No-Win Conflicts in Intimate Relationships

How you resolve your arguments affects the state of your relationship.

Posted May 05, 2016

For more than four decades, I have been helping couples repair their relationships. The most common examples of a relationship in trouble emerge in the way the partners fight, and whether those conflicts result in negative or positive resolution. If those disruptive disagreements have withered into meaningless bickering, the partners have much less chance of rebuilding their love.  Over the years, I have determined which kinds of conflicts end in downward, exhausting spirals, and which we can work with to heal the relationship.

Couples who enter counseling usually do so to help their relationships get better. They want to stop negative and unproductive interactions but often don’t see them coming, even when they have happened so many times before. It is natural for people in intimate relationships to want to see the positive parts of their connections and to forget the bad times. People who still love each other want to forgive and forget and hope the future will automatically be better, but if they continue to repeat negative patterns that have no resolution, they can ultimately damage their relationship beyond repair.

If I can help them see, and stop, these destructive, irresolvable conflicts before they get going, they have a chance to change those patterns before it is too late. In our mutual exploration, the partners often realize that these no-win conflicts are covering deeper issues that they genuinely need to resolve. It becomes evident to both of them that they are fighting haplessly and dangerously about things that will never bring them closer, while not dealing with what might actually heal their partnership.

If couples can see these no-win battles coming, stop participating in them, and learn the skills to interact more effectively, they will be well on their way to healing their relationship and regaining the love and trust they once had. Though there are many I could choose to illustrate, I’ve picked the seven most common, repetitive battles I have witnessed ways people feel and interact when they are interacting in mutually injurious conflicts.

Amare Inc
Source: Amare Inc

1)      Powerlessness expressed as Outrage

Because most couples want to end up reconnected after they have fought, they often push each other away instead. Terrified to experience their own powerlessness in this painful interaction, they instead express their feelings in outrage at the other’s behavior. It is as if the helpless internal feelings will be less fearful if they are shored up with anger, even if it causes more damage in the moment. One or both of the partners poses as much stronger and more confident than he or she really feels. That pretense presents as accusations, blame, or invalidation, as each partner is afraid of being emotionally beaten if he or she doesn’t stay in power.

Too often, powerlessness expressed as outrage gets out of control. The combination of fear of loss and the desire to appear strong creates an urgent need to control. These repeated interactions rapidly deteriorate into an enemy-to-enemy power struggle where one wins at the expense of the other. The argument may be over and the victor established, but the relationship is scarred again.

2)      Wanting caring but simultaneously pushing it away

When one or both partners desperately needs nurturing, forgiveness, or support, but feels that the other is angry or unavailable, he or she may strike out rather than asking for what is needed. The internal experience is one of desolate resignation, the feeling that rejection will automatically occur no matter how important the desire is. When one or both partners feel this way, they often reject the other simply to avoid the anticipated pain of abandonment before it happens.

More men than women will just throw up their hands and walk away, leaving the other partner believing that she was the one who did something to create the “disconnect” but not knowing what she could have done. On the other hand, more women than men will suddenly fold, pulling in or crying. That response implies that her partner didn’t see the pain and vulnerability that drove her aggressive act, and hold her accountable when she really didn’t “mean it.” Even if they simultaneously behave as if they don’t care anymore, neither really means it.  

The sadness of these kinds of repeated conflicts is that the partners are in danger of reaping what they have sown. Over time, one or both of them may grow to believe that the other partner genuinely doesn’t care anymore, and walk away from a relationship for all the wrong reasons.

3)      Battle fatigue

Two exhausted, repeatedly defeated enemies-in-conflict are both in pain and discouraged before the next battle even gets going. It is as if anything they don’t immediately see eye-to-eye on can turn into another hapless battle that has been continuously going on under the surface between the actual outbreaks. It has simply become easier to disagree about almost anything than to try to get along. Like soldiers too long on watch, both partners have become hyper-vigilant warriors who cannot disengage from their armor, nor separate out friend from enemy.

They have forgotten what it feels like to be vulnerable or to live in the other’s shoes. Tough, resistant, and “conflict ready,” they have sharpened their provoke-and-attack skills to the point that both have become victims of each other’s relentless undermining.

Committed couples in no-win conflicts may still feel a deep attachment to each other underneath their bickering. Though continuing to engage in these negative, destructive interactions, there may be two people behind the battle lines who still feel terrible about hurting each other, yet are unable to stop. They challenge each other while pretending not to care, but still very much do inside. Yet, when one attempts to relent, the other starts things up again, too wary and untrusting to accept the offer of peace.

4)      Loving and Hating at the Same Time

Couples who alternate between loving and hating while in the midst of a battle misunderstand one another continuously. Often out of sync, one reaches out for connection while the other is unready or unwilling to thaw. The scene then reverses when the other, now ready to connect, then similarly reaches out when the other is not able or willing to reciprocate.

The basis of these kinds of repeated conflicts may be a fear or incapability to maintain sustained intimacy. One or both partners want closeness but may be both afraid of entrapment and abandonment. They want the other not too close to feel invaded but not too far away to feel potential loss of the relationship. Or, both may be people who can’t let love in deeply, while withholding caring. They seem to fear that they will be too vulnerable if they show their true feelings. They dance a dangerous dance, showing love when it is not asked for, and withholding it when it is needed. Self-protective and shielded, they do not want to be seen as needy or one-down. If they make too close a connection for longer than either can bear, they pull away, taking the risk of seeming not to care as much as they do.

Both will tell others how much they care for their partners, but never to their faces. And, if someone else is critical of one partner, the other then rushes in to defend him or her. They have embraced the dangerous belief that they can play out this process repeatedly without losing each other’s devotion. They live on the edge of an abyss that neither believes they will fall into, and are sadly too often caught off guard when the relationship can no longer rebound.

5)      Needing to Win but Not Wanting to be the Bad Guy

These kinds of conflicts are an odd combination of alternately knocking the other partner down and then supporting him or her with apologies and self-accountability. Angry accusations that hit home and obviously hurt deeply are often followed by quick apologies. The partners who engage in this kind of conflict need to say whatever they want to say, but don’t want the responsibility of being the bad guys when the other partners are wounded.

In these kinds of conflicts, an interesting phenomenon often occurs. Soon into the conflict, one or both partners seem to be fighting with someone from the past. Earlier traumas are being unconsciously triggered and the argument feels as if two parallel interactions are occurring, one in the present and one from another time and place. Prior sacred confessions are often thrown out during these unconscious reactions and feel like below-the-belt, unfair attacks. In reality, they were never meant to surface within the current relationship because they were not created by it. Memories from past relationships are intruding into the present as one or both partners become a symbolic representation of someone in the other’s past.

These couples usually get along relatively well in between conflicts but are very soon embroiled in these confusing interactions once one begins. Sometimes both partners are triggering the other’s past, unresolved conflicts at the same time. For instance, both may have had two angry fathers who hurt them. Now they are unconsciously responding as if their current partners are those past parents. Soon they are regressing into the overwhelmed children they once were, unable to recognize their current partner anymore. One may fight back in ways he or she couldn’t as a child, while being experienced by the other as an adult. Words that were never intended to hurt as deeply gain more power from the past experience, now triggered in the present. As soon as the past memory loses its power, the desire to heal the wounded other intensely emerges.

After these kinds of fights, both partners are often anguished that they have caused the other so much pain, and can’t understand why they fought as they did. They immediately rush into a truce to make everything okay again. Sadly, that urgency to quickly heal the damage requires that both suppress any understandable or legitimate disagreements in order to keep from hurting each other again.

6)      Disconnecting inside while still pretending to be in the Fight

These are hard conflicts for intimate couples to endure because they are crazy-making. The words being used in the fight do not match the body language, facial expressions, vocal sounds, or rhythms of people who are actually involved in conflict.

Sometimes couples do these superficial, meaningless interactions because they have actually stopped caring at all and fighting is the only thing they still do together. More often, they are so pre-defeated from prior conflicts that have never resolved anything. They just don’t have the energy to put into a meaningful argument.

Some couples hide their more vulnerable and painful emotions by putting up shields of nonchalance while feeling much deeper reactions inside. They are so concerned that things might get out of hand that they put a lid on any emotion that feels too strong or too dangerous to show.

These conflicts usually end rather quickly, leaving both partners with pent-up thoughts and feelings that each tries to resolve independently of the other. They may even pride themselves that they solve disputes quickly and never let things get out of hand. Perhaps they have learned sophisticated negotiation skills, but they rarely get to what are the real issues for either, and the same disputes continue ad infinitum.

7)      Defensive to Defensive

Defensive reactions are part of every dispute. However, there are arguments where those defenses are not just prominent, but continuous.

One partner begins with a gentle and/or pronounced criticism of the other’s behavior. The de-facto reaction is never to inquire as to definition of terms, reasons for the current comment, the emotional environment that precedes it, or the feeling state that the person may be in who expresses the critique. Instead, the partner who feels attacked responds quickly and defensively, activating an equally defensive reaction in the other partner.

It is as if one partner, looking into the mirror of the other’s eyes, doesn’t like the reflection and attempts to smash the mirror. The other, defending his or her right to see the situation as it seems, smashes back. In a short period of time, there is a rally of offensive, invalidating, and sometimes even brutal attacks, with seemingly no attempt on the part of either partner to stop the volley or to listen to the hurt, frustration, or fear beneath the desperate attempts of both partners to stay invincible.

Defensiveness can be expressed in many ways. The most common ones are: flipping the blame to the other partner, making excuses, trying to make the other feel crazy, coming up with exceptions to the accusation, trying to make the other feel guilty, or making wipe-out statements that are meant to eradicate the other’s legitimacy in any way possible. Both partners are on witness stands screaming out for justice from the other’s need to prove culpability.

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Conflict resolution is not easy for anyone. When intimate partners face legitimate differences in their desires or goals, they naturally push to have their own desires met. Yet, most do not want that at the expense of their partners. Learning to distribute the important resources of “availability,” affection, sacrifice, or even the need for independence, takes patience and skill. Most relationships begin with a great deal of energy and commitment to compatibility and the generosity to put oneself aside for the other. If too many no-win conflicts accrue, partners who once were more than willing to forgive and renew the desire to work things out begin to falter.

Many sources teach how to fight fairly, to listen more effectively, and to take a “disconnect” break when things are getting out of hand. In order for any of those techniques to work, the partners in an intimate relationship must be able to recognize irresolvable, repeated conflicts before they engage in them.  Once these destructive interactions get going, it is very difficult for any relationship-conflict methods to be effective.

The good news is that I’ve seen many couples rapidly heal just by stopping their negative interactions. The relationship begins to replace its negative spiral with a positive one. The couple is now ready to employ effective communication to resolve their differences.

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.