. Then, both parents may relax. But both masks were created by and are compensation for a real child who cannot express himself safely. This mask-making may bring peace for a few years. Girl children may develop a similar pair of masks for Daddy’s Princess and Mother’s Helper.

By about age 7, one part (or side or mask) may split – to compensate for (or attempt to supply) missing qualities from the real self. which is now hidden. A key question for the young child (under age 6) seems to be “Who am I?“, and a key question in the second conflict (older than age 7) is often “What is important?” This is now a 5-part conflict. The real self (part 1) is hidden or lost, with two compensation personalities (parts 2 and 3), and at around age 7, two more compensation parts emerge (parts 4 and 5).

During puberty, most people become biologically available for partnership. Until this age, conflicts about partnership are latent. During adolescence, one of the compensation parts may split again to further compensate for the missing “inner core” or “real self” qualities. This seems to create parts 6 and 7 – usually a conflict about “How should I behave?

My emotions were like garbage in an endless dump. I was surrounded by junk and rubbish.
You encouraged me to search through it … I found an abandoned baby …
it seemed nearly dead … it was me, of course, part of me that I lost years ago.
Integrating this lost part of me gave me qualities that I never knew I had.

A primary conflict is usually, “Who am I?“, a second conflict is usually about “What is important?” and a third is usually about “How should I behave?Jan’s conflict manifests as boom-bust cycles in his businesses and as a conflict about smoking. More severe cases can include people diagnosed with cyclothymia or bipolar disorder, who try to manage their conflicts and emotional swings with medication.

A Behavioral Conflict based on a Values Conflict based on an Identity Conflict. And under it all is a Lost Identity – the hidden or forgotten mask-maker – a true self. We can help people find and recover their true selves.

Note that the diagnostic features of identity conflict differ from identification with a victim in that the behavior, values and expressed personality swing back and forth between two poles – rather than endless irritation and suspicion. In passive aggression, for example, the two poles are generally childish anger and childish anxiety. In bipolar disorder the two poles may be hyperactive and depressed.

When I told you of my conflict, you said that you hope I don’t abandon my dreams. Then it hit me. I don’t want to abandon my dreams – I want to make them happen. New York

For example a person may sometimes be super-responsible, and at other times very irresponsible – this may mirror the parents’ behavior when that person was a child.

Common consequences include feeling forced to make decisions but feeling afraid to make those decisions. I have seen many such conflicts show up as limiting beliefs about and allegiance to both parents.

Since I can remember, part of me wanted to live in town and hated the country … and part of me wanted to live in a village and hated towns. You asked me about my parents desires when I was young. Yes – my father always wanted to be in the country and my mother always wanted to be in a city. I never realized that I had taken their conflict into my life! Germany

Identity conflict differs from ADD or ADHD, although some children show signs of ADD after losing access to (or hiding) their core identity. People with symptoms of ADD may be easily distracted, yet express the same emotions and personality while distracted. This pattern can continue into adult life … we often help people resolve such conflicts.

Complex Conflict – Transcript . Resource Recovery – Transcript

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