4 Ways to Avoid Becoming a “High-Conflict” Spouse

All couples have conflicts; the question is how you manage them.

by Bill Eddy
Illustration of a couple yelling at each other during a conflict

We live in a society steeped in high-conflict behavior. It’s found on TV and the news, in movies and the tone of so many social media comments. As such, the behavior is easy for us absorb and act out in our own relationships without even realizing it.

High-conflict behavior is anything that increases rather than manages or decreases conflict, such as screaming, throwing things, shoving, hitting, lying, spreading rumors, refusing to talk for more than a day, disappearing for a long time.

All couples have conflicts; the question is how you manage them. Acclaimed marriage researchers John and Julia Gottman say that all healthy couples have conflicts, with some issues remaining in conflict for a lifetime. But it’s okay because these are managed conflicts and outweighed by all the positive interactions and feelings they have for each other.

The Gottmans say there’s a 1 to 5 ratio of negative comments and interactions in all healthy marriages, which means that you have a “bank” of good comments and interactions that helps you weather the storms of the smaller percentage of negative ones.

So, what to do:

Manage your own emotions: It’s okay to take a break. Ideally, say how long you need (an hour, a day, etc.). Give yourself encouraging statements (“I can get through this.” “I don’t have to prove anything here.”) Talk to someone who won’t just take sides.

Use your flexible thinking: Focus on the future and the choices you have for what to do next. Think of a creative proposal for what to do now. Write down a list of options. Sometimes just writing a list helps us calm down in the middle of a conflict.

Use moderate behaviors: Avoid doing the high-conflict behaviors described above. And if you do, explain how you are going to train yourself to never do them again (such as going to counseling or taking an anger management class). Mostly, just say you need a break, take a walk, write a list, etc.

Don’t blame your spouse too much: It’s easy to blame our own behavior on everyone else, but it quickly burns out relationships. Don’t become a high-conflict person with a pattern of blaming others. Instead, take responsibility for your own thinking, emotions, and behavior. Remember, our emotions are “caused” by numerous factors (our natural-born temperament, life experiences, how our day is going, etc.) so that your spouse didn’t just “make” you have your upset feelings or behavior. Ask yourself: “What is my part in this problem?” “How can I manage my emotions better right now?” “How can I use my flexible thinking to solve this problem?”

You can use the same approach with kids. It will help them grow up to have healthy relationships themselves.

Bill Eddy is a family therapist, family lawyer, and family mediator. He is the author of 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life. and the developer of the New Ways for Families® method for avoiding high-conflict divorce.