Constructive Vs Destructive Conflict


Perhaps inevitably tensions are running high in many families during the lockdown, where family members are unaccustomed to being in such close quarters for so long. Sadly, destructive conflict can affect children for a very long time - long after you and your partner have forgotten about the argument. So today we're going to take a look at the difference between destructive conflict, and constructive conflict.


How does constructive differ from destructive conflict? Destructive conflict is characterised by hostile and angry exchanges, and may include physical and verbal aggression. Take a moment to consider how you respond to your partner whilst arguing: do you recognise negative behaviours such as criticism, rejection and threats? This type of conflict causes a great deal of worry and anxiety in children, and may lead to them becoming withdrawn and depressed. It may also cause some children to become angry and to lash out, and may lead to the development of externalising disorders. Destructive conflicts can often occur in repetitive sequences that can be difficult to break out of, but identifying the patterns and trends can be the first step to considering a healthier approach.

Destructive conflict is characterised by:

  • Physical aggression and violence
  • Verbal hostility (threats, shouting,)
  • Silent treatment – raising fears that the argument will never be resolved
  • Intense conflict with contempt and criticism
  • Threats to the stability of the relationship
  • When a partner withdraws or ‘walks away’ from unresolved conflict
  • Any conflict that is about children (in front of them).


What is a constructive conflict? Constructive conflict is often characterised by accommodating behaviours, where one partner does not respond to negative or destructive behaviour in a similar way. Instead, one partner will assume the responsibility to make the discussion more constructive. You could say it is when couples attempt to handle conflict positively, such as by staying calm, engaging in problem-solving, and displaying positive behaviours, such as affection if possible. Couple conflict can vary in terms of intensity and how often it occurs. Some conflicts can be relatively minor and may be quickly forgotten. Other conflicts may reoccur regularly and be a result of more serious personal or relationship issues. Although recurrent conflict can be damaging, some of the damage can be offset through use of positive and constructive conflict strategies. Research suggests that children are less likely to get involved in this kind of conflict. Constructive conflict may also serve as a positive example for children and help them in their own development of life skills.

Conversely, constructive conflict (that has a less negative effect) is characterised by:

  • Taking steps to resolve the conflict
  • How people relate to each other after this conflict is important
  • Compromise and ability to see other person’s point of view
  • Ability to stay calm and resolve without shouting, given each person a time to share their viewpoint
  • Apologies with ‘warm feelings’ rather than a token apology.

Children can learn positive ways to resolve conflicts with their peers in a more constructive way if this is the usual nature of conflict in the family. Aside to the nature of the conflict, its frequency is important in affecting relationships – the more often destructive conflict occurs, the more likely this will lead to negative outcomes.[1]

Effects of conflict on children

Children’s mental and physical health and life chances can be affected by poorly resolved and intense conflict between parents. With this in mind, it is the quality rather than the nature of the relationship (e.g. married, cohabiting) which has a greater bearing on child outcomes. Destructive inter-parental conflict can affect individuals not only during infancy and childhood, but also through adolescence and adulthood.

The findings[2] were as follows, and show how the inter-parental relationship, and arguments that occur can affect child outcomes:

  • The quality of the inter-parental relationship, specifically how parents communicate and relate to each other, is increasingly recognised as a primary influence on effective parenting practices and children’s long-term mental health and future life chances.
  • Parents/couples who engage in frequent, intense, and poorly resolved inter-parental conflicts put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk.
  • Children of all ages can be affected by destructive inter-parental conflict, with effects evidenced across infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
  • Inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother–child and father–child relationships, with evidence suggesting that the association between inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices may be stronger for the father–child relationship compared to the mother–child relationship.
  • While family breakdown can be detrimental in itself, this review has found that the quality of parental relationships, level of parental stress, and quality of family functioning also have a significant impact on children’s well-being, in both intact and separated families. Family structure, family breakdown, and family relationship quality are all closely intertwined, making it difficult to distinguish the causal effect of each factor.



[1] Reynolds, J, Houlston, C, Coleman, L and Harold, G (2014). Parental Conflict: outcomes and interventions for children and families. Bristol: Policy Press.

[2] Harold, G. Acquah, D, Sellers, R and Chowdry, H (2014). What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children? London: Department for Work and Pensions.


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