The occasional — or even not-so-occasional — conflict is part of any relationship, even the healthiest ones. The real problems arise when unhealthy patterns of conflict continue over time. Lashing out or emotionally withdrawing when your partner hurts or frustrates you can take a major toll on morale, breaking trust and leaving both of you feeling stuck and defeated. The good news is that your go-to conflict style isn’t set in stone, and simply identifying it can do wonders for your relationship.
There’s no “official” psychological definition of conflict styles, but your nervous system’s stress response — the same one that makes your heart race or your palms sweat when you’re upset — can be a helpful framework. A quick rundown: When you encounter any type of threat, your brain triggers an automatic physiological response. This reaction to a perceived threat is evolutionarily hard-wired in you to protect you from actual danger (like saber tooth tigers).
But if you’re in an argument with your spouse, your threat response can have the opposite effect, further stirring the pot and even damaging your relationship, says Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, a Santa Barbara, CA-based psychologist.
Depending on the situation and your personal history, you might respond to conflict in one of four ways: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (more on these later). “While we all have the capacity to respond in any of these ways, people tend to choose one more often,” Peck says.
According to Nick Bognar, a psychotherapist in Pasadena, CA, your go-to conflict response is often rooted in your own experiences — childhood trauma or relationship patterns that shaped how you see yourself and the world. Understanding that your conflict style probably has deeper roots than the threat at hand can help you find ways to work through and reshape that response, hopefully preventing future harm to your relationship. Plus, Bognar says, you’ll feel less shame about how you respond when you can pinpoint where it might be coming from. This can help you stay present and work through feelings with your partner in the moment.
Similarly, understanding your partner’s conflict style can help you be more gracious toward them when things get heated.
“Conflict can get very personal fast, and it’s helpful to understand their response isn’t about you,” says Bognar. “Your partner could be responding a certain way because that’s just what they do when they feel threatened.”
To understand your personal conflict response, think through your last few major conflicts and how you responded, especially if that response was out of proportion to the issue. Is there one way you tend to react more often, or a response that usually upsets your partner? Understanding will help immensely.
Four Common Conflict Styles, And What to Know About Each
Below are the four conflict styles and their defining traits. Learning about them can help you and your partner find new ways to deal with conflict — and, hopefully, improve your relationship.
1. Conflict Style: Fight
During the fight response, your body and brain are getting ready for battle – the goal is to keep yourself safe using any means possible, even at the expense of your relationship. During the fight response, Peck says people usually experience racing heart and thoughts, physical tension, and feeling enraged and disrespected.
The “fight” response is just what it sounds like. If you tend to “fight” in response to a threat, Bognar says you’ll react aggressively or angrily, even verbally abusive toward your partner. If the following traits seem like you, Peck says you might be a fighter:
- Defending yourself fiercely (“I didn’t do that”)
- Attacking (“You always do this”)
- Blaming (“This is your fault because it was your idea”)
- Kitchen-sinking, or bringing new issues into the mix (“And you do this and that”)
- Belittling (“You can’t keep things straight because you’re so disorganized”)
- Name-calling (“You’re being a child”)
- Criticizing (“If you had done this correctly, I wouldn’t have had to fix it”)
How to work with it
The key to working with a fight response is taking a beat to yourself. “With fight responses, you always want to slow it way down,” Bognar says. If you need to, step out of the conflict — even the room — as soon as you notice things heating up. Take a deep breath, which can help calm your physical response, and remind yourself your partner isn’t your enemy (which is probably what your brain and body are feeling.)
If you need even more time to de-activate, take a longer break and tell your partner when you’ll come back to discuss the issue. “It’s most important for the conversation to go well, not for it to happen as quickly as possible,” says Peck. “Sometimes taking a time out allows you to regroup and become available to give and receive feedback.”
2. Conflict style: Flight
In this conflict style, Peck says, your brain and body determine your best chance of surviving a threat is to run away to protect yourself. You might notice yourself feeling restless, with a strong urge to escape the situation, or you may feel discouraged and inadequate to face the issue at hand.
Flight is pretty self-explanatory: It involves fleeing. According to Bognar, flight can involve emotionally or physically leaving the conflict — you might actually leave, or you might just emotionally check out. The below traits are common for people who tend to flee conflict:
- Avoiding your partner when you know they want to talk about something serious
- Derailing a conflict talk when it has begun
- Shutting down the conversation (“I can’t talk about this now”) and never coming back to it
- “Stonewalling,” or shutting yourself down to avoid conflict
- Choosing to be too busy with work and other activities so you don’t have time for a discussion
How to work with it:
If you’re tempted to check out when things get hard, Bognar suggests reminding yourself that you have the agency to leave whenever you want and then making a decision to stick around for a bit and try to be part of the conversation. “It can be helpful to encourage yourself to engage for ten more minutes,” he says.
Remind yourself, too, that avoiding conflict actually creates more problems. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of talking about an issue with your partner, Peck suggests breaking it down into multiple, short conversations or scheduling a time for a discussion so you’re not caught off guard. It can also help to have difficult talks on “good days,” because you’ll have more energy and positivity stored up to address conflict. If you find yourself shutting down in a conflict, Peck recommends telling your partner so they can reassure you.
3. Conflict style: Freeze
“When your fight or flight system has been engaged for a long period of time, your body and brain might shut down to conserve energy and resources to protect you for what it believes is the long haul,” Peck says. You might feel disconnected from your body or the situation like you’re present but emotionally checked out or numb.
While flight’s purpose is to leave, freeze’s purpose is to stay still and not make things worse, says Bognar. Common signs of freezing during a conflict may include:
- Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells
- Avoiding your partner altogether
- Limiting discussions or being secretive
- Living parallel lives, where you don’t engage in difficult topics
- Knowing there’s something to discuss but not having any words to speak about it
How to work with it
Because freezing is a sign of being overwhelmed, Peck says the first step is to take care of yourself and engage in self-care. Shutting down can also be a sign of unresolved trauma, so it may be helpful to seek individual support from a therapist who can help you resolve the issue.
In the midst of conflict, remind yourself you’re allowed to take up space. “As long as you’re in a safe situation, then you want to remember it’s okay and actually really beneficial and generous to bring yourself into the room,” Bognar says. It may also help, Peck says, to engage in no-conflict, shared activities with your partner to allow yourself to “show up” in the relationship.
4. Conflict style: Fawn
In the fawn response, people seek to protect themselves by smoothing over the situation and attending to the other person’s needs. “This might happen if fighting, fleeing, or even freezing isn’t possible or best for us,” Peck says. Fawn focuses on care-taking, impressing, and doing whatever you can to build an alliance with your partner.
People who fawn are focused on making their partners happy, even if it means compromising their own ideas or needs. If you fawn, you may find yourself:
- Apologizing profusely
- Asking for reassurance that the relationship isn’t ending
- Continuously checking in on your partner
- Taking care of your partner even if you were the one bringing up something that bothered you
- Having a hard time knowing what you’re feeling and looking to your partner to find out
How to work with it
People who fawn tend to ignore their own inner voice because they’re focused on other people. When you find yourself shutting down your own feelings in favor of your partner’s, take time to listen. “Notice that voice in yourself that you’re acting against and learn to trust it and listen to it during conflict,” Bognar says.
Peck also encourages working on speaking up about your thoughts and emotions in moments of conflict. Use “I” statements to express how you’re feeling to your partner to remind yourself each person is responsible for their own feelings. State your needs and wants clearly, without taking them back, and work on saying “no” without having to explain yourself. You can also tell your partner you’re struggling to speak up about your needs during a conflict so they can reassure you they want to hear your side.
As long as you view conflict as a threat, you’ll continue to react in ways that end up hurting your partner and relationship. But, if you see conflict as an opportunity, you can be an active part of shaping your response rather than continuing with old, harmful patterns. Try to remember that it’s totally normal to encounter conflict, and it can even be a chance to get to know yourself and your partner better.
To continue forging an alliance with your partner — and building resilience to weather inevitable storms down the road — Peck suggests setting aside time weekly to check in about what’s going well and what you can work on, along with sharing an expression of appreciation.
“That way, you’re building up the emotional muscle memory to handle conflicts without having your body go into a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response,” she says.