9 Common Negative Conflict Patterns That Damage Relationships

9 Common Negative Conflict Patterns That Damage Relationships

Breaking through conflicting pattern in relationship can still be effective in repairing the damage in the connection.

Every intimate relationship has its ups and downs. No matter how compatible the partners may be, they are bound to occasionally disagree.

If those conflicts are insignificant, the couple will eventually make up and let them go. But, if they are crucial but remain unresolved, they can create potentially irreparable damage over time.

The process that couples rely upon to resolve disputes are their conflict patterns. They not only reveal a lot about their relationship, but they also can portend its future. Arguments that are both repetitive and unresolved too often result in the avoidance of important issues. These “unprocessed disconnects” are bound to fester over time and can cause permanent relationship damage.

Alternately, if they can be courageously faced and successfully resolved, they can actually help a couple to not only prevent that relationship bruising but enhance their intimacy. When each important dispute is processed and understood, the partners can use each successive dispute to understand better how and why they fight. That knowledge allows them to use each successive argument to practice those new skills.

Unfortunately, in my four decades of working with intimate couples, I more routinely see intimate partners do the opposite. Not learning from their repeated similar arguments, they endure the same negative outcomes. With each successive similar interaction, they remain stuck in these “groundhog day” fruitless disconnects. The couples typically make up in highly predictable ways but bury the issues that needed to be resolved.

I have often witnessed these negative combat patterns in the therapeutic setting. Many times, after watching a couple repeat them over and over, I am bewildered that the partners do not seem to realize that they are repeating what they have done so often in the past. They seem helpless to both stop these negative interactions or remember their repetition.

Each intimate partnership seems to have its own unique and predictable conflict patterns. The partners both use their same phrases, voice intonations, body language, facial expressions, rhythms and predictable time sequences that can range from five-minute flairs to long, extended all night sessions. And, in most relationships, it is the same partner who brings the couple back together after a fight.

As couples begin to identify and understand their own ineffective and damaging fight patterns, they are able to challenge and change them. But, these changes cannot happen rapidly. It is totally normal for every couple, no matter how well they are learning, to slip into destructive conflict patterns from time to time until they master the skills to avoid them.

What makes success more probable is their willingness to courageously face what they have been doing, avoid any negative judgements, and for both partners to be accountable for the roles they have played in maintaining them. And to keep in mind the most critical change of attitude: No blame, the courage to be accountable for their own part in the process, and their willingness to change those behaviors.

There are many different examples of futile negative conflict patterns, but they all have the same following characteristics in common.

They are:

  • Exaggerated and dramatic.
  • Never resolve the dispute at hand.
  • Likely to result in amnesia after they end.
  • Dishonoring of vulnerability or sacred information.
  • Blind to causing embarrassment or humiliation.
  • Commonly infiltrated by frequent interruptions, invalidations, or repeated defensive responses.

To help you to identify your relationship conflict patterns, the following are the nine I’ve most often observed. Please compare, contrast, and construct your own.

Two important caveats: Both genders are fully capable of playing any of these roles and the conflict patterns and styles are independent of the problem the partners are trying to resolve. Because the futile process itself is contaminated, the content of these arguments becomes unimportant and is therefore not amenable to successful resolution.

9 Common Negative Conflict Patterns


1) Shouter versus Silent Martyr

These conflicts begin with rapid escalation and high drama. The shouting partner goes from no contact to explosive expression in seconds and often with little observable provocation. He or she is typically low in frustration tolerance in others areas of life as well.

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