The ABCs of Couple Arguments

The "toxic triad" of couple conflict.

Posted Nov 20, 2019

 Image by Eric Mburu from Pixabay
Source: Image by Eric Mburu from Pixabay

Is it possible to actually dissect the evolution of most couple conflicts?

Jacobson and colleagues, (Jacobson, Christensen, Prince, Cordova, & Eldridge, 2000) suggest that predicting most couple conflicts is as easy as ABC. They describe a predictable process of escalation that follows along a predictable cycle. These authors picture the evolution of this cycle from an initial problem (the content of the argument, consisting of either provocations, incompatibilities/vulnerabilities, or anger/hurts)—to the process of unsuccessful coping with the initial problem (through accusation/blame/coercion; avoidance/denial/minimization; overreaction; or forming alliances/coalitions)—and finally to the reactive problem (or the vicious cycle of the solution-generated problem in the relationship). This evolution mirrors the findings of the Gottman group and of Wile, discussed in an earlier post, "What do all troubled couples share?"

The ABCs of Arguments: The classic “ABCs” of intense arguments are referred to as a toxic triad or toxic cures. The authors state that “Toxic cures are solutions that make the problem worse. They are treatments that aggravate the disease. Their intent is often to create change for the better; their result is to create change for the worse." These ABCs are accusation, blame, and coercion (and a “D” can be added for defensiveness).

  • Accusation is simply pointing out that your partner has either done something wrong or not done something implicitly or explicitly expected in the relationship. This may take the form of accusing a partner of insensitivity, neglect, lack of collaboration, or a range of other perceived violations embodied in the triggering event. This accusation itself may be met with defensiveness or a counter-accusation; it was our reaction to their action that was the problem. This can kick in the cycle right away.
  • However, the addition of blame turns the cycle distinctly more negative. This is reminiscent of Gottman’s four horsemen, and Wile’s evolution through the vicious cycles of advance-retreat through attack-defend and so on. Here we start claiming that the cause of our partner’s offense is their negative personality characteristics. These may include their moral character, mental or emotional instabilities, personal failings, or inadequacies, to name but a few. The point is that such statements become a personal indictment of our partner. Something deeply wrong with their character is at the root of the problem. All of this breeds defensive counter-arguments from our partner.
  • Finally, coercion goes beyond mere accusations and attacks. Coercion is intended to force our partner to do what we want through a barrage of demanding, nagging, criticizing, complaining and making our partner feel guilty until they finally give in. The inherent trap in this sort of coercion is that it most assuredly will escalate. One partner’s coercion is reinforced because the other finally complies. The other’s compliance is reinforced when the coercion stops. However, future rounds of the same badgering are doomed by an intermittent ratio schedule of the other's compliance and their beginning to ignore demands. In other words, we never know when our partner will finally relent and comply, and our partner may simply get used to the coercion. Thus, coercion is described as being like an addictive drug that, over time, requires increasing doses to achieve the same effect. Partners may eventually deliberately ignore or actively resist these barrages and the positive feelings and loving atmosphere of the relationship eventually erodes.

Each successive vicious cycle is described as proceeding through three characteristic phases:

  • Escalation between partners is not only the increase in tension, volume, or viciousness of the argument but also in the expansion of its focus to include other related or unrelated issues brought in to justify points or simply to retaliate.
  • Polarization refers to the process of becoming rigidly fixed and extreme in our views through listening to our own reiterated arguments and using our partner’s behaviors as proof for the truth of our position.
  • Alienation is generally the result of escalated polarized arguments. It may be a product of frustration, or hurt, or refusal to address a problem, but it is always a negative development, with partners turning away from each other. This again reflects Gottman’s idea of turning away and Wile’s withdraw-withdraw phases.

Polarization and the Mutual Trap: The result of failed mutual efforts to bring about change in partners’ personality differences is alienation and polarization. Jacobson and Christensen (1996) state, “When two people engage in such change efforts simultaneously, the almost inevitable outcome is polarization or an exacerbation of the differences. When polarization occurs, the conflict increases rather than decreases” (p. 199). The mutual trap is the outcome of polarization. While polarization doesn’t necessarily stop, there comes a point when each partner feels trapped, stuck, helpless, and desperate. This is a separate, private, and rather implicit experience for each partner of their own sense of entrapment in the very problem each is trying to resolve.

Breaking the Cycle

Jacobson and Christensen (Jacobson & Christensen, 1996; Jacobson et al., 2000) and their colleagues have spent the better part of their careers devoted to finding out the best approach to breaking these mutual traps or the inevitable vicious cycles of couple distress and intensive conflicts. The result of their work is what they call Integrative Behavioral Couple Treatment, or IBCT. IBCT has gone on to become one of the two most effective approaches to couples therapy, based on the past decade of research. In the following post, we will look closer at IBCT and apply it to the couple discussed in an earlier post. As we shall see, there are many paths to the top of every mountain, and IBCT is one of two of the most effective couples therapy approaches for breaking the ABCs of escalating couple conflict.


Jacobson, N. S., & Christensen, A. (1996). Integrative couple therapy: Promoting acceptance and change. WW Norton & Co.

Jacobson, N. S., Christensen, A., Prince, S. E., Cordova, J., & Eldridge, K. (2000). Integrative behavioral couple therapy: An acceptance-based, promising new treatment for couple discord. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(2), 351-355.

* Abstracted from Fraser, J. S. (2018). Unifying Effective Psychotherapies: Tracing the Process of Change. Chapter 9, Couples Therapy, Washington, DC, APA Books.

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