The ABCs of Escalating Conflict and 7 Tips To Prevent Them

abcs of escalating conflict and prevent them

2. Coercion

A form of manipulation to force our partner to do something or change.

When accusations and blame don’t have the desired effect, partners often use coercion in an attempt to force their partner to change. Partners may nag consistently, make a demand, use threats, or drop guilt-tripping comments.

“When the other person hears a demand from us, they see two options: to submit or to rebel.” – Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

A study on couples discovered that anxiously attached adults tend to use exaggerated expressions of hurt feelings and more guilt-inducing behaviors. (3) When their partners experienced the guilt, the anxiously attached person viewed the relationship as more positive.

The problem is their partners reported the relationship as unsatisfactory.

The study concluded that while manipulation may foster a short-term boost in intimacy and commitment, it erodes the relationship in the long term.

Often with coercion, the partner who is at the receiving end of this behavior gives in to simply gain some peace of mind. As the pattern repeats, it becomes a toxic cycle that creates a lack of freedom to be open and honest with each other. The more manipulation is used, the less power it has unless the stakes are raised, which is what people do.

For example, Stacey used to express irritation with a slightly raised voice, as this often got her a response from David. But now she uses ultimatums and practically yells them to get a reaction from David. (4)

Since David is conflict-avoidant, he complies but resents Stacey for it and emotionally distances himself from her. The farther he distances himself, the more she escalates. How they both approach conflict is destroying their relationship.

Coercive behavior reduces the safety of being emotionally open and connected, often leading to nasty conflicts about power and influence. It’s toxic to a romantic bond.

Other Examples

  • “If you truly loved me, you’d do…”
  • “You never care about me. If you did, you’d do…”
  • Withdrawing emotionally to punish our partner for not doing something
  • Attempts to make our partner jealous or insecure

3. Defensiveness 

A counterattack to an accusation, blame, or coercion

When we are blamed or manipulated into doing something, it can lead us to feel defensive. We may have a desire to defend ourselves or point out faults in our partner. To learn about the nine types of defensiveness and the four remedies, go here.

“Great couples still get angry with each other, but they continue to discuss until there is a solution even if it takes several days.” -Bob Grant

The Two Cycles Of Escalation Caused by ABCs & Ds

Often in relationships, accusations and blame are met with defensiveness. As partners argue over whose fault it is and who is to blame, the conflict escalates out of control. This is where partners say hurtful things to each other and damage the relationship.

The second cycle is coercion being met with resentment. The more partners feel coerced, the more resentment builds. Even if a partner complies on the surface, inside they bottle their emotions. Eventually, the bottle explodes and the conflict escalator rises instantly.

Experiencing the ABCs of conflict once or twice likely isn’t going to cause a divorce, but when the cycle becomes a habitual way of communicating with each other, escalation becomes inevitable because partners are primed to react to each other’s ABCs and Ds.

Related: Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps

7 Tips To Stop Riding The Conflict Escalator

It’s practically impossible for a couple never to experience escalation during the conflict. The difference is that some couples are able to prevent escalation from causing damage to each other and the relationship, while other couples feel helpless and have not developed the necessary emotional regulation skills to self-soothe and step into their personal power during conversations.

Like a fork in the road, every choice of words, including the tone used, influences the type of conversation you’ll have. I call this Conflict Conversation Choice Points:

escalating conflict
Conflict Conversation Choice Points
Scroll to Top