Here’s a newsflash: even the best couples fight.
It’s not conflict that drives couples apart
– in fact, a little disagreement with your spouse or partner can show commitment to the relationship. Over time, conflict can build trust in the idea that you can handle hard times together. It’s the way you and your partner fight that can drive a wedge between you.
This quiz will help you start to understand your conflict
personality – the patterns you and your partner gravitate toward when fighting.
Are these absolutely all the ways couples experience conflict? Of course not! Rather than being confined to one of these boxes, most people will be a complex mix of less extreme versions of these types. But exploring these major conflict personalities can help you see yourself and your partner more clearly. Eventually this understanding can help you turn destructive arguments into productive disagreements.
Answer the following questions and then read more about the types, below. Do you see parts of yourself? What about your partner?
1. Do you see most problems as big or small? Do you tend to make mountains out of molehills, or molehills out of mountains?
2. When a problem obviously exists, are you more likely to roll up your sleeves and look for a solution or accept that some things can’t be changed?
3. When you fight, how do you express your anger? Are you fiery or do you play your emotional cards close?
4,. When your partner is angry with you, is it generally about something that is your fault or about something your partner has done?
5. How willing are you to adjust your behaviors and beliefs to accommodate your partner? If your natural way of being creates relationship conflict, are you willing to change?
Denier: Do you deny the existence of problems your partner sees? Maybe you even try to convince your partner he or she is imagining the problem, exaggerating it, or just plain nuts! An extreme case of denying a partner’s concerns is called “gaslighting,” in which one partner tries to force the other to believe in a false version of reality. There’s no affair. There’s no alcoholism. For the denier, everything’s fine – just fine. (Even when it’s not…)
Catastrophizer: You can’t overlook it – you just can’t! Even when it’s little. And you can’t help but see how every little problem could lead to living under a bridge in a cardboard box. You’re a catastrophizer. And so even little disagreements can make you emotionally escalated. When your body is escalated it is hard to focus cognitively on ways to solve the problem or to self-soothe.
Solution: The denier and the catastrophizer both avoid the real problem – one makes it too little and the other makes it too big. Diffusing these extremes means finding the middle. If you or your partner is a denier, work to acknowledge the reality of problems. If you’re a catastrophizer, work to deescalate your emotions in order to see problems for what they really are. Together you can work as a balanced team to find solutions.
Fixer: Many women will identify with this category, though of course men can belong to this type as well. When there’s a problem in the relationship, fixers spring into action – recommending books, treatments, therapists, etc. The urge to be a fixer can come from the feeling of being out of control – you want to grasp at solutions in order not to feel powerless. But if you’re a fixer, be careful that your fixes go both ways! Your tendency may be to fix your partner without turning an appraising eye on your own contributions to relationship problems.
Quitter: Quitters tend to lack follow-through and are quick to give up on projects, problems or relationships. But don’t assume that if a person habitually gives up on small things they will also give up on more important issues in the relationship. We all have some areas in which follow-through is difficult! But giving up on assembling a piece of IKEA furniture is not the same thing as quitting on a marriage.
Solution: Try to focus on the fears that underlie the tendency to fix or quit. Ask yourself what you might be avoiding by focusing on fixing your partner’s problems. Or ask yourself what fears and frustrations make problems seem unmanageable to the point of quitting.
Stoic: When confronted with problems, stoics keep a stiff upper lip. A stoic’s upper lip can be so stiff that the stoic may seem overly cerebral and may be uncomfortable with others’ emotional expression. During a fight, the stoic might say, “No need to get so emotional – we’ll handle it.” Stoicism may allow a person to avoid experiencing their feelings. The protection may be so entrenched that stoics are unable to directly access their feelings at all. Stoics don’t understand that sometimes things are messy and sometimes problems can’t be solved cerebrally. Sometimes solutions take
Rage-a-Holic: A Rage-a-Holic uses anger as manipulation, in the attempt
to scare or intimidate their partner into doing what they want. But despite this category’s name, anger doesn’t have to be rage – some people use passive-aggressive forms of anger to hurt, punish or manipulate. This can include criticism, taunting, and shaming. The passive-aggressive expression of anger can appear reasonable and valid to a partner who doesn’t have a strong enough sense of self to realize that the criticisms are untrue. Direct Rage-a-Holics manipulate people into complying with their wishes out of fear; passive Rage-a-Holics do so with shame or guilt. There can be no equality or
intimacy in a relationship with this imbalance of power.
Solution: If you’re stoic, ask yourself what might have contributed to your fear of feelings? Where did the belief that feelings are “messy” come from and what do you fear might happen if you expressed your emotions? For some people, stoicism is due to fear that their emotions won’t be respected or returned. If your go-to emotion is anger, ask yourself, “If I wasn’t angry what would I have to feel?” Do you want your partner to comply out of fear or out of love? The choice is yours.
Martyr: You made your bed and now you have to sleep in it. It’s your cross to bear. Despite a great deal of self-pity and an overabundance of clichés to describe it, the martyr also keeps a good deal of control. You choose to self-blame before your partner can lay this blame at your feet. A martyr’s automatic response to conflict is to dive straight into suffering rather than confronting the issue. Taking on the thorny crown of fault frequently includes self-imposed guilt trips – as if saying, “I’ll beat myself up before you do!”
Victim: Please understand there’s a major difference between someone who is objectively a victim, and people who place themselves in the emotional role of victim. It’s these second people we’re talking about here – people who consider themselves faultless victims even when they may be partially to blame for a relationship’s difficulties. Unfortunately, this attitude of constant victimization can be the heartbreaking result of real victimization, either as a child or in previous relationships. If victimhood becomes an identity, it can create a lifetime of loneliness, problems and failed relationships.
Solution: Oy vay! It is hard to be intimate with someone who is guilt-tripping you or acts with little self-worth. If you find yourself taking the role of victim, it’s time to celebrate the reality that while you may have been victimized in your past, the good news is that as an adult, the choice is now yours to embrace empowerment.
Traditionalist: A traditionalist has a prescribed way of experiencing the world. Usually this experience was shaped by their childhood, politics, religion or another belief system. The traditionalist may see their way as the only possible way. They may see other opinions, beliefs and ways of being as invalid.
Devil-May-Care: This devil-may-care attitude is the willingness to change wildly without holding true to any personal core of beliefs. You may find yourself going with the flow of your partner’s traditions, parenting style, or relationship ideals. And despite trying to convince yourself you don’t care, the experience of putting your needs second can eventually create simmering resentment.
Solution: Both the Traditionalist and Devil-May-Care conflict personalities may lack the emotional courage needed to act according to what they believe, and not according to what their culture, religion or family has conditioned them to believe. A Devil-May-Care may be unwittingly setting up their partner to be responsible for their choices and the ensuing consequences. Explore together where these beliefs come from – both the fear of taking a stand and holding a too-rigid opinion. Eventually this exploration can help you learn to celebrate the opportunity as a couple to create new traditions, rituals and beliefs.
After exploring these conflict personalities, try to recognize and take ownership of your automatic behaviors. The tricky part is doing this with curiosity and without blame or judgment. You may need to enlist the support of a trusted friend, partner or therapist to help you explore and understand the roots of these behaviors and what purposes they now serve. Awareness is the first step toward change. Then make the choice to act with love, kindness, and curiosity with both yourself and your partner. Set your intention to come up with new and more effective ways to react and behave when your fears are triggered or conflicts arise. Solutions usually come when partners acknowledge their behaviors and work together to choose love instead of being seduced by the call of these patterns you’ve put in place.