Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Leaving Toxic Conflicts Behind

This is the difference between Productive vs. Toxic Conflicts.

Every couple has disagreements from time to time. They need to. Airing differences helps them to continuously recreate and reinvigorate their relationships by the way they rediscover each other.

But, in the four decades that I have counseled intimate partners, I’ve too often witnessed a different kind of interpersonal interaction that can drive a relationship into emotional bankruptcy. These kinds of conflicts are toxic, and only serve to create growing gaps of mistrust and alienation. If they are allowed to continue, they will eventually create enough emotional poison to destroy any relationship.

When intimate partners play out these emotionally poison-filled conflicts in my presence, I encourage them to immediately identify what they are doing and to stop them. Even though they realize they are in trouble, it’s not always easy for them to back away from the conflict. Often, they have been interacting that way for so long that they find it very difficult to change their behavior. They tell me that they never intend for their arguments to become toxic and they will try hard in the future to stop them from happening again.

For the most part, I have not found that to be what actually happens. I have watched too many couples, no matter how well-intended, continue to beat each other up in these negative free-for-alls. I can see that they might be reaching a point of no-return. If they are unable or unwilling to recognize the cumulative effects of their toxic conflict, their relationship may be on its way out.

I deeply believe that it is crucial for intimate partners to recognize the difference between a healthy conflict and a toxic one as early in the relationship as they can.

If you are a couple whose disagreements regularly deteriorate into toxic conflicts, you can change those patterns by committing to the following three goals:

  1. Understand the difference between relationship-enhancing disagreements and those that can slowly destroy the quality of your connection.
  2. Recognize when you are slipping into toxic conflicts and replace those interactions with healthy conflict behaviors.
  3. Promise each other you will both keep any toxic conflicts from resurfacing in the future.

Productive Conflict

If you resolve your disagreements with mutual respect and openness to the other’s points of view, you have attained one of the core positive behaviors of successful relationship partners. That doesn’t mean that every argument you have will result in harmony and intact feelings. But when you fight in a healthy way, you will at least know that you are doing everything you can to make your conflicts productive and learn from them to improve your handling of future disagreements.

When I witness people disagreeing in a healthy way, I see them both with a true desire for a resolution that leaves both partners feeling heard, understood, and represented. There is no winner and there is no loser, only the desire on the part of both partners to learn from their disagreements and integrate their experiences to ensure that future conflicts in that area will be less likely.

If you feel more connected, inspired, and hopeful after a conflict, you are on the right track. The following five guidelines will help you determine what you are doing right and what you may have to change to meet that goal. I’ll italicize key words to help you remember each one:

  1. Always Inquire First before judging, invalidating, or defending. Ask your partner how he or she came to the conclusions offered. Also ask about important the topic is and what needs may accompany it.
  2. Be careful to Avoid Assumptions without checking out whether or not you are accurate. If you don’t make sure your partner means what he or she means before you respond, you might counter-assume incorrectly and start a whirlpool of overlapping misunderstandings. Take whatever time you need up front to make sure both of you know what each of you truly means and what you need.
  3. Talk over and agree to mutually accepted Ground Rules and promise each other you will abide by them unless otherwise renegotiated. Healthy conflicts are always grounded in pre-accepted and mutually trusted promises of what is off limits, what can be explored, and why. Neither of you should be out to win at the expense of the other. Instead, search for a new kind of truth in which both of you can find solace and hope.
  4. Attend to each other’s Emotional Defaults. If, at any time, your conflict begins to hit a nerve in either one of you, you must put the conflict totally aside until you heal the traumatic reactions between you. It is highly unlikely that the topic you’re are disagreeing about will have any chance of resolution if either of you is emotionally faltering.
  5. Keep your conflicts On Target. It is very easy and all too common during an argument for one or both of you to continue either piling on new issues, bringing up the past, or using other people’s opinions to boost your position. Try to stay with the issue at hand and avoid adding on new grievances. Those kinds of damaging behaviors will drive your conflict out of bounds.

Toxic Conflicts

These kinds of disagreements can rapidly escalate into toxicity as once-friends become current enemies. As partners slip into poisonous conflicts, they can rapidly become volatile to win at any cost. They will harangue, insult, demean, invalidate, blame, and challenge the other’s right to speak, often within the first few minutes, because they are conflict-ready and perched for attack.

As the pace and rhythm of a toxic conflict increases, the now-attacking battlers raise their voices, display menacing facial expressions and physically threatening postures. Very soon, neither partner is listening to the other, both talking at the same time as they defend and invalidate one another. Within a short of time, they will be triggered as past relationships emerge and mesh into the current interaction.

Some of these conflicts can become physically abusive or destructive of property. These escalating poisonous expressions often leave unhealable scars in both partners, and in anyone else who may be witnessing the interactions.

Quickly Identifying the Moment When a Toxic Conflict Begins

It is crucial for all couples to recognize the signs of toxic conflict as it begins, and stop it however they can. If I am present when it happens, I ask both partners to stop the interaction ask themselves and each other the following questions:

  1. Look inward and ask yourselves what behaviors in the other are you responding so strongly to?
  2. How are those triggers making you feel cornered or threatened enough to see your partner as the enemy?
  3. Who from the past could you also be talking to, without realizing it?
  4. What are you feeling inside as a result?

All toxic conflicts will sacrifice your future relationship if you continue them in the present. If you lose sight of what damage you may be doing to each other, you may not be able recover. If you can, think instead about looking at the long-term effects of your toxic behaviors and whether or not winning in the moment is worth it.

Practicing Productive Conflict Resolution Skills

Intimate partners who are committed to each other and to their relationship can work to make their conflicts productive and mutually enhancing. They realize that:

1) Their disagreements are both predictable and necessary for reinvigorating their relationships.

2) That they have come into each other’s lives to see things from a different perspective and do so by challenging each other’s realities when they see or feel differently.

3) That their productive conflicts can teach them more about themselves.

4) That their relationship will grow deeper and more productive as a result of courageous and compassionate challenge.

There are countless resources available that teach communication and conflict resolution skills. Many couples that I have seen have explored those skills but confess to me that they have not been able to put them into effect when they need them.

The problem is that many of these helpful directions so not place enough emphasis on how hard it is for couples to stay calm and committed to new behavior in the midst of their negative encounters.

There are many reasons why this happens, but the most impactful is how each partner has either witnessed or been the victim of painful and abusive toxic interactions in their childhoods. Because they were helpless to stop them, they may have coped at the time by burying the situations deep within their minds and hearts. As a result, throughout their lives, they’ve tried to behave in better ways with their adult partners but don’t realize how easily those unresolved early scars can be activated when their partners emotional and physical behaviors overlap or resemble these past, hidden experiences.

The couples I have worked with who are the most successful in overcoming their toxic conflicts have willingly explored these early experiences and shared them with their partners. Words, facial expressions, body language, voice intonations, rhythm and touch all come into play. Not wanting to inadvertently trigger these painful past experiences, both partners memorize any way they might be innocently re-enacting those events, and do whatever they can to avoid those dangerous memories.

After they have entered and valued one another’s inner worlds, their next step is to recognize in themselves and in their partners the emotional and physical reactions that signal when a blind reactivity could be forming. At those times, whatever they are arguing about must immediately become insignificant until they are reconnected in their trust and safety.

Keeping Toxic Conflict at Bay in the Future

When couples practice supporting each other by not allowing past traumas to create toxicity in the present, they realize that they must be each other’s hyper-vigilant protectors for the rest of their relationship. With compassion and total willingness, they pledge to recognize unconscious reactivity in each other as it begins to form, and to help that partner realize why he or she is starting to get defensive and self-protective. They also agree to be immediately receptive when their partner points out that the same may be happening to them.

* * * * * *

Past relationship toxicities are ever present in all of us. They can sometimes be deep-seated and well-hidden beneath layers of rationalization. Or, at other times, just mindless, repeated patterns that must be identified before being amenable to change. But whatever drives them to emerge, they are likely to do so if both partners are not ever-vigilant to prevent them. The good news is they are easier to resolve and more quickly erased each time relationship partners practice new ways of dealing with them.

One of the most significant reasons for all couples to leave toxic conflict behind is to stop from its ability to silently and destructively transfer to the next generation. Intimate partners who are willing to do that can give a gift to the next generation by not saddling them with the same heartaches. When they see that they have stopped others from adopting those relationship-destructive behaviors, they are able to re-enforce their own commitment to erase them from their own partnership.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.