45 Years Movie - 45 Years of Avoiding Conflict

Sometimes peace and harmony is not good for your relationship. “Conflict-avoidant” couple is a term used in therapy to describe people who do everything to hide their authentic feelings in order to not rock the boat of their relationship. Often they hide their feelings not only from their partner but also from themselves. Keep reading if this describes you or your relationship, it certainly used to describe mine.

You and your partner likely developed this behavior pattern in response to exposure to very unpleasant fight scenes as young children. Consciously or unconsciously, you decided that you would never create conflicts like this in their relationship. I remember having this thought as a child.

It’s a wonderful decision but it’s lacking a very important ingredient. Avoiding conflict is not enough. Disagreement is a normal part of any relationship and you need to learn tools for openhearted conflict resolution. Without a good example from your childhood or the tools, you will most likely keep hiding your real self.

The lack of authenticity blocks the possibility of real closeness. But as humans we are wired to long and strive for closeness, so partners in a conflict-avoidant relationship fill the void of closeness with some sort of a substitute, sometimes a lover or a phantom lover with whom they can be close in their imagination. That’s what happens in the movie 45 Years.

Conflict-avoidant couples often surprise their friends with a sudden divorce after the kids go to college. Prior to this lightning move, their relationship seemed so fulfilling and smooth. And indeed it was a good, friendly, and stable relationship—only they never showed each other their real inner landscape. Even when life sends them powerful invitations to open up to their partner—as in the movie 45 Years—people whose relationship credo is conflict-avoidance still prefer not to reveal their most intimate feelings and thoughts.

When I watched the movie, I was waiting for Geoff (Tom Courtenay) to say, “Dear, I feel sad that my ex-girl-friend died such a horrific death and that I chose to hide this story from you. I turned her into a ghost in our relationship and now I am scared that won’t love me anymore. Will you help me to get out of this awful situation?” Or, I imagined Kate (Charlotte Rampling) would say something along these lines: “Geoff, I feel angry. I also feel scared and sad and I am creating a story that all these years you didn’t love me. What did this ghost relationship add to your life?

But nothing like this happened in the movie. In fact, it would be a surprise if it did happen in a conflict-avoidant relationship like Geoff and Kate’s. Typically, for a conflict-avoidant couple to finally open up to each other and begin an authentic, sincere, and non-judgmental shift in how they relate to each other, One needs either a lot of personal courage or third-party help so such a couple will be able to open up to each other and create an authentic, sincere, and non-judgmental shift.

The ghost love is the incarnation of all the ghosts of their childhood.

So as in most real-life relationships that follow conflict avoidance, Geoff and Kate got permanently stuck in a murky victim-villain-hero triangle.

This is a pity, since I strongly believe that conflict-avoidant partners have a gift of accepting each others' mistakes and past stories with much more grace and ease than aggressive couples.

And, yes, it takes commitment to your authentic expression, courage, and learning openhearted conflict resolution tools.

Finding Home in Your Mother’s Eyes

Imagine, that your child will be met by the world with the same attitude and attention that you deliver to him or her through your eyes! What is there in your eyes?

Once my client, let’s call her Nancy, told me a story. She participated in a training. Four of them were supposed to do an activity together and as Nancy’s turn came she had to choose a partner. She first looked at the young, beautiful woman that was part of their team, but something pushed her away from that woman.

Nancy quickly turned to an older guy, it felt much easier for her to do an exercise with him. She noticed that the woman looked very disappointed. When they finished the exploration, the woman revealed to Nancy that she felt sad and made a story that “something was wrong with her” because Nancy hadn’t chosen her. She was wondering what pushed Nancy away?

Nancy didn’t know. What occurred to her though that the woman’s eyes looked very similar to her mother’s eyes – almost the same color and shape. As Nancy grew up she was often afraid of her mother. Her mother’s reactions were unpredictable and when they talked and their eyes met her mother would often say to Nancy, “Why are you staring at me like this with your shameless eyes!” So Nancy learned to avoid looking straight into her mother’s eyes.

When her mother looked at Nancy her attitude was often judgmental or checking for “what’s wrong” – a wrong t-shirt, dirty ears, hunched back… So Nancy learned to keep her distance from her mother and certainly not “to stare” at her. She also without being aware stayed away from women whose eyes reminded her of her mother’s.

This story was a revelation to me! I started noticing the lens through which I look at my children. I asked myself: Does my gaze meet them with a loving greeting every morning when they come down for breakfast? Or when they come back from school? Or when they are back from a birthday party? What do my eyes express? Excitement? Admiration? An open heart? Or there’s nothing besides business – scanning, evaluating, grading, glazing over? I felt sad about all the missed opportunities to deliver the message to them, “Come, dive into the safety of my gaze! I see you and love you with all your joys and your sorrows. I see the best in you!”

I also started consciously relaxing my forehead and softening my eyebrows and the area around my eyes when I look at my kids. I began to scan more for what is there to appreciate rather than what is there to fix. 

And as it often happens I discovered that other people asked the same questions. For example, I came across the Mark Matousek’s webinar under the title The Mother's Gaze: How We Learn to Trust and Love and that led me to his blog The Meeting Eyes of Love: How Empathy Is Born In Us.

Mark says, “You learn the world from your mother's face. The mother's eyes, especially, are a child's refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother's eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love…”

And then, “In the complex relationship between parents and children, our earliest bonding patterns are formed. Our first glimmers of being loved by our mother, thereby feeling ourselves to be lovable, are indissolubly linked to our ability to care for others in our maturity. As anyone who's been a parent can attest, this love requires levels of patience, stamina, and selflessness beyond anything demanded by any other relationship. Luckily, the rewards can be equally epic. Through the mirrored love in our parents' eyes, we learn surrender, devotion, and trust.”

So here is my question to you.
How would you like the world to look at your child?
Write down five words that reflect your wish.
How can you start expressing these qualities through your eyes already now?
Remember to relax the muscles around your eyes and let the corners of your eyes smile when you look at your child. It's good against wrinkles too!

Hopefully, our children will know that they can find true home in our eyes - the place where they feel at ease, accepted and loved.