Constructive Fighting

Conflict is inevitable in relationships where addiction is a third party. The lies, blame, accusations, and fears that often accompany addictions make conflict unavoidable.

Conflict has the potential to deeply damage family relationships. One might ask if it's even possible to fight constructively. Absolutely! However, constructive fighting does involve learning some new communication skills, following some basic ground rules, and above all, respecting one's opponent. Again, this doesn't mean agreeing with another, but respecting each other's basic rights to have thoughts, feelings, and opinions of your own.

Constructive conflict is a process. Many feel that in the heat of conflict, it's impossible to be thoughtful about process. If one is too angry or upset to engage in the process, it's better to take some time alone to cool down before entering into conflict resolution. The following steps describe the process of constructive conflict:

  • Take a few seconds to decide if addressing this conflict is worthwhile. Is the upsetting issue a petty irritation that can be attributed to a bad day at work, or is it significant to the well-being of the relationship?

  • Choose a time for the conflict when there are no distractions and there will be adequate time to process the conflict.

  • The upset individual first states the facts from her perspective.

  • She next states her feelings related to this matter. It is important to state the facts first, as feelings often make it difficult to be objective.

  • She then states how she would like things to be different, what changes she would like to see take place.

  • She next states what she will need to do if these changes don't take place. This is not a threat or manipulation, but merely a statement of her next move.

  • Following these steps, the listener gets a turn. He responds with his own sense of the facts about the situation and states his feelings.

  • Once facts and feelings are out in the open, discussion can occur where questions may be asked and clarification established.

Hopefully, the conclusion of the conflict will end in a satisfactory resolution for both parties. Other possibilities include compromising, taking time to gather additional information and postponing the conflict until better prepared, or agreeing to disagree.

Constructive conflict is predicated on some essential ground rules. Respect is the key. This means no derogatory name-calling, no condescending attitudes, no dismissing the other's point of view, and no intimidating tactics. It also means that if one person is becoming too angry or upset during the conflict, a call for time-out is respected. Other ground rules involve not bringing up past conflicts, staying focused on the issue at hand, and not intentionally saying hurtful things to the other person.


Accusations, negative labels, and demands are hallmarks of destructive fighting. They tend to shut down communication and further damage relationships rather than lead to conflict resolution. Empathy, understanding, and objective feedback are much more effective tools in resolving conflict. Communication that is other-centered instead of self-centered is more likely to achieve the goal of enhanced relationship.

This process may seem very mechanical at first, but as with any new skill, it will become easier and more natural with use and practice. When first learning the process of constructive conflict, start with small disagreements where the outcome will not have a serious impact on the relationship. For example, what meal to have for dinner or which car to drive to the park is, hopefully, not too emotionally laden for practice. For deeply wounded families who have engaged in destructive conflict for too long, professional counseling may be helpful.

A professional counselor is trained to teach communication techniques and can act as a coach while a family is learning to change their style of dealing with conflict. Constructive conflict does work and, when carried out effectively, can provide a family with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

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