When does relationship conflict become relationship distress?

Conflict is a normal part of being a couple. However, all of us need to feel loved, understood, and respected by the people we are close to, and conflict in these relationships can undermine our emotional security. What makes the difference is how the conflict is handled. Couples who resolve conflicts constructively strengthen their relationships over time by improving intimacy and trust. Constructive strategies include stating opinions and needs clearly and calmly, and listening to and attempting to understand the partner’s point of view.

Conflict becomes destructive when needs are not expressed or when they are expressed in ways that criticize, blame, or belittle the partner. For instance, a woman who is hurt that her husband plays golf every weekend may accuse him of “selfishness” instead of expressing how lonely she feels when they are apart.

When a couple is distressed, typically one partner takes the position of not saying how they feel while the other partner takes the position of blaming and criticizing. This pattern, which is very common in distressed relationships, tends to get worse over time. These couples often feel trapped in fights that are never resolved.

Couples who experience ongoing conflict can become aggressive with one another, and may push, slap, or hit each other during arguments. Other couples handle conflict by avoiding it. Avoiding conflict still damages relationships because partners become increasingly disengaged from one another. Although researchers do not know why some couples become distressed and others don’t, most agree that the ways couples resolve conflicts and provide emotional support to one another are critical. More.

“Psychology Works” Fact Sheet:  Relationship Distress – Canadian Psychological Association