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Why Your Relationship Is High Conflict

If you are in a high conflict relationship, you are no stranger to frequent, unpleasant, even destructive conflict. You may feel like you have tried everything and still nothing changes. No matter how good your intentions, you still end up in the same messy fights, wondering whether this relationship is doomed.

Although high conflict couples differ, almost all have one thing in common. Both partners are genuinely, constantly trying to STOP FIGHTING. You both want to stop. You want to resolve the conflict. You want a healthy, happy relationship. The problem is, your efforts at conflict containment, management, and resolution are not effective. What you are both doing is not working, but you keep doing it.

"I've tried everything"

When couples share that they have tried everything, more often than not they actually mean "I have put a lot of effort into a few strategies that haven't worked." Most couples rely on the same behaviors during conflict over and over. For example:

  • Escape or avoidance - When the conflict starts to spiral, you make attempts to get out of it. This might sound like "Can we talk about this later?" or "I just really need to move on." Or you might shut down altogether, saying very little and just letting the conflict happen around you.

  • Emotional Intensity - When the conflict feels distressing, your speech and non-verbal behavior match the distress you are feeling inside. You show your emotions. This sounds like "Can't you see how much you're hurting me?" or "You're breaking my heart, why do you keep doing this to us?" You express how you're feeling fully, perhaps repeatedly.

  • Escalation - When you feel hurt by your partner, you lash out. The things you say aren't necessarily true, but you find places to wound them because you feel very wounded.

Sometimes, one partner tries a productive strategy (like asking for a short time out or reminding your partner that you are on the same team). But it's rare in high conflict relationships for either partner to stick with an effective strategy for long enough that it has a shot of working. Instead, one person tries a strategy, and when they don't quickly get results they feel frustrated and revert to the previous, less than helpful attempts to end the conflict.

"I'm the one trying"

Another common dynamic in high conflict relationships is the belief (often held by both partners simultaneously) that YOU are solely trying to get the conflict to stop while your partner spins out of control. How can both people believe this? You know what is happening for you internally, so you are aware when you put effort into repair or connection, even if your effort is ineffective or invisible. Similarly, your partner knows when they try to stop the conflict, even though you might not perceive their effort.

Their Efforts Don't Count

One very challenging but often helpful strategy for couples stuck in a conflict loop is to practice assuming your partner is acting in good faith. This assumption will likely not come easy, because you have have logged a lot of practice assuming that they are trying to sabotage you.

Something high conflict couples may want to watch out for is the added assumption that your partner is acting in good faith, but they are damaged, defective, or disturbed in some way that prevents their good faith efforts from being valuable.

For example, you may believe your partner has the best intentions, but you see them as too anxious to implement those intentions. Or you may believe your partner is trying their best, but their substance use means their best efforts really don't amount to much. Or you may have the mindset that your partner means well, but they have a personality disorder and so all their actions are filtered through that disorder.

I encourage you to explore letting go of narratives about your partners' effort being inferior to your own due to some quality or disorder you perceive them to have. More often than not, the real story is complicated and nuanced. Even if your partner has a diagnosed disorder or difficulty of some kind, constantly telling the story that they can't be an effective partner because of that disorder is a dehumanizing way to look at them. Try assuming that they are both coming from a good place and that they have something of value to offer.

Start With Yourself

Finding new ways to move through conflict is hard. More than anything, it requires self-awareness and practice monitoring your own efforts. Are you repeating the same ineffective strategies? Are you telling yourself a story that frames you as the long suffering victim and your partner as a villain out to get you? Are you giving up on effective strategies when one attempt doesn't work?

Developing understanding for your own good-hearted but unhelpful attempts to stop the conflict is a solid first step to shifting the pattern.

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