Conflict (or disagreement) happens in relationships of all kinds – between romantic partners, a teen or adult child and parent, siblings, friends, business partners, supervisor and subordinate or co-workers. One person’s wants, needs or preferences differ from someone else’s in the relationship. My ideas conflict with yours. Our values and goals differ so expectations conflict. These combined with tension create conflict.
When people in relationship disagree the relationship can be strengthened or eroded depending on how it is handled, not whether they come to agreement or not. There are four patterns of interaction that describe how those involved handle conflict: constructive engagement, aggressive-aggressive, avoidant-aggressive and avoidant-avoidant.
Four Patterns of Interaction
Alan Fruzzetti, author of The High Conflict Couple, identifies four patterns of interaction when there is conflict. While he writes about couples, these patterns apply to all types of relationships.
Constructive Engagement. People in healthy relationships generally resolve conflicts using constructive engagement. This is a DBT relationship skill where two (or more) people seek to acknowledge common ground and understand each other’s differences before jumping into problem solving or trying to negotiate a compromise. Constructive engagement involves:
Taking turns sharing what’s important to you about the issue and why. Someone shares first while the other listens. When the first speaker is done, the listener validates. You don’t have to agree to validate. You can validate emotions, effort or your respect for their right to hold an independent opinion without agreeing with the substance of what is said. You are merely acknowledging that the person with whom you are in conflict is important to you. Read my blog, Validating and Invalidating, to learn different types of validation and how well-meaning words can be perceived as invalidating.
Listening mindfully to each other with the goal of understanding the other’s position. To listen mindfully, means to listen fully and to show you are present with your body language (e.g., nodding, making eye contact). You are not listening mindfully if you are thinking about what you’re going to say next, thinking about what advice you will give, hurrying the other person along, interrupting or judging, letting your mind wander to what you will do when this is over, assuming you already know what’s going to be said. In other words, just be present and listen with your full attention.
Asking nonjudgmental clarifying questions only after all have shared. Clarifying questions can be worded to convey you really want to understand. They can also be used to communicate frustration, anger, sarcasm, defensiveness and so on. What clarifying questions communicate depends not just on word choice but as importantly body language, facial expressions and tone of voice.
When you understand the other, then you can agree to disagree, solve the problem partially or fully or negotiate a compromise. Jumping into problem solving before you understand each other often escalates the conflict.
Aggressive-aggressive pattern of interaction is when both people have knock-down, drag out fights with both individuals doing some or all of these: yelling, cursing, stomping, storming out, throwing things, punching walls,and slamming doors.
Avoidant-aggressive pattern of interaction is when one person acts aggressively and the other avoids, perhaps shutting down emotionally or dissociating, maybe leaving the room with no intention of ever talking about the issue of disagreement, maybe acting as though the raging person is invisible, being silent or carrying on with whatever s/he was doing before the conflict escalated (e.g., reading the newspaper, watching TV).
Avoidant-avoidant pattern of conflict is when both people avoid differences and go on as though nothing is amiss. Avoidant-avoidant people may be so fearful of conflict that they ignore major issues. Over time, avoidant-avoidant people may grow apart to the point of leading separate lives or parting ways entirely.
Of course, nothing is this simple. The proverbial last straw may trigger an avoidant person to explode. Someone who is raging may all of a sudden shut down when they’ve had enough.
Over time, patterns of interaction in conflicts change also. Two people who raged at each other at one point may come to fear where conflict will lead so they start avoiding each other. One person in the relationship may get to this point before the other, leading to an avoidant-aggressive pattern of interaction for a period. And people can learn to engage constructively.
You can see these patterns of interaction in all kinds of relationships – parent-child, spouses and partners, between siblings, work relationships and friendships. The closer the relationship the more intense the potential interaction. (Avoidant-avoidant relationships are intense but in a different way. Have you ever heard the saying “silence you can cut with a knife?) The less close the relationship, work relationships especially, the more subtle the patterns of interaction.
What Behaviors Fuel Destructive Patterns?
John Gottman’s research indicates four behaviors erode, and sometimes destroy, relationships: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. So what are these “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as Gottmann calls them?
Constructive criticism can be healthy. The question is “where is the line between constructive and destructive criticism?” Constructive criticism often is framed as a preference. “I would prefer it if you asked me. When you tell me what to do I feel like your child instead of your spouse.” It focuses on how you feel and how the other person’s behavior affects you. Constructive criticism uses “I” statements. You might say to your teen “I was hurt when you yelled at me just now, I couldn’t focus on what you were trying to communicate. Can you tell me again but in a calm voice? I want to understand.”
Constructive criticism is specific to a particular situation, not a generalization. “I felt left out when you went out with friends last night and didn’t invite me. Next time, I’d like to be included.”
Constructive criticism is most effective when it is timely, immediate or recent, not past history. Usually, constructive criticism starts out with validation of intent (“I know your intentions are good …”), validation of effort (“I know you are trying …”) or your respect for the other person’s right to make the choice (“Of course, it’s your decision …”). Constructive criticism is based on giving the benefit of the doubt or at least suspending disbelief. It assumes positive intent. Constructive criticism implies nothing about the other person’s character or worth as a human.
Destructive criticisms are negative judgments expressed in absolute terms. “Never” and “always” often creep in. “You never do the laundry right.” Or “You always choose your drinking buddies over me.” Destructive criticism rarely starts with effective validation. “I know you mean well …” can be gentle and loving or sarcastic depending on tone of voice and body language.
Destructive criticism doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt. It explicitly or implicitly assumes ill-intent. “You didn’t do the dishes on purpose just to annoy me.” Statements that start with “You” generally come across as an accusation or poor me whining. “You always say things to hurt me.” Destructive criticism may question the other’s worth as a person. “You need your head examined if you think that was a good choice” or “You are so bossy.”
People get defensive when they feel criticized, blamed or attacked, even if there is an element of truth in the criticism. Defensiveness can take many forms – making excuses, over-explaining, rebutting what was said, shifting blame and so on. People defend themselves against an expected or perceived threat, such as criticism or contempt. Defensiveness communicates that you aren’t listening to or taking your partner seriously.
Ann criticizes Tom almost daily for chronically running late. Tom immediately gets defensive and starts making excuses. Often, he interrupts and won’t let her finish. Sometimes he turns the tables and blames Ann for his tardiness. The more Tom defends himself, the more Ann criticizes not just the tardiness but also what she sees as unwillingness to accept responsibility, disrespect for others’ time and lax standards.
They have this same argument day after day. Once they’ve had the argument, they may be hyper sensitive all day (or for days – so even the slightest criticism or defensiveness leads to a new argument. Tom has come to expect criticism so he is in the habit of defending himself before the criticism even begins. When Ann hears the anticipatory defensiveness, her hackles go up. She wonders what he’s done wrong this time or she feels under attack so becomes defensive. The argument starts again.
From the outside looking in, the solutions seem obvious. Both Tom and Ann have an opportunity to stop the predictable pattern that leads to arguments. Tom can take responsibility for his tardiness and simply apologize. Ann can employ constructive criticism using simple “I” statements to explain the impact of Tom’s tardiness on her and ignore his tardiness when it doesn’t impact her.
When destructive criticism becomes habitual, contempt may follow. Contempt communicates disrespect, disgust, ridicule and condescension. It comes out as eye-rolling, sneering, name-calling, labeling, mean-spirited sarcasm, mocking attacks on the other person’s character. Contempt occurs when one partner magnifies the qualities s/he dislikes and minimizes the qualities s/he likes. Over time, the disliked qualities come to define the whole of the person in the contemptuous partner’s mind.
One or both partners may hold contempt for the other. When there is contempt, partners listen selectively for anything that proves their contempt is justified, instead of listening to understand.
Tom believes he knows more about Ann than Ann does and vice versa. Ann believes Tom’s tardiness is a character flaw. She “knows for a fact” that Tom doesn’t care about anyone but himself. Tom thinks he knows Ann is incapable of happiness. He calls her a “black cloud hanging over his head” and rolls his eyes when she speaks. Ann calls Tom selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed. When he talks, she mocks him from across the room.
Empathy is the antidote to contempt. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When contempt is well-rooted, cultivating empathy takes time and intentional effort. The first step to changing any behavior is to notice and accept it – not to justify it but to accept responsibility.
If contempt assumes mean-spirited motives, then cultivating empathy starts with (at the very least) suspending that belief to accept the possibility that the other might be well-intended. With practice, suspending belief of ill-intent gives way to giving the benefit of the doubt which eventually can give way to assuming positive intent.
Magnifying negative qualities and minimizing positive qualities is a cognitive distortion. To restore some balance, couples may retell stories of what attracted them to each other. You can write down or better yet tell each other your partner’s positive qualities. Each day, you can journal positive interactions or share little things you appreciate about your partner.
Selective listening to gain evidence reinforces contempt. Mindfully listening to understand is the first step toward developing empathy for your partner. Mindful listening requires practice and intent. Understanding enables you to be present with your partner’s pain in a way that is validating and empathetic.
One or both people in disagreement can stonewall or avoid issues where there is or might be disagreement. A teen might stonewall a parent because they want to make their own decision and fear their parent will want to make the decision for them. A friend may stonewall another friend for fear of hurting their feelings. A spouse may stonewall for fear of an argument. A co-worker may stonewall a supervisor for fear disagreement may jeopardize his or her job. A cousin might stonewall a drunk cousin who wants to know why his sister was not invited to the wedding to keep the peace. People stonewall for all sorts of reasons.
While stonewalling can be socially necessary in the short run, it erodes relationships in the long run, particularly close or intimate relationships. Reasonable people will inevitably disagree at times. Avoiding important issues out of fear is frustrating at best. At worst, knowing something’s wrong but not knowing what can activate the other person’s fears of judgment and rejection. The other person may catastrophize. If stonewalling continues, fears may grow in intensity or frustration may escalate into anger, or even rage. If the person’s fears turn into panic attacks or they explode in anger, the person stonewalling may feel blameless because they didn’t do anything. While the person stonewalling does not cause the other’s reactions, they contribute to the problem.
Learning to constructively engage when there is a pattern of stonewalling takes time and patience. The first step is for the person who stonewalls to notice their part in creating the pattern of dysfunction and take personal responsibility for their part in creating and sustaining it. Next comes learning the relationship skill of constructive engagement described above.
With these skills in hand, the avoidant person can use the DBT skill of opposite action when s/he notices the urge to withdraw or avoid. The opposite of fear is courage – acting courageously despite the urge to run.
Recognizing your urges – to be aggressive or avoidant — and skillfully navigating situations where you’re prone to criticize, defend, show contempt or stonewall will strengthen your relationships. To learn more about DBT skills, read Regulating Your Emotions in Family Conflict, Adults Dealing with Mom, Navigating Overwhelming Emotions,, Finding Wise Mind,, Parents Can’t “Fix Teens and Facing Our Fears.
Learn more about the Couples DBT Skills Group Program.You will learn about our four 6-week modules, experience how we teach relationship skills, and find out how we help you decide which modules you need to move your relationship to the next level. Modules include:
Module 1: Stop Making Things Worse
Module 2: Conflict Management:
Module 3: Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
Module 4: Making It Last
The Teen-Parent DBT Skills Group meets Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6 pm and accepts new participants on an ongoing basis. Learn more aobut the Parent-Teen Skills Group.
Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees couples and individuals at St. Louis DBT Tuesday through Thursday.