All of us have been in a relationship - whether with a partner, child, sibling or friend- in which there was intense conflict. We have all had fights with people we care about; these sometimes degenerate into shouting or name calling and occasionally into physical altercations. Conflict of this nature is not uncommon among young children (I have a very vivid memory of being about five years old and leaping on my best friend with the intent of doing serious bodily harm after she chewed the toes off my barbie doll). As we mature, most of us will resort to more subtle and dignified strategies. Which is not to say that some of us don’t still shout and call names occasionally. My point here is that there is a broad range of normal conflict behaviors. While it is no longer customary to pick up dueling pistols to resolve a dispute, there are plenty of people who see physical and/or emotional violence as a reasonable option in interpersonal conflict.
I want to be very clear that I do not condone abusive acts, especially not in relationships with people we love. Nothing is so undermining to our basic sense of safety and trust as to be deliberately harmed by someone you love. But we are all human. We do ugly things and sometimes we are most vicious to those we love. So does this mean we are all in abusive relationships? Of course not. Abusive relationships are characterized by one partner engaging in a pattern of coercive behavior, with the intention of maintaining power and control over the other partner. All of us have had bad moments where we have said and done bad things. Far fewer of us adopt abusive tactics as our go-to interpersonal strategy.
Intimate partner violence is a complex social problem that is often beyond the scope of a strictly clinical intervention. Abusive relationships demand that appropriate contingencies are in place to enhance safety. This might mean involvement of the legal system; at the very least, a viable safety plan should be prioritized. In my experience, abusive relationships do not self-heal. They require long-term multi-systemic interventions that focus simultaneously on empowering the victim and ensuring their safety while holding the abuser accountable for their actions. Couples therapy would not be a first-line intervention for abusive relationships, as there is considerable evidence that couples therapy may put the abused partner at increased risk.
While abusive relationships are characterized by power and control dynamics underlying an established pattern of coercive behavior, a “high conflict” relationship is characterized by an escalating pattern of mutual dysregulation from which neither partner is able to disengage. Both partners are seemingly stuck in repetitive cycles of conflict that leave them exhausted and drained. Their conflicts may be fueled by infidelity, substance use and stress of all kinds. When couples like this fight, neither will back down or retreat. Although neither partner is engaging in predatory tactics, these conflicts can be emotionally brutal and can escalate to violence. Both partners experience genuine remorse about their behavior and want to fix it but often a discussion of “the problem” leads to yet another escalation. Just because we would not categorize this as an “abusive relationship” does not mean that it is not harmful. This kind of regular intense conflict erodes relationships, leaves partners feeling miserable and alone and can have a profound impact on children in the household, creating issues for them that may reverberate into adulthood. But if both partners are willing participants, these couples can benefit from therapy that focuses on building mutual understanding and validation while also teaching each partner skills to self-regulate and to communicate with greater clarity and precision.
Conflict isn’t bad, nor is it necessarily bad for relationships. Often conflict can lead to enhanced intimacy and understanding. Conflict gives us the opportunity to observe our (and our partner’s) vulnerabilities. When appropriately handled, conflict can stimulate growth in a relationship of mutual love and respect. Problems arise when we don’t know how to handle conflict, when tendencies coalesce into patterns and when love and trust are eroded. In these instances, it is important to get help- for the relationship and for yourself. Quite often our conflict behavior is learned. Our tendencies to get defensive, shout, blame or use abusive language may represent a skills deficit- in the areas of communication and/or self-regulation. While it can be tough and humbling work, therapy (whether for the individual or the couple) can be transformative. Hemingway ( who had his own share of troubled interpersonal relationships) wrote that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Conflict with those we love can break us but rifts can be mended and healed and the relationship can thrive, stronger in the “broken places.”
Julia Levine, LCSW, specializes in recovery support, self-harm behaviors, high conflict relationships and parenting teens.