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3 Conflict Patterns That Can Wreck Relationships, From A Couples' Therapist

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist By Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy. She received her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University.
3 Conflict Patterns That Can Wreck Relationships, From A Couples' Therapist
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Conflict is inevitable in close relationships. It's not realistic to believe you will never face differences with another person. However, the way couples solve conflicts together is varied.

In the ideal, couples are able to trust their partner enough to hear them out and be curious about their position. When partners can do this, they are able to resolve their issue through simply understanding the other person's point of view or through moving toward a compromise together. However, creating this type of conflict style is often a process―described in detail in my book I Want This To Work―that couples need to learn as they move through their relationship, hopefully sooner rather than later.

In the interim, many couples enter into conflict patterns that create feelings of frustration and distance. When they are able to identify the pattern and work toward changing it, their relationship can develop a sense of ease and closeness. However, if they can't work through the patterns, they tend to escalate and therefore deteriorate the relationship.

Clinical psychologist and couples' therapist Sue Johnson, Ed.D., has described these conflict patterns as the "Demon Dialogues": a scary-sounding name for very common issues. The good news? Once you recognize the conflict pattern you're stuck in, you can begin to learn the skills needed to change it. 

Here are the three conflict patterns to look out for:

Pattern 1: Find the Bad Guy.

In this pattern, couples manage conflict by finding the "bad guy" whenever they are upset or disagree. They point fingers at each other in an escalating pattern of mutual blame. These types of arguments find no true end; rather, they act as an infinity loop of never-ending criticism until people become exhausted and give up...only to brush the issue under the carpet until it rears its ugly head at some point in the future.

Couples stuck in this conflict pattern feel frustrated that their problems never get solved and over time start to see conversations with each other as pointless.

The blame game might sound like:

  • John: Why did you leave the car window open all night? The inside of the car is soaked!
  • Lee: Well, maybe if you had helped me get the kids out of the car, I wouldn't have forgotten.
  • John: So what? You can't get kids out of the car and remember to close the windows properly? You were texting on your phone. That's why you were distracted.
  • Lee: I was texting on my phone because you made us miss the doctor's appointment, and I had to let them know we were rescheduling!
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What to do:

When people are stuck in the blame game, they are looking for who is right and who is wrong by criticism and defensiveness to navigate their conflicts. To change this pattern, you'll need to commit to changing your mindset from one of "win/lose" to one of "win/win." When you enter into disagreements, look for how to bridge the gap by giving you each a "win."

You'll also want to learn how to bring up your difficult topics gently and with full ownership of your own thoughts and feelings rather than putting the other person down. Likewise, work toward hearing your partner's concerns without immediately casting blame back at them. Take responsibility for your part. 

This might look like:

  • John: Why did you leave the car window open all night? The inside of the car is soaked!
  • Lee: Uh, you're right. I can't believe I did that! I must have been totally distracted. I'll go grab a towel. 
  • John: Well, I know you were busy and distracted. Let me help you. We can do it together. 
  • Lee: Thanks, babe.

Pattern 2: The Protest Polka.

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Also known as pursue/withdraw, the Protest Polka is named because of the dance that couples get into: one person moving toward while the other seemingly moves away. In this pattern, one partner will pursue the issue while the other begins to shut it out or shut it down. The goal of the pursuer is to solve the problem or get more connection, and the goal of the distancer is to protect themselves (and the relationship) from further hurt. Ultimately, both people want a sense of safety and peace, but they want it in different ways. 

The protest polka sounds like:

  • Devon: Hey, can we please talk about what happened with your bank balance this month?
  • Amber: Again? Are you really bringing this up? I am so tired of talking about this.
  • Devon: We need to talk about it, Amber. 
  • Amber: It's not a good time. Let's talk about it later.
  • Devon: No, we need to talk about it now, or things are going to get worse.
  • Amber leaves the room.

If you struggle with this pattern, it's likely it started out with the blame game pattern, and then over time the increasing anxiety from having bad conflict interactions moved you both into roles that make you feel safer—one of you preferring the independence and space and the other seeking out the connection and conversation.

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What to do:

When people are stuck in the protest polka, they are both taking steps that cause them to feel less safety and trust in each other. If you struggle with this in your relationship, it can be helpful to explore your attachment styles as well as learn how to avoid the four horsemen, self-soothe, and take breaks.

Learning to navigate your own role in this dance is integral. If you tend to be the person who distances, it's your job to learn how to calm yourself down so you can enter into conversations and learn to compromise. This means you will need to work on building comfort with vulnerability, asking for what you need, and practice soothing your body when it becomes overwhelmed.

If you are the person who tends to pursue, you will need to learn how to take space and allow for breaks in conversation, set boundaries, and express yourself assertively. Similarly, this means you will need to practice self-soothing when you become overwhelmed.

  • Devon: Hey, can we please talk about what happened with your bank balance this month?
  • Amber: Yes, we can. I like to take time to think about this kind of thing. Can we schedule a time to talk about it for the weekend?
  • Devon: Sure. It's really important for me to talk about, so can we schedule that now?
  • Amber: Yep, how about 8 a.m. on Saturday? I will put it on my calendar now.
  • Devon: Great! That works for me.

Pattern 3: Freeze & Flee

In this pattern, no one is making any moves. They might be thinking that something is bothering them, but they've decided to not bring it up. Couples will avoid conflict even though they both live with feelings of uncertainty and loneliness. Since they aren't talking to each other, they are often internalizing the conversation or talking to others about their problems. 

This pattern is often the result of the other patterns happening over and over again and, in a sense, giving up on trying to solve issues together. 

If you are in this pattern, you will want to work on building more dependence and vulnerability in your relationship, and you'll likely need to work on healing past hurts. 

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What to do:

When couples are stuck in this pattern, it's likely after a significant amount of time being stuck in the other patterns first. Because of this, couples are usually feeling very hurt and have built up a cache of resentment, frustration, and hopelessness with each other. To work through this pattern, couples will need to address past hurts to clear the air and work on building up skills that help them to both feel safe accessing their vulnerability with each other. To do this, couples' therapy can help. 

Moving forward.

The way couples approach conflict can have a huge impact on the outcome of that conflict and whether it gets fully resolved. By understanding the type of conflict loop you have with your partner, you can begin to work on changing it. The ultimate goal is to learn how to communicate in a way that honors both of you.

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