Nine Destructive Behaviors to Avoid During Relationship Conflict

By Posted in - Blog & Conflict & Relationships March 3rd, 2015 4 Comments

Most of us have had the experience of behaving poorly in relationship,

Couple snowball fightespecially during an argument or a disagreement. While conflict is a healthy and normal part of an intimate relationship, it takes some skill and effort to be effective and constructive.

People don’t enjoy participating in destructive behaviors. Clients tell me all the time how bad they feel about their behavior when in conflict. Yet, most people feel as though they can help themselves or they don’t know how to stop the cycle. They feel threatened, hurt, upset, and/or angry, and they feel they need to protect themselves.

When both partners react, it creates a negative loop that can breed negativity. This negativity can fester and become a difficult pattern to break. Both partners are usually engaged in a cycle of feeling hurt, getting angry, and reacting. Over time, these cycles lead to a great deal of separation, disconnect, and discontent in relationship.

Goats head lockChange is not going to come from staying the same and expecting your partner to make the modifications. Often times, we are looking for our partner to change, essentially saying to each other, “No, you go first.” I have seen couples get stuck in long-term “stand-offs” that do not end well. Start with what you have control over – YOU. Do what you can. It will make a difference. When one person shifts, it changes the whole dynamic in the relationship. If you would like a little guidance, read A Step-by-Step Guide To Turn Any Argument Into Effective Communication.

If you recognize any of these nine destructive behaviors in yourself or your relationship, the important thing to do is to address them right away. Very little good will come from resorting to destructive behaviors. Instead, I encourage you to invest the time and energy into dealing with conflict in a constructive way. It may be a difficult task, but it will be well worth the effort and investment. I invite you to look at this list with the intention to learn.

Nine Destructive Behaviors to Avoid During Conflict
1. Name calling & Character Attacks: Name calling is when language is used to be insulting and offensive to another person. Name calling can be a word meant to attack, blame, reject, shame, ridicule, or condemn another person. These might be words like jerk, loser, selfish, controlling, inconsiderate, jealous, rude, mean, egotistical, narcissistic, stupid, inept, crazy, irrational, childish, immature, etc.

Character attacks are similar to name calling, but they are used more globally and generally to attack someone’s character. Instead of taking issue with what your partner is saying, the issue is with your partner’s personality, characteristics, intentions, family, ethnicity, religion, beliefs, etc.

Name calling and character attacks often involve using all-or-nothing statements Couple Boxing(i.e. “you always” “you never”). In response to character attacks, your partner will most likely be defensive and react to your blanket statement by trying to provide evidence that contradicts your statement. This will take the focus off of your complaint and will set you on a path of debating back-and-forth about whether or not your partner is “always or never” something, which is not the issue. Often this back-and-forth will escalate into an argument. If you use language that is more flexible or very specific (i.e. “it seems as though you sometimes…” “in this instance, you …”), it will be more likely that they will be able to stay focused on what you are staying rather than defending against your sweeping generalization.

2. Criticism: Criticism is the act of focusing on a person’s flaws and passing severe judgment. Criticism can be expressed through disapproval, looking for and focusing on the negative aspects of someone. It can also be the process of finding issue, fault, or problems with another person. Nitpicking and trying to fix your partner are other examples of criticism.

Viewing your partner negatively and focusing on the negative can foster dislike and disdain. Holding your partner in a consistently negative view often leads to hate, despise, and contempt. When someone is being highly critical, they are overlooking and not giving credit to their partner’s strengths or positive qualities. Also, they aren’t giving their partner the benefit of the doubt, and are more likely to blame them for things. They will want their partner to feel bad and may even try to shame them at times. The contemptuous partner usually feels justified and/or even in a place of superiority, while their partner will feel devalued, unappreciated, and disrespected. This dynamic usually creates a climate for a tremendous amount of hurt, anger, and despair, and can be very damaging for the relationship. Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, claims that contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

3. Dismissive nonverbals: Dismissive nonverbals are gestures or body language used to reject, disrespect, or put-down your partner. Some physical gestures that people use are waving a finger, putting a hand up, shooing away motion with the hand, Couple talking on a benchhand yapping, turning back on partner, eye rolling, heavy sighing, looking distracted and uninterested, shaking your head “no” when your partner is talking, and raising an eyebrow. Sometimes a dismissive non-verbal can be even more upsetting than a verbal attack. It can often convey a desire to “one-up” your partner.

If you can, be aware of your body language and facial expressions. Try and keep a neutral and open stance.

4. Silent treatment: Giving someone the silent treatment involves shutting down, ignoring them, avoiding, and/or refusing to respond to your partner’s comments or questions. It can also be neglecting to talk or discuss certain topics that your partner might bring up. The silent treatment generally creates more hurt and pain. The partner being ignored often feels rejected and disrespected. Using the silent treatment does not contribute to any resolution. Sometimes partners use the silent treatment as a way to express disapproval or punishment, which contributes to the negative cycle.

If you are too angry or hurt to talk, tactfully communicate that you are not ready to talk. To go one step further, you could suggest a time as to when you might be ready to check-in.

5. Assuming: Assuming is the act of guessing or deciding what your partner’s thoughts and feelings are without asking them or checking it out. Mind reading can be another form of assuming. Unfortunately, this is a very, very common practice. On one hand, when we are very close to someone, we will observe them and try to understand their motives and why they do what they do. It will be Seagull Facing different directionsnatural for us to anticipate their actions and have certain expectations about them. On the other hand, especially when in conflict, we do not really know what they are thinking or feeling, and WE ARE OFTEN WRONG. Many times people think they are right about what their partner is thinking or feeling, only to realize that they had a faulty interpretation. Assumptions and mind reading usually lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

The solution is relatively easy in principle. Recognize you have not asked your partner or received information about their feelings, actions, or desires. Realize that you have an assumption or imagined sense of things. Then, check out your assumption with your partner.

6. Trying to be right: During a conflict, it is common for one or both partners to switch from a position of “trying to resolve an issue” to “trying to be right.” In other words, couples will enter into a conversation with the intention to talk about a concern constructively only to get derailed and start arguing about whose reality is correct. Couples will feel pitted against each other, both feeling like they have to defend their position and with the goal to win or be beaten. This describes a power structure of one up and one down, where only one person can win or be right.

If the goal is to win, then the goal is no longer to have resolution, understanding, and a mutually, beneficial solution. When partners lose sight of their goals, it becomes very difficult to maintain a respectful and considerate stance with one another.

If your partner is expressing a different view-point, try to see the value in their being honest, open, and authentic. Their opposing view is not a personal attack or a dismissal of your view-point.

7. Being defensive: Most of the time, people are defensive when they feel on Blow Fishguard. They feel as though they are being attacked and/or are expecting to be criticised. When feeling defensive, people will deny any responsibility, avoid any wrongdoing, and are unwilling to look at their part. They are more focused on defending or protecting themselves then they are listening objectively and openly. When one partner is really defensive, their partner usually does not feel listened to or understood. Issues will go unaddressed and unresolved, and the conflict will continue to grow.

Being defensive takes many forms, but mainly it is the act of trying to dispute or refute your partner’s perspective. This can be done by contradicting or taking the counterargument. Playing “devils advocate,” pointing out mistakes, or providing evidence to debunk call all be ways of being defensive. Basically, it is taking an oppositional stance and deflecting what your partner is to saying or doing about a particular point or circumstance.

If you are able, really listen to your partner. When you feel defensive, stay with you partner’s perspective, even if you disagree. Try and understand what it is like to be them. Put yourself in their shoes.

8. Control Tactics: Control tactics are the act of trying to manipulate or dominate the situation or person through various strategies. These strategies can be anything from interrupting or talking over the other person, demands, threats, ultimatums, and trying to control the conversation. People resort to control mechanisms when they feel desperate, powerless, and scared. Many times people are not aware that they are attempting to control. They are essentially grasping at their partner to alleviate their own fear and anxiety.

It can be very scary to feel distance and disconnection with your partner. It may even feel as though you are losing your partner because you feel the loss of the emotional bond and connection in the moment. While this disconnection may feel threatening, the more you seek to control your partner, the further your partner will push you away. The important thing to remember here is that your partner is pushing your attempt to control them away (not you).

If you can deal with the fear and risk of temporary disconnect and upset, and try to understand your partner’s feelings and experience (how ever scary it may seem), then it is more likely that they will lean into connection with you. This is very counter intuitive.

9. Outburst of anger: An outburst of anger is the act of expressing anger, often in an uncontrolled and sudden manner. An anger outburst can be exhibited on a smaller scale, like sarcasm or passive aggressive anger. Or it can be expressed on a larger scale, like yelling, shouting, slamming, throwing, hitting, or breaking things. Outbursts of anger often occur when people feel beyond their threshold of what they can tolerate, where they are “at their wits end” or they have endured their “last straw.” Often the angry person thinks that their partner is deliberately making them unhappy or is trying to hurt them, and they turn it into an issue of justice, fairness, and principle.

The receiving partner usually feels hurt, frighten, and worried. The outbursts can threaten the feeling of safety and security. Displays of anger do not create resolution or repair. Intentionally trying to hurt your partner can be very damaging and even abusive.

If you are prone to getting angry easily or tend to lose your temper, I would highly suggest learning some tools of manage your anger. This involves validating your feelings, learning appropriate expressions of anger, and ways of descalating your reactions. Anger is a healthy human emotion. Anger lets us know when there has been a violation, injustice, or when a boundary has been crossed. Anger can also surface when someone feels provoked, humiliated, or attacked. It is the way someone Couple raftingdeals with their anger that makes it constructive or destructive.

The health of your relationship depends on your ability to refrain using these destructive behaviors and to increase the use of constructive behaviors during a conflict.

Conflict is healthy and normal part of a lasting long-term relationship. The goal is not to fight it or avoid it, but deal with it and deal with it skillfully and constructively. If you find that you and your partner are caught in negative patterns, then I recommend learning some new tools and getting some guidance in how to deal with conflict, fear, hurt, anger more constructively. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. If you would like to know what to do, here is a guideline for A Step-by-Step Guide To Turn Any Argument Into Effective Communication.

I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment. What behavior are you wanting to work on improving? Thank you.

(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Maralyn - Reply

    November 30, 2015 at 2:36 am

    The above article is helpful – thank you. I’m in a three month old relationship with a single, never-married man. I was married for 35 years, divorced for 5 years and still good friends with my ex. My new partner B, and I are both in our early 60’s. We share many common interests, generally have great fun together outdoors and travelling and the chemistry is great. He is a pilot, very controlled, balanced but often opiniated. I’m a mother of 3 grown-up children and have great relationships with them and many other family members and friends. Problems arise with B and I sometimes – he is inclined to making negative comments about general situations – politics, people etc. I can fob it off for a time, and try to make light of it. It’s a habit he seems to have developed living alone ?! Problems arise when he “starts teasing”and says things – supposedly in jest – like you’re ditsy, close to certifiable etc. and I on a bad day, react and get angry as happened this weekend. I don’t feel it’s fun to talk to people you care for in that way ? Its twice ended in a stand-off – on Saturday it happened, he told me to calm-down and I couldn’t and so I went home. Later in the day I emailed him to try to explain clearly how I feel but he’s now ‘on lockdown’ – his coping mechanism. Not responding to messages or contact. How do we break this cycle in an otherwise very rewarding relationship ?

    • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

      December 1, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      Hi Maralyn, Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. Yes, it is surprising how critical or sarcastic comments can really put a damper on an otherwise wonderful connection.

      Addressing these concerns can be tricky to negotiate, especially when emotions, sensitivities, and defensives are high. I love that you are seeking support and resources!

      I have published some podcast episodes addressing similar concerns. I think you may find them helpful. Particularly, episodes #38, “Why Criticism is so Painful in Relationship,” and #39 “How to Shift Criticism into Powerful Communication.” Also, I did a series on addressing this article “Nine Destructive Behaviors to Avoid during Relationship Conflict,” the series starts with episode #24 “The Most Important Ingredient in Shifting Conflicts” and ends with episode #29 “How to Clear an Issue with Your Partner” (#27 is an interview and is not apart of the series). These podcast episodes can offer you more than I can in a short reply here.

      However, I imagine two things about your partner. Either he doesn’t really understand the impact his language is having on you and the relationship or he has some unexpressed feelings and he doesn’t know how to articulate them clearly and directly. Even if you have tried to point it out to him, I imagine he has felt defensive and you guys have not really been able to address the topic at hand. There is so much going on in relationship, especially as you both are building a foundation for your relationship…creating trust, safety, authenticity, etc.

      Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more support. I would be happy to help. Thank you!

      • Maralyn - Reply

        December 1, 2015 at 11:43 pm

        Thanks so much for your reply and links. Unfortunately following my “emotional outburst” he’s not communicating with me at all. Being ghosted is awful – I’ve tried contacting him but he’s ignoring me although he’s reading my messages (good ol’ whatsapp blue ticks confirm that). But it seems the connection was not as authentic and good as I felt it was. I’m very sad about it all.

        • Dr. Jessica Higgins - Reply

          December 7, 2015 at 6:41 pm

          Oh no. I am so sorry to hear. I imagine he will come around at some point, and then you guys will want to have a conversation about how to handle difficult conversations as a couple (i.e. what works best for both of you). Otherwise, if you hear nothing from him, then I would give yourself the space to grieve. Then, when you are ready, you can focus your attention on cultivating the type of connection you want to create.

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