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Discover your conflict style

Conflict can be one of the most challenging things in a relationship. It can be a knockdown, drag-out shooting match, an icy silence filled with contemptuous glances, or anywhere in between. Conflict can also be a way to create closeness and healing in your relationship.

Before you make conflict productive, you first need to understand how you do or don’t do conflict.

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What is my conflict style?

People have their own conflict styles. One style is what I will call the pusher. No, not physical pushing, but emotional/verbal/psychological pushing. The pusher’s style basically says, “I am going to push you till I get what I want. I’m going to yell, manipulate, insist, blame, accuse, nag, plead, or attempt to convince you until you do/say what I want.” This conflict style is related to people who have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style.

Another style is the runner. The runner is all about creating distance. Defense is the main strategy. There are a variety of defensive strategies such as avoiding, minimizing, negating, reverse blaming, shutting down, denying, and being oppositional. This conflict style is related to people who have an anxious-avoidant attachment style.

Image of the feet of two people against a solid blue background with arrows drawn above the feet, each pointing in the opposite direction, illustrating the concept that your conflict style affects your relationships

Typical conflict

Let’s explore a typical conflict between a pusher and a runner.

  • Pusher: You never want to spend time with me. (Accusing, blaming)
  • Runner: Yes I do. (Denying, minimizing)
  • Pusher: No you don’t. Just last weekend all you wanted to do was watch TV or do projects. If you really loved me, you could at least do SOMETHING with me. (Insisting, accusing, convincing, manipulating)
  • Runner: You always do this. Nothing I do is good enough for you. (Reverse blaming, shutting down)
  • Pusher: Why are you turning this around on me? Please just understand what I am trying to say without changing the subject. (Blaming, pleading, insisting)
  • Runner: I’m not turning things around. Why can’t I have my own feelings? (Denying, being oppositional, reverse blaming)

Does any of this dialogue sound familiar?

Pushers and runners often partner together. Most often in monogamous, heterosexual relationships, women occupy the role of the pusher and the man occupies the role of the runner.

People’s conflict styles may not fit squarely into one of these two categories, but they are useful examples to help you identify how you show up in conflict. If you are not sure, ask your partner. They can probably help you out…

Conflict exercise

Have both partners participate, if possible. Write down all the ways that you show up in conflict. Describe what you think, feel, and do before, during, and after conflict. What role do you play? What is your main motivation behind responding the way that you do? Assign one word that describes how you do conflict. Then, share with each other. Afterward, come up with a word or phrase that describes how conflict happens in the relationship. For example, pusher/runner, scream/leave, or the spiral of doom.

This exercise is designed to help you and your partner recognize your conflict patterns, name them, and then make different choices.

Now that you know how you show up in conflict, get ready to rumble.

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