Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Conflict


Conflict is a very natural part of any romantic relationship—who hasn’t had an argument about whose turn it was to take out the garbage or empty the dishwasher?

But when these arguments begin to take on an unhealthy or aggressive tone and are happening on a regular basis, it will take a toll on a person’s well-being, not to mention the overall sustainability of the partnership.

So, in the context of dating and relationships, being able to spot the dangerous signs and address any unhealthy conflict is vital not only for building and maintaining a healthy and loving connection but also for when someone should call it quits and walk away for good.

By knowing the dynamics of unhealthy conflict, you can get in front of future problems with the following strategies to break the cycle.

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The Impact of Unhealthy Conflict

Unhealthy conflict in relationships can manifest in several ways, including constant arguing, emotional manipulation, and even verbal and physical abuse. 

Its consequences are far-reaching and can cause emotional distress, low self-esteem, and, in extreme cases, physical harm. To confront and address this issue, you need to be able to recognize the signs of unhealthy conflict and address them proactively.

Understanding Unhealthy Conflict in Relationships

Before getting into any strategies for breaking the cycle of unhealthy conflict, it’s super important to understand what it looks like and means. 

Unhealthy conflict refers to patterns of disagreement and discord in a relationship that is characterized by negative behaviors and harmful dynamics. Here are some defining features and examples.

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Hostile Communication

Hostile communication involves using aggressive, disrespectful, or hurtful language during any conflict that arises between couples.

Example: Yelling, name-calling, and derogatory comments during an argument.

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Blame and Defensiveness

Partners engage in a blame game, constantly accusing each other and avoiding responsibility for their own actions.

Example: One partner always blames the other for relationship issues without acknowledging any role they might have played in the conflict.

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Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation includes tactics like guilt-tripping, silent treatment, or emotional blackmail to control the other person.

Example: Threatening to end the romantic relationship whenever a disagreement happens in order to get the other person to back down or comply.

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Unhealthy conflicts tend to escalate very quickly, becoming super intense and overwhelming.

Example: A minor disagreement about household chores turns into a shouting match, with neither person willing to back down or cede any ground.

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Stonewalling and Withholding

Stonewalling involves shutting down emotionally and refusing to participate in the conversation, and withholding affection is using lack of intimacy as a weapon or form of punishment.

Example: One partner becomes emotionally distant during conflicts, refusing to speak or engage with the other.

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Repetitive Patterns

Unhealthy conflicts often involve recurring issues that are never really resolved, which means it is a constant, toxic cycle of disagreement.

Example: Partners argue about the same topic over and over without ever reaching any kind of lasting agreement.

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Disregard for Boundaries

In unhealthy conflict situations, personal boundaries can be overstepped or simply ignored, leading to invasive behavior.

Example: One partner goes through the other’s personal messages or belongings without their consent in the heat of an argument.

Understanding these toxic traits and characteristics of unhealthy conflict is the first stage in breaking the cycle and moving forward to healthier communication in relationships. 

Recognizing when unhealthy conflict patterns emerge is pivotal for making positive changes and ensuring the emotional and physical well-being of both partners.

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Recognizing Unhealthy Conflict

If you relate to any of the following behaviors, whether it’s from your partner or you may be the guilty party, chances are pretty good that you are engaging in unhealthy conflict!

  • Frequent Blame Games: In unhealthy conflicts, partners often resort to blaming each other for issues rather than seeking solutions.
  • Lack of Communication: Communication is the bedrock of all healthy relationships. When communication breaks down or becomes hostile, it’s a red flag.
  • Emotional and Verbal Abuse: If your partner belittles you, shouts, or uses derogatory language, it’s an alarming sign of unhealthy conflict.
  • Withholding Affection: Emotional withdrawal and withholding affection as a form of punishment are indicators of an unhealthy dynamic.
  • Recurring Patterns: When the same issues arise repeatedly without resolution, it’s a clear indication of an unhealthy cycle.

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Breaking the Cycle

Now that we know what unhealthy conflict looks (and sounds) like so you can identify the signs, let’s explore a few strategies to break this toxic cycle.

  • Self-awareness: Take a step back, look in the mirror, and take stock of your own role in the conflict. Are there patterns in your behavior that contribute to the issues? Self-awareness is always necessary if you want to truly effect positive change.
  • Effective Communication: Practice open, honest, and respectful communication. Use “I” statements when expressing your feelings and needs without playing the blame game with your partner.
  • Get Professional Help: If the conflict seems untenable or insurmountable, think about going to couples therapy or counseling—a trained therapist or psychologist can give you the guidance and tools to improve your communication.
  • Set Boundaries: Create clear boundaries for what is acceptable behavior in the relationship. Discuss these boundaries with your partner and mutually agree on them.
  • Separate for a Bit: When a conflict escalates, taking a break and separating is a good idea. Taking a breath allows space for both partners to cool their jets and then return to or revisit the discussion with a calmer, better mindset. In simple terms? Walk away.

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Healthy vs. Unhealthy Conflict

According to Dr. John Gottman, “In healthy conflict, couples are gentle with one another. They stick to ‘I’ statements vs. ‘you’ statements. They communicate how they feel and what they need without blaming their partner. If one partner feels criticized, they’re able to repair in the moment and get back on track. They also accept one another’s influence and allow their partner’s perspective, feelings, and needs to change their perspective, allowing for compromise.

“Happy relationships aren’t relationships where there is no fighting. They are relationships where repairs are made after regrettable incidents happen – and where a couple connects with each other day to day,” he says in Choosing Therapy.

As for when healthy conflict turns unhealthy, Gottman writes, “Conflict becomes unhealthy when the negativity in the discussion outweighs the positivity.”

Gottman’s research shows that “the ratio of the number of seconds of positive-to-negative emotions during conflict averaged .8 to 1 in couples that were unhappy and 5 to 1 in couples that were happy.”


Breaking the cycle of unhealthy conflict is of the utmost importance for the emotional and physical well-being of both parties trapped in the cycle—and for maintaining healthy and happy romantic relationships. 

Awareness of the signs, practicing effective and honest communication, and getting professional help if and when needed are imperative steps in these tenuous scenarios. Remember that healthy relationships are all about trust, respect, and love; addressing conflict in a productive way is a huge part of nurturing and sustaining that all-important base foundation.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that emotional and verbal abuse, common in unhealthy conflict, can have lasting psychological effects on victims. If you need help, it is available 24/7 by clicking here,
calling 1-800-799-7233, or texting START to 88788.

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