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Escalating Stages of Conflict

From Friend to Enemy

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

All relationship partners have differences, but how they express and resolve those differences will predict whether their relationship thrives. If they know how, when, and why their conflicts emerge, and have mastered the tools to resolve them, they can minimize the negative impact they can have. But if their conflicts regularly escalate into full-scale havoc, they will eventually take the relationship down.

I define the moments when a couple’s struggles ramp up as “flash points.” These transition moments must be recognized by both partners as soon as possible, or they will rapidly get out of hand. Couples who allow those crucial interactions to escalate will quickly go from friends-in-dispute to enemies-at-war. All too soon emotional bloodshed can result, leaving both partners feeling abandoned, ravaged, and destroyed.

Sadly, most couples who have allowed those “flash points” to go unedited, seek professional help well beyond the time they should have. When they begin a therapeutic interaction, they have often already spent too much of their relationship energy in discouraging and frustrating battle modes. They are hurting inside and armored on the outside, protecting themselves from further assault.

Because these prolonged and repeated disputes have blurred the boundaries between potential reconciliation and emotional war, many couples, at this point, have lost the ability to know when their “flash points” even occur. The negative interactions between them now move so quickly from mild disagreements to all-out conflagrations that they no longer can identify how or when that happens.

Though they seem to blend together, flash points actually build in a systematic way. They can be identified and separated into four distinct stages. As each stage, their intensity moves up a notch as the partners become more righteous in their opinions, more entrenched in their rigidity, and less motivated to change.

If warring couples can recognize these stages and learn to stop the fighting before they do more damage, they can turn back the clock on these negative partnership interactions. And, those couples who are just beginning to rev up those notches can actually stop the fighting more easily.

As you read through the four stages, try to identify where your conflicts lie within them. Do not blame yourself or your partner as you evaluate where your relationship stands. Focus, instead, on mastering the skills that will help you successfully intervene.

Stage One – Spats and Skirmishes

New lovers regularly promise one another that they will be eternally compatible. They demonstrate that faith in the beginning of their relationship by minimizing conflicts and maximizing harmony. The passion, discovery, and natural desire to blend makes it easier for them to do that and harder for them to see that level of compatibility is not likely to last.

Differences that can become more serious disputes typically begin gently and take time to identify and understand. If there is enough quality time in between their conflicts, they can usually return to their prior compatibility, successfully resolve those differences, and keep their capacity for regeneration. In fact, successfully seeing and exploring those individual differences can often reignite their excitement and passion for one another.

Though the couple may initially operate from mutual generosity and the overriding desire to make the other happy, they may find over time that they are fighting more for self and less for the other. Their individual appetites may seem more disparate and they can’t find enough time or energy to satisfy them both. Also, outside crisis may interfere, like job losses, family troubles, financial challenges, illness, or children, draining resources that are already limited.

Relationship partners, suffering from too much going wrong and not enough healing taking place, will lose the patience and commitment to one another they once counted on to pull them through.

The Helpful Intervention:

Couples at this stage are usually still in love and fully committed to each other. They realize that they may be headed for trouble and want to learn better negotiating skills to keep from hurting one another. Though the honeymoon stage is over, they’re still glad they are in the relationship and want to make it better.

That ongoing level of desired compatibility encourages them to seek help to turn things around. Both partners are being accountable for their own contributions and making a true effort to get to the bottom of whatever they are facing.

This is the time to “rock the boat,” because it is not yet badly leaking. That means that both partners need to commit to full transparency, practice resiliency, and give their best efforts to reconstruct their needs. They need to look at every option, and willingly negotiate for whatever changes are necessary to get them back on track.

Stage Two – When Attacks and Defenses Grow More Intense and Frequent

As disputes become a larger percentage of the relationship’s interactions, the couple becomes less interested in discovering new ways of finding innovative ways of transforming the relationship, and is focused more on what is wrong with the other partner.

These suspicious and invalidating attitudes create a higher expectation that more damage will come, and the helplessness that often accompanies those feelings. When I see couples at this stage, they sit farther away from each other, and are less able to put themselves in the other’s shoes.

At this stage, the partners are often beginning to defend and counter-attack as soon as the battle begins. They experience the other as “needing to win,” or “out to make them the bad guy.” One or both are now telling the other that he or she is crazy, can’t understand, isn’t taking responsibility, or feels like the victim of the other’s wrath.

As those negative phrases start to increase, the couple begins to escalate their anger, upsets, fears of loss, and hurt. Where they once saw each other as a sanctuary, they are now threatening and suspicious “others.”

Yet, at this stage, they are not yet fully disillusioned, nor ready to give up, even as their “make-ups” are more tentative and don’t last as long.

The Most Helpful Intervention:

As the pace of their arguments increases, the partners at this stage are not only suspicious of each other’s motives, but they are on the precipice of falling into pre-defeated outcome expectations.

If I am able to influence them at this stage, I can usually slow them down and get them to listen more deeply to the fear, hurt, or anger that is behind the attacks and threats that are flying between them. I can point out how their body language is defensive, their eye contact is diminished, they are unable to hear the other. I can show them how they appear lost, discouraged, and defeated, and how whatever motivation and skill they once had is no longer in play.

It is sad to see them almost allergic to one another. Now, just the beginning of a facial expression, a particular sound, a physical change of posture, or an intensifying rhythm will set a conflict off. Each partner is perched and ready to erase the other’s thoughts and feelings to super-impose what either feels is more relevant.

Oddly, in between these recurring and now non-resolvable disputes, one or both partners may just “go on with life,” seemingly erasing the other’s influence or presence. There can be an eerie underlying, unspoken agreement to just “stay away” from certain subjects as if they were too painful to recognize any more.

This is the stage at which most couples come into therapy. They recognize that they had better reach out for outside help to keep their relationship from ending.

Stage Three - Loss of the Other

These couples are on a divorce trajectory. Whether they decide to continue living together or to separate, their capacity for true intimacy will wane rapidly if they don’t break their patterns by doing something intensive and different.

The truth is that everyone gets better at what they repeat doing, even if that behavior is negative and counter-productive. If relationship partners practice being righteously angry and legitimately victimized, they will simply get better at being that way. After a while, the kind, compassionate, and loving partners they fell in love with are no longer present.

Sadly, many people at this stage find alternative adventures like romantic or sexual affairs, or other ways to invest their time and energy away from the relationship. They may just be holding on to the relationship because of other attachments, such as limited funds to live apart, disputes over property, or custody battles. It is no longer because they truly want to be with each other anymore.

The Most Helpful Intervention:

A competent professional can still help people at this level of disruptive trauma, but only if the couple still has some kind of positive connection under the layers of consistently destructive behaviors and the true motivation to work things out. Sometimes the fact that the crisis is threatening the very existence of the relationship will create a greater willingness to work harder to save it.

Stage Four – War

As this final stage is reached, all of the stops are out. Their flash points have become more instant and the couple goes after each other without compassion or care. They want to hurt each other, and express every below-the-belt accusation and threat they can. Whatever sacredness they once promised to each other is gone.

Even when they can see that their actions have become uncaringly destructive, they can’t seem to stop. They interrupt each other constantly, yell, threaten abandonment or exile, bring in other people’s feelings that match their own, and feel totally justified and self-righteous that they are the victims of each other.

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It is a sad process to witness. A couple who once deeply loved one another now does not appear to care how their actions are affecting the other person, and sometimes even seem triumphant in the harm they are causing. They have become so armored and so desensitized to the other’s distress, that they cannot any longer afford to care or to be vulnerable to the other in any way. Both see the other as predator and themselves as the victim.

What is always so unbelievable to me is that these people, so insensitive and cruel to each other, can still be polite, generous, and caring to others, even some that they hardly know. They may also seem an intact couple to those in the outside world. Essentially, they have become enemies in private, while maintaining a posture of value to the outside world.

The couples at this stage, sadly, are often the ones who are desperate and impatient, prodded into therapy by one threatening to leave if the other does not comply. By this time, they are typically discouraged, discordant, and disillusioned, asking me if it is too late and asking me whether they should just end the agony they’ve created.

The Most Helpful Intervention:

When I see couples at this stage, they are usually seeking divorce counseling whether they realize it or not. It is critical to assess their individual levels of motivation, energy, and commitment. If those resources are low or gone, I cannot offer them much hope that separation is anything but inevitable.

If they are exhausted and totally discouraged, it is crucially important that they give up blame, threats, or guilt. They have to be encouraged to look at what they meant to each other in the beginning, how they have let one another down, and what they have learned from each other that can be a positive in some way after they are apart.

If their parting is going to negatively affect friends, family, careers, health, or spiritual connections, they need to be encouraged to minimize those effects on others as a way of making the breakup the least damaging.

* * * * * *

Sadly, partners who leave a relationship at the fourth stage of discord are likely to carry their wounds into their subsequent relationships, only to repeat the same patterns. Sometimes I can convince them that understanding what behaviors brought them to this heartbreak could keep that from happening. If they can drop their armored shields, and work with me to see how each could have been different, they can actually find some benefit to what would otherwise be only sorrow.

Interestingly enough, some of those who are willing to walk that path with me begin to remember how they once cared, and see a glimmer of hope where only disillusionment and discouragement existed before. Together, they allow me to take them back to the beginning before their disputes created the destruction of their relationship and they’re willing to try again.

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