Conflict is an inescapable part of any relationship, especially a marriage. We bicker. We argue. We butt heads. We have heated conversations. Conflict also plays a healthy and positive role in relationships: It helps us to push one another, to settle disagreements, to make feelings known, and to arrive at solutions. There are, however, those people who fall into conflict over the slightest provocations — or perceived provocations. These high-conflict personalities are easily triggered by minor episodes of miscommunication or the occasional offhand remark, until their relationships are dominated by contention. The conflict-oriented mind-set tends to see just two options during an argument: escape or win. As Bill Eddy wrote for us, “High-conflict behavior is anything that increases rather than manages or decreases conflict — screaming, throwing things, shoving, hitting, lying, spreading rumors, refusing to talk for more than a day, and disappearing for a long time.” If it’s not clear from this description, it is ruinous to relationships.
“High-conflict couples often struggle with power and control,” explains Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast. “Codependency threads the relationship together; it’s that cliché of ‘Can’t live with each other, can’t live without each other.’ ”
It’s not uncommon, per Arzt, for one or more partners in a high-conflict couple to have a mental illness like depression or anxiety or a substance problem. Most of the time, the person isn’t actively seeking help, and instead is taking their symptoms out on their partner. Arzt also notes that in these relationships conflict tends to be intergenerational. “If your parents modeled conflict and tension in the household,” she says, “that’s how you likely translated and interpreted love.”
Breaking out of the high-conflict couple rubric takes work. To do so, high-conflict couples need to examine themselves and take inventory of everything from their tendencies to their triggers. Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and a regular expert on The Doctors, says that in order to break the high-conflict cycle, you have to engage in some hard self-reflection.
“Take an honest look inside and notice if your anxiety rises when things are not in place, organized, or delivered on schedule,” she says. “If you react by controlling you may be a perfectionist.”
If this is the case, Walfish suggests that you practice allowing that anxiety to rise and take note of how much you can tolerate before taking over and taking control. “Try raising the ceiling on your maximum tolerance level,” she says. “Your goal is to be able to bear the anxiety that comes with imperfection.”
That kind of interpersonal perfectionism is just one facet of the high-conflict personality, but anything that aids self-awareness illuminates a path forward. Here, then, a look at some of the high-conflict relational archetypes and how each can begin to address destructive patterns.
What Defines Them: Stonewallers tend to shut down during a disagreement, refusing to cooperate, or even communicate. “Psychologically,” Walfish explains, “stonewalling is a defense used to preserve one’s ego, emotions, and self.”
How to Help: The best way to combat stonewalling is to, as the song goes, try a little tenderness. Use empathy and compassion as a means of breaking through the stubbornness and refusal to cooperate. Rather than chastising someone for stonewalling you, let them know that you understand how they’re feeling.
“Say out loud in an empathetic tone of voice that you understand how he is feeling overwhelmed and may need a break from the conversation,” Walfish says. “Rather than him falling silent, ask him to offer you a gentle bridge by saying something like, ‘I’m feeling flooded and I need a beat to catch my breath. Let’s put a bookmark here and pick it up after dinner.’ ”
Stonewalling is often a tool couples employ when they have started to feel resentful of one another. The only real way to avoid stonewalling is by not letting resentment build up in relationships. There is no “cure” — recognition of the problem and a commitment to working through the layers of resentment is the only way to break free of that loop.
The Verbal Attacker
What Defines Them: When an issue is raised, and you or your partner fall back on judging, blaming, and criticizing, insisting that the fault lies entirely with someone else, then this may be the term that best describes your relationship. “This style is to become self-protective by deflecting responsibility for conflicts,” Walfish says. “They cannot bear to assume accountability, for their egos are too fragile and easily injured.”
How to Help: Counter a verbal attack by leaning into your partner’s arguments. Explain to them that you want to hear what it is you’ve done that’s upset them, but that you don’t wish to be attacked over it. If you’re the attacker, keep the “you” statements out of the discussion and switch to “I” statements. Don’t focus on the action; instead, focus on how it made you feel.
“The best way to respond to the Verbal Attacker is to say, ‘I want to hear your thoughts, but it’s easier for me to process when you say things beginning with I need,’ ” says Walfish. “ ‘Otherwise, I hear it as a putdown and feel bad about myself and that gets us nowhere.’ ”
What Defines Them: Avoiders will do whatever they have to do to keep from dealing with a confrontation, from offering distracting arguments to flat-out changing the subject. Additionally, Avoiders will deflect and distract during an argument in order to avoid having to confront the root cause of the problem.
“During intense disagreements,” says Walfish, “if you often interrupt or think about your response while your partner is talking, then you are more concerned with winning the fight than understanding where the disruption occurred.”
How to Help: If the intensity of an argument is too much for you to deal with, try flipping the script and use a little humor to lighten the mood. Make a joke, even if it’s at your expense. If you know your partner likes to avoid arguments, come forward about it to him or her and let them know that you understand what they’re feeling. It may help your partner if you say, ‘This is hard for me to talk about, too. We can take breaks as often as you need, and take a few minutes to ourselves and cool down, but I need you to stay in this discussion with me.’ ”
What Defines Them: This dynamic is similar to the avoider in that they will always capitulate and admit that they’re wrong (even if they’re not). They are so afraid of being disliked or having someone be angry at them, that they will simply roll over and give in just to avoid another fight.
How to Help: Don’t invalidate their fears or negative feelings by telling them it’s silly to be afraid. If you do this, it will only cause those negative feelings to grow. Instead Walfish suggests saying something along the lines of: “I know you’re worried I’ll be mad at you, but I’m going to do my best to not freak out and be angry. At the same time, I need you to join me in talking about things directly so we can keep our communication healthy and productive.”
What Defines Them: Fixers are all about offering solutions to a problem at all costs. They don’t like things to be uncertain, and instead of engaging in the back-and-forth of conflict resolution, will leap to a solution just to bring the argument to a close.
How to Help: Fixers tend to believe that their idea is automatically the right one, so any argument is really just a string of words to lead them to making their point. If you or your partner tend to be Fixers, you need to try and stay open to hearing all sides of the argument as you try and communicate.
“The best thing to say to the fixer is, ‘I know how uncomfortable it is to sit in uncertainty when things are so up in the air. Let’s not race to a solution just because it’s the fastest. It’s important for me to move through the resolving process thoughtfully. Have faith and trust in our relationship and know that we will get through this together,’ ” says Walfish.
When it comes to relationships where conflict is ever-present, understanding and devising ways to handle what triggers resentment and frustration is crucial in moving forward. Will it take time? Absolutely. Will it be difficult? Yes. But if action isn’t taken by both partners, things will get a whole lot worse.