• Dr. Marina Rosenthal

Is Your Relationship High Conflict? How To Tell And What To Do

Although I work with all kinds of 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.


Signs Your Relationship May Be High Conflict

How can you tell if your relationship is high conflict? 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.


1. You and your partner fight a lot

If you’re in a high conflict relationship, you may wonder if you and your partner fight more than other couples. It might feel like you are constantly swinging from one conflict to the next. Some high conflict couples have many small skirmishes punctuated by big blow outs. Others have long, drawn out fights that seem to last for days at a time without resolution.


2. Your fights are intense

High conflict couples have complicated, twisty fights that cut deep. 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. High conflict couples tend to have a type of fight I call “the tumbleweed” where numerous topics and old wounds are dragged in, making it hard to tell what the current fight is actually even about.


3. Fights heat up quickly and are hard to resolve

High conflict fights go from 0 to 60 fast. You might be making dinner together or driving to pick up the kids, and everything seems calm, but 2 minutes later you are arguing intensely. Your conversations take a sharp, fast turn toward hostility in a matter of moments.


4. Everything you both do seems to make the fight worse

Your attempts to resolve the fight backfire and escalate the argument even more. Your partner says they are apologizing, but all you hear is them mocking you. High conflict couples struggle to dismount from arguments. Your good intentions don’t seem to matter or help. It almost seems like fighting is just inevitable for you two.


5. You both say and do messed up things during fights

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.


The Difference Between High Conflict And Abuse

High conflict relationships are not the same as abusive relationships, but without context they can look similar.


Abuse involves a pattern of control, intimidation, and coercion. Both partners in an abusive relationship may say or do aggressive things, but the victim’s behavior is a form of fighting back.


Signs that your relationship may be abusive:

  • You are afraid of your partner

  • You feel pressured to participate in sexual activities you don’t want

  • Even without physically hurting you, your partner uses their body to intimidate you

  • You feel controlled, like you can’t make your own decisions

  • Your partner monitors where you go and what you do

  • You are scared to leave

Not all abuse is physical. In emotional or psychological abuse, control happens through words, threats, and intimidation.


Signs your relationship is high conflict but not abusive:


If your relationship is high conflict but not abusive, your damaging behavior is bi-directional. Both people say and do harmful things during conflict. Importantly, one partner is not getting hurt worse than the other. In abusive relationships, even if both partners participate in aggression, one ends up hurt more or worse, either emotionally or physically.


In high conflict relationships, even though your fights are distressing and destructive, you have a voice in the relationship. Outside of conflict, though you and your partner may act hostile toward each other, there is a general sense of equality. You can make your own decisions, even if your partner bitterly resents or disagrees with those decisions. You can both express yourselves, even if it is messy, unproductive, or hurtful.


A licensed therapist can help you determine whether your relationship is high conflict or abusive. If you feel safe asking your partner to attend with you, a therapist can assess whether couples counseling therapy might help. If not, go to therapy alone 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


We Tried Therapy Before And It Didn’t Help

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. 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 common reasons why therapy might not have worked for you and your partner in past:


1. The therapist has 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.


2. You try to learn new skills before you’re ready

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.


3. The couple or the therapist focuses on the specifics of what was said or done, instead of the escalation pattern

Your partner just said something outrageous. They called you crazy or shouted that if the

fights continue they’ll leave you. Or you threw your purse across the room or shouted “it’s

your fault our relationship is so messed up.” 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 said 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 comment or action. By focusing on the details, you miss the cycle and ultimately stay stuck.


What Now?

If you think you and your partner have a high conflict relationship, and you are both willing to seek therapy, look for a therapist who specializes in working with high conflict couples. High conflict couples work is a specialization, and it’s not every couples therapist’s strong suit. When your relationship is getting wrecked by out-of-control fights, you don’t have time to waste on unhelpful therapy.


If you live in Minnesota, I am available to help. My practice is dedicated to helping high conflict couples break free of their cycle, build a relationship that does not cause harm, and create a close connection. Reach out today to start the process.


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