This is the third article on communication in marriages and relationships. Here we shift the focus towards conflict and managing this conflict. In the following articles let’s discuss the destructive patterns in dealing with conflict and find a way forward in addressing them.

Conflict is inevitable in all close relationships. We are all different and relate to others from a frame of reference shaped by numerous events and inputs as we grow up. It is therefore not realistic to believe we will never face conflict with another person. There are no right or wrong ways of dealing with differences or conflict; only different ways – some more effective than others.

Communication, and more specifically personal or intimate communication, may at times require that we set ourselves up to be vulnerable – we risk being hurt. We may have to trust (feel safe with) the other persons intentions in what they convey to us. We must also trust our own ability to respond constructively.

In an ideal world, couples can trust their partner enough to hear them out – they are able to resolve an issue by listening to the other person to understand the other person’s point of view and if warranted move toward a compromise together. But many couples may find themselves in situations with conflict patterns that create feelings of frustration and distance – we become enemies instead of being friends. Here are DESTRUCTIVE conflict patterns that tend to escalate and therefore deteriorate the relationship. In this article two destructive patterns to look out for include blaming and criticism.

  1. Blaming

In this pattern, couples manage conflict by finding the “bad one” or “guilty party” whenever they are tired, upset or disagree. These feelings are projected on the partner. In the attempt to be right, they point fingers at each other by becoming confrontive and/or attacking or blaming each other. This pattern fails to resolve the issue and the “winner” of these arguments is the one who shouts loudest or is the most intimidating. The “loser” is the partner backing off, becoming exhausted during the argument, and giving it up.  Feelings are then suppressed only to resurface in an overreaction or unrelated emotional outbursts (the pressure-cooker).

Couples stuck in this conflict pattern feel frustrated that their problems never get solved and over time start to see conversations with each other as pointless.

The blame game might sound somewhat like this:

Joan: Why did you have to stay out so late last night? You did not even take the trouble to phone me and let me know!

Len: Well, maybe if you had listened better, you would recall I mentioned last week I may be late!

Joan: So? You could not remind me again this week or even phoned while you were out with your friends?

Len: Why? You are the one who always remembers everything … I believed you would remember this also. By the way, you complained about being so busy all week I thought this was a good opportunity to give you some space.

What to do:

When people are stuck in the blame game, they are looking for who is right and who is wrong by fault finding and defensiveness to navigate their conflicts. To change this pattern, you’ll need to commit to changing your mindsetfrom one of “win/lose” to one of “win/win.”

When you enter a discussion which may be touchy, you may have to learn how to bring up your difficult topic carefully, considering the circumstances and your own feelings. Likewise, work toward hearing your partner’s concerns without immediately casting blame back at them.

Joan: What happened that you arrived home so late last night, I was worried something may have happened to you?

Len: Uh, you’re right. I did tell you about it last week though and thought you would remember. And yes, maybe I could just have phoned to let you know I will be later.

Joan: Well, I know we both were busy this week and I probably could have checked in with you again.

Len: Thank you. We have both had a hectic week and I had hoped that this may also have been an opportunity for you to take a break.

  1. Criticism

Criticism is the act of noticing a problem in your life or the relationship which annoys or irritates you and turning it into attacking your partner’s character. It differs from blaming where you say the words “always” or “never” when describing something your partner does or doesn’t do.

Criticism is also different from making a complaint. Making a complaint or raising an issue you are not happy with is a normal and healthy aspect of a relationship—if no one ever complains, then there will be a lot of unprocessed resentment over time. The use of criticism as a style of dealing with conflict in a relationship is usually due to having unmet needs. However, when you present those unmet needs in the form of criticism, you may even be less likely to get them met by your partner.

A complaint, however, focuses on the actual issue. For example, if your partner stays out late on a Friday evening spending time with his friends, and being later than usual and not letting you know, you might notice yourself being concerned or feeling frustrated. When you go to express this, you might either use “criticism” or “complaint.”

Criticism may sound like

Joan: I have been up worrying about you all night. But then you never care about that. You always leave me alone. Looks like you prefer your friends over me…


I knew it.  You always enjoy the time with your friends so much that you never consider even giving me a call.

Len: What’s your problem? You are always jealous when I am out with friends.

We can predict how a conversation is going to go in the first few minutes. If the conversation starts off callously, it is likely to move toward difficult conflict, whereas when we bring up the same topic softly, there is a higher likelihood of resolution.

What to do

Instead of criticism, try a gentle startup in the form of a “complaint”.

A gentle start up may include expressing what you noticed – sharing your feelings and stating your need:

Joan: I am concerned when you stay out late with your friends and if it becomes later than usual, I really become worried if something may have happened to you. It may help if you could just give me a call or message me that you’ll be coming later than expected.

You can see that the complaint focuses on the problem — the being late and sometimes later than usual — while the criticism makes the partner the problem. The latter is likely to start a frustrating loop in which your partner will respond with defensiveness.

If we used the complaint listed above, it may sound like this:

Joan: When you are out late with friends on a Friday evening, I become worried about you, especially when things really become late. Please remind me beforehand or let me know when you see things are running late.

In both these examples Len may be less likely to respond in a defensive way.

Author: Peter Schultz