Every relationship has its ups and downs. When two people live together, there will inevitably be disagreements, misunderstandings, and differences of opinion. The person you love can often evoke the most intense anger and resentment, but at the end of the day, you kiss and make up.
In some relationships, however, there’s no such thing as a minor disagreement. Things can escalate into a major eruption in the blink of an eye. One partner always overreacts to any perceived slight or misunderstanding until it becomes an all-out fight.
This kind of behavior is typically the hallmark of a high-conflict individual, and being married to a high-conflict spouse often results in divorce.
Characteristics of a high-conflict partner
A high-conflict person has a regular pattern of behavior that makes a disagreement worse instead of better. Even the slightest provocation can send them into a major fight.
In a marriage, a high-conflict spouse may display the following red flags:
- Argumentative: They turn every small disagreement into a heated argument.
- Defensive: Any critique, even a constructive one, is regarded as a personal attack.
- Blaming: Things are always their partner’s fault.
- Not able to empathize: It’s difficult for them to understand or consider their spouse’s feelings or perspective.
- Overcome by emotional intensity: Their reactions are emotionally disproportionate to the situation.
- Unable to communicate: They find it difficult to express their feelings without shutting down or getting angry.
- Stuck in black or white thinking: Things are either all good or all bad and can flip from one to the other quickly.
- Projection: They “project” their own feelings onto others; they believe that others feel as they are feeling.
- Manipulative: They often use anger or other emotional responses to influence or control their spouse.
- Narcissistic in their thinking: They are right. You are wrong. Period.
- Unable to understand boundaries: They often overstep emotional or physical boundaries without realizing it.
- Focused on the problem instead of the solution: Their arguments keep circling back to the problem instead of trying to fix it.
The cycle of conflict
In a high-conflict marriage, there’s often a recognizable cycle. A minor annoyance causes tension between partners. At some point, one spouse is triggered. The small annoyance explodes into a major confrontation. This often includes emotional attacks and counter-attacks, alienation, blaming, and defensiveness.
In this cycle, someone eventually apologizes, and the couple makes up. Then, things go back to normal … until the cycle begins again.
This repetitive cycle becomes commonplace in a relationship with a high-conflict partner. The non-conflict partner starts to feel like they’re walking on eggshells, fearing the next blow-up. Instead of honest communication to resolve the problems, they just linger under the surface until the next triggering event.
Needless to say, relationships with a high-conflict spouse can be challenging. But what happens if you recognize these behaviors in yourself and suspect that you might be the high-conflict person in your marriage?
What causes high-conflict behaviors?
Labeling someone as high-conflict is easy, but in most cases, there’s more behind these behaviors than just a “difficult” personality. There are usually some underlying biological and emotional reasons, perhaps a mental health condition, for high-conflict behavior.
If you have difficulty controlling your emotional responses, consider these possible causes for your behavior:
If you suffered a traumatic childhood or experienced a traumatic event, this can put your mind and body on high alert and trigger intense responses whenever you feel conflict or loss of control.
You may have grown up in a family where the people around you reacted intensely in any disagreement. Thus, you grew up normalizing this behavior.
Mental health issues
High-conflict behavior often overlaps with other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder.
Some research suggests that high-conflict behavior may be genetically passed down in families, making some people more prone to that behavior than others.
Are you a high-conflict person? Give yourself a break. Chances are, there are reasons for feeling and reacting the way you do. Your conflict style may hide fears that have been brewing for many years, and instead of allowing yourself to be further “victimized” – as you see it – you come out swinging. But when that is your first response in any disagreement, especially with your spouse, it can counter the very things you’re really looking for: security and love.
How to get help
If you recognize some high-conflict behaviors in yourself, getting help and support is important for yourself and those you have personal relationships with.
Treat yourself with compassion. You may have suffered serious trauma and don’t need to pile further emotional insult on yourself. Give yourself the same understanding and love you would give a good friend dealing with similar emotional issues.
Breathe through it. Getting grounded and understanding what is happening may allow you to ward off an intensive emotional escalation before it starts.
Try to understand the underlying issues. Why do you think you react the way you do? What are you really afraid of? How realistic are those fears?
Communicate with your loved ones. Admitting that you often feel emotionally out of control makes it easier for those around you to understand what you’re going through and be supportive.
Make a plan. When you’re feeling this way, communicate it to your spouse. Then, work as partners to bring down the emotional intensity so you can address the disagreement in a less volatile way.
Get professional help. A therapist trained in dealing with unresolved trauma can help you understand your emotional intensity and offer strategies to help you reframe your responses so you can come to healthier resolutions. Couples therapy can also help your spouse communicate their frustrations in a safe place and learn ways to combat these overwhelming emotional responses to help bring you back to a set point when you’re feeling out of control.
Take ownership. While you deserve understanding, you’re also responsible for your behaviors. Get the help you, need and work to resolve the issues so you can forge healthier relationships with the ones you love.
Unfortunately, constant conflict in a marriage can wear down the healthy relationship you and your spouse once seemed to enjoy. Divorce can be the inevitable by-product of this. If you’ve come to this point, it helps to work with a supportive team that can move you through it without further conflict. At Hello Divorce, we have simplified the process for you with online divorce plans and other flat-rate professional services to help you through the process.
To talk to someone who can answer your questions and provide reassurance, schedule a free call to understand more about how we help.