High Conflict Couples
I specialize in helping partners whose relationships are “high conflict.” High conflict couples have a lot of intense, out-of-control, and hurtful fights. Many partners with this pattern immediately relate to the term high conflict, thinking, “yes, that’s us.” But beyond a gut feeling, there are common signs to identify.
Signs Your Relationship Is High Conflict
Fights Are Intense And Frequent
You and your partner fight a lot. Your fights are complicated, twisty, and cut deep. It seems like you fight more than other couples. You may feel like just when you resolve one fight, suddenly you’re arguing about something else. You get emotionally spun out during fights and lose control of what you are doing, saying, and feeling. During conflict, you feel big, extreme emotions like betrayal, fury, and despair. Or you might feel numb, turned off, or disconnected from what you’re saying or doing.
Fights Escalate Quickly And Are Hard To Resolve
High conflict couples go from 0 to 60. Your conversations take a sharp, fast turn toward hostility in moments. Attempting to resolve the fight backfires and escalates the argument even more. Apologies don't help or get misinterpreted. Your good intentions don’t seem to matter or help. It almost seems like fighting is just inevitable for you two.
Unacceptable Behavior During Conflict
Many high conflict couples say and do really hurtful things during arguments. Later, you feel confused about or ashamed of your behavior and hurt by your partner’s actions. Because your fights include harsh comments and unpleasant behaviors, you struggle to get over the conflict even when it is “over.” How can you really forgive your partner for what they said and did? In fact, some of the things you both said and did seem unforgivable.
Why Previous Therapy May Not Have Helped
High conflict couples often try therapy and quit. Sometimes therapy even makes the fighting worse. If your relationship is high conflict, therapy can help you recognize and change your patterns - but only if the therapist creates a fundamentally different environment than your daily life. Way too often, high conflict couples go to therapy, argue the whole session, and leave in worse shape than when they arrived.
Some common couples therapy techniques just don’t work with partners who are tangled up in an intense knot of constant conflict. Some reasons why therapy might not have worked for you and your partner in past may include:
The Therapist Had Poor Control Of The Session
Therapy is not like regular life. Your therapist should have command of the room so that you and your partner do not spiral into unproductive arguments that you could have at home for free. This doesn’t mean your therapist is bossy or preachy, but that they contain you and your partner’s interactions so you can experience doing things differently. We learn by doing, and having the lived experience of talking about topics that usually spark out of control fights - but then not having an out of control fight - generates learning. Your therapist can help you rewrite your script, but only if they actively keep your interactions contained.
The Therapist Taught You New Skills You Weren't Ready For
It’s common for therapists to teach couples communication skills like active listening, using “I statements,” or validation. These are helpful techniques, but in order for them to work, the couple needs to be in a place where they feel okay enough about each other that they are motivated to change their own behavior, listen better, and communicate more effectively. When your pattern of escalation is so ingrained that it gets activated by the lightest touch, even seemingly perfect “I statements” can trigger a fight. When high conflict couples try new communication techniques prematurely, they often fail and then write off the therapy process altogether.
The Therapist Focused On Comments Or Behaviors Instead Of Your Escalation Pattern
Your partner just said something outrageous. They called you crazy or shouted that if the fights continue they’ll leave you. When one of you says or does something particularly extreme, surely you need to address the words or actions, right? But actually, hashing out those details often makes an out of control conflict worse. The particular words that were said today are not really the point. The point is the messy, hurtful, cycle you keep getting stuck in. That’s what you need to address, not the specifics of this one comment or action. By focusing on the details, you miss the cycle, and ultimately stay stuck in it.
High Conflict Vs. Abuse
High conflict relationships are not the same as abusive relationships, but without context they can look similar. Abuse involves a pattern of control, coercion, and intimidation. If you feel afraid of your partner, couples therapy is not safe and can escalate the violence.
If you are unsure whether or not your relationship is abusive and feel safe asking your partner to attend couples therapy with you, I can assess whether couples counseling therapy might help. If not, you seek therapy individually to receive support and resources. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good place to start if you suspect your relationship might be abusive and need help: 1-800-799-SAFE
My practice is dedicated to helping high conflict couples change the way they fight. I am here when you are ready to break free of your cycle and cultivate closer connection and a relationship that does not cause harm. Reach out today.