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Competitive Confrontation

This is part of a series of blogs about communication in relationships. My previous blog looked at four common ways of handling conflict and this focuses on competitive confrontation. 

What does this mean?

Competitive confrontation is a common response to conflict. It describes our behaviour when we are forceful and push for what we want, often driving so hard we are unable (and certainly unwilling) to see the other person’s point of view.  It can often be aggressive, and means we focus exclusively on our own needs. We might raise voice, blame, judge, demand we get our way, coerce or even threaten others. 

It can be presented as the strong dominant male energy in the media or in the entertainment world. Statements such as “every man for himself” or “if I dont stand up and fight, I’ll lose my power, I will be destroyed.” “ Vulnerability is weakness – any empathy I show will be used against me, it’s a weakness.” and simply “ I’m right, you are wrong.

On the plus side…

Competitive confrontation can come across as assertive, direct, having clarity, appearing strong and courageous. However, it can also mean we are out of touch with more vulnerable feelings and needs. 

The downside…

It is different to a direct openhearted engagement that includes both peoples needs. Limited by its rigidity, it can be dangerous in its disconnect from empathy. We may get what we want but compromise others’ trust or lose relationships entirely.  Using this approach to conflict can lead to isolation, alienation and ignorance of one’s own needs for connection and compassion. 

What does it look like?

It can happen in a moment. We are having a conversation, our partner says something that lights up our internal fuse. Within a split second, our brains starts mobilising a full blown fight or flight response as though our safety, our life, is under threat. This can lead to withdrawal (flight), or full-on engagement (fight), or freezing, shutting down like a deer in the headlights.

Anger is normal and healthy in relationships

It is really important to stress that it is normal for healthy couples to get angry, express negativity, and respond with negativity. Anger can be tripped by common day-to-day frustrations leading to irritability between partners and manageable negativity between partners. We are tired, we are hungry, we are stressed and we snap – but usually we get through it speedily and stay friends. 

What can be dangerous is the  immediate and destructive flash of anger (or hurt) that forms our response to our partner and gets in front of our ability to put the brakes on. 

What happens in our brains?

When we feel that sudden flash of intense anger, the region of the brain called the amygdala sends signals of perceived threat, putting out an alarm that activates neurotransmitters that increase heart rate, blood flow, blood pressure, and breathing. This process then activates other neurotransmitters and hormones, like adrenaline or noradrenaline that further increase physiology sustaining the anger and on-alert state. This complex set of responses is referred to as “flooding.”

What is flooding?

Flooding reflects a physiological response to threat usually signaled by a heart rate over 100 bpm. A resting heart rate typically could be in the 60-100 range, so noticing the heart rate is above, or well above 100 is something to look for. When people get flooded, reactions are intense, come quickly, and are involuntary. What that means is that the amygdala is running the show and the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain associated with judgment and impulse control—is temporarily disengaged and not available. It becomes about survival, even though we may not be aware of what actually got triggered and what the underlying triggers are about. Triggers are based on events in our own history that the brain encodes at the time and stored for future reference and safety. When there are events in our life that have any similarity or remind us of previous negative events in our history, our brain perceives a threat and gets activated. Enduring vulnerabilities are events that create an emotional wound that can be activated and re-lived in real time. The past becomes the present in those moments.

A reaction that is out of proportion 

Since flooded reactions are so intense and seemingly out of the blue, it is confusing to couples about what is actually happening. It all seems out of proportion and an over-reaction. When we can begin to understand that flooding occurs when deeply felt emotions are being triggered, then we will be less likely to misinterpret the reaction as “crazy” or “oversensitive.” It is how humans are wired—to anticipate danger—and find ways to feel safe.

My next blog will look at ways of handling intense anger and flooding in our relationships.

Favourite resources 

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also:


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Conflict Avoidance Managing Anger in Relationships Building strong relationships