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What Is A High Conflict Relationship?

What makes a relationship high conflict?


If you're reading this, you've probably found yourself wondering just this question. Is your relationship high conflict? Is it high conflict enough to get help? Can a therapist even help us?

I'm a psychologist who specializes in high conflict couples therapy. For the couples I support, high conflict is usually about a combination of three things:


  1. How often you fight. High conflict couples usually feel like their arguments happen often. Exactly how often varies a lot, but if your relationship is "high conflict," you probably feel like fighting takes up a way bigger role in your day to day life than you wish it did.

  2. How well (or poorly) you resolve conflict. High conflict couples typically struggle to fully resolve fights. You're left with open wounds that never really heal. Next time you fight, that open wound makes everything feel more painful and higher stakes.

  3. How intense conflicts get. High conflict couples have intense, even destructive fights. After a fight, you might wonder how you or your partner acted the way you did. You might feel very hurt or ashamed. Repair is difficult because the damage cuts deep.


If any of these three factors resonate with you, it's possible your relationship is high conflict. Know that it is absolutely possible to heal your high conflict relationship, and understanding that you are locked in a pattern that both partners create and maintain is the first step to change.


High Conflict Harm Reduction

Ultimately, you want a beautiful, peaceful, connected relationship. I want that for you too. How do you get there? Basic safety and respect come first.


Harm reduction involves focusing on how to minimize the harm you're both incurring day-to-day instead of waiting to fix the complex underlying problems. Harm reduction works outside-in starting with the most serious behaviors. Some harm reduction strategies you can explore:


  • Stop fighting in front of your kids. Healthy, regulated conflict is perfectly fine for your children to witness. Destructive, toxic conflict is not. If you haven't yet figured out how to have calm fights, set a firm rule not to fight in front of your children.

  • No fighting under the influence. For many couples, conflicts spin out of control when substances are involved. If you choose to imbibe or use, agree that you will not discuss heavy topics. If a conflict comes up, you'll table it till you're sober.

  • No angry touch. For some couples, physical touch is grounding and deescalates conflict. For others, touch can become aggressive or violent. If there is any chance touch could get out of control, agree that you will not touch each other during conflict. Keep at least a few feet of distance to preserve your physical safety.


Harm reduction is a good place to start when you need to stop making the relationship even worse than it already is. I hope you keep going and discover the root causes to end harm altogether.


More From Me:

For partners in California, Oregon, or Minnesota, I provide evidence-based couples therapy for high conflict relationships.


If you live elsewhere, I created the The Take A Break Guide to help high conflict couples increase their relationship safety quickly.


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Britney Barbara
Britney Barbara
4 days ago

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