Counseling for Highly Conflicted Couples

Everyone longs to live in peace. We can have money, opportunity, a lovely home, and children, and yet we’re not happy if we don’t have peace in our marriage.

I consider myself a seasoned marriage counselor. And, while I feel excited at the prospect of helping each new couple and working through the challenge ahead, high-conflict couples can sometimes strain my capabilities.

Highly conflicted couples are often engaged in intense power struggles, each trying to get something from their mate, yet doing so in ways that exacerbate the problem. They demand, blame, punish, and coerce, hardly noticing their actions are adding fuel to an inferno. These are self-defeating traits that must be highlighted in counseling.

Fortunately, skills that will help can be learned. Author and psychologist Marshall Rosenberg wrote in his book, Nonviolent Communication, that highly conflicted couples are trapped in power struggles with one another, using “life-alienating language” filled with judgments about rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness. He discovered that couples who try to control each other often end up in conflict, whereas couples who accept one another are much more likely to connect.

Common Dynamics of Highly Conflicted Couples

Below are some common characteristics of high-conflict couples. While this may appear to be bad news, recognizing these traits can actually bring hope if the couple is willing to learn how to let go of these attitudes and behaviors that serve, ultimately, to create even more conflict and disconnection.

  1. Locked into oppositional stances
    Partners view their mates as the enemy and someone they should fight, rather than seeking ways to foster trusting collaboration.
  2. Frequently angry with one another
    Couples who fail to manage emotions, allowing themselves to become angry and passive-aggressive, and subsequently fail to “think straight” and use emotionally balanced communication.
  3. Poor conflict-resolution/communication skills
    Couples who lack the ability to stay issue-focused, share feelings, speak respectfully, and communicate in healthy, uplifting, and solution-focused ways.
  4. Poor impulse control
    Couples with an inability to talk about one issue at a time, manage their emotions, and stay solution-focused, which are necessary to maintain a healthy outcome to the conversation.
  5. Tendency to blame and fault-find
    Partners who see the actions of the other in critical, negative ways and assign hurtful motives, rather than seeing their partner’s behavior as a legitimate expression of underlying, unmet needs.
  6. Express rigidly held beliefs about the other
    These couples have little ability to view their mate positively and flexibly, alter perspective, note strengths and positive movement, or consider differing perspectives that challenge narrow, unhealthy beliefs.
  7. Offer little insight into their contribution to their problems
    Couples who have little ability to see their role in the relationship problems, monitor their actions, or be willing and determined to work on these things.

How to Choose a Counselor for High-Conflict Relationships

Many couples who come to The Marriage Recovery Center have been in counseling before. They tell us they have tried counseling (sometimes with multiple counselors,) but became disappointed and discontinued.

Choosing a counselor you trust is critically important to this process. If you are considering doing marriage counseling, make sure your counselor is trained in, and has experience with, high-conflict couples. Working with highly conflicted couples is a unique skill and requires a certain temperament. It is important that your counselor be comfortable in helping unravel the dynamics taking place and can offer specific guidance and skills to live compassionately with one another.

Successful intervention and treatment will begin with the assessment that both individuals are emotionally capable and willing to participate in the rigors of couples counseling. They need to both be able to take responsibility for their part in the problems and gain emotional balance and strength. A skilled marriage counselor will help the high-conflict couple to identify the issues fueling the fires of conflict, as well as assist them in connecting and gaining expertise in communicating effectively. The skilled marriage counselor teaches communication and conflict resolution skills, as well as tools for managing emotion and putting issues in perspective in order to cultivate positive intimacy.

We are ready to help you!

If you are ready for this type of marriage counseling, and willing to put in the time and effort, we would love to work with you! Please contact our Client Care Team for more information on our therapists and coaches, as well as our programs.