The Couple’s Stalemate

You’ve been fighting with your partner for over an hour. Voices have been raised, blank stares and death glares passed. And there’s no way you’re letting your guard down now. 

If this has ever been you, you have found yourself in the couple’s stalemate. 

And you are not alone.

Every couple has experienced big conflicts in their relationship. Some conflicts can be healthy, as they provide space for you and your partner to work out disagreements. The catch is, most of us don’t know how to engage in healthy conflict. Rather, we know conflict to mean war with our partners; a game of chess, if you will, to attack and destroy our opponent, while also protecting our most vulnerable piece. 

For those who do come out on top and “win the war”, the downfall is that you’ve lost your partner in the process. When you and your partner engage in this destructive approach you will often find yourselves at a stalemate or stuck in your position. Couples can become stalemated for multiple reasons and it’s important to understand how you got there, what keeps you there, and how you move towards freedom with your partner. 


You and your partner didn’t get stuck in your conflicts by accident, and you didn’t decide your conflict styles. You have been conditioned for many years in how you relate to others the way you do now. Where you need to begin is with an exploration of your past. Your past is not just an amalgamation of memories, but rather a host of lived experiences that shape how you think, feel, and operate in relationships. For some of you, your past has been something you’ve run away from, pushed down, and don’t want to talk about. And while it can feel safer to just focus on the present, you and your partner will inevitably miss out on the impact of your wounds, fears, and unmet needs. Which, by the way, all come roaring to the surface when stuck in a stalemate. 

By diving into your childhood, you get to connect more to yourself, and understand how you came to engage in conflict so negatively. To do this, there are two questions you need to ask yourself as you begin exploring how you got here. 

First, how did you witness conflict between your parents? Your childhood home is the first place that conflict was modeled for you, and your parents are your first relationship role models. If raised voices, throwing things, and stomping out were a regular occurrence, then it would make sense that you would respond in a similar way. Social learning theory (Bandura & Walters, 1977) says that people often mimic what they’ve witnessed others do. 

For example, you may have witnessed your mom yelling at your dad, and learned that the “effective” way to get heard was through yelling.  This “effective” way may have gotten results, but not by healthy means. Or it may be the case that you rarely witnessed your parents arguing in front of you. This must be a healthy alternative—right? Well, maybe not. If conflict is not modeled to you, you are also at a deficit. Not only have you not seen healthy conflict, but you also haven’t seen unhealthy/harmful conflict. This creates its own setbacks, and you might feel unprepared for conflict in your romantic relationships. Moreover, if your parents haven’t modeled how to resolve conflict, you run a much higher risk of being set up to be stalemated in your relational conflicts. 

Second question you should ask yourself is more of a series of questions. And begins with: who comforted you as a kid? And how? This may seem like a weird question to ask, however, one of the biggest underlying grievances in a couple’s stalemate is the “you’re not hearing me” cry. Was it a parent who comforted you? If so, which one? Was it always the same parent? Where was your other parent? And why didn’t they comfort you? If you don’t have many vivid memories of parents comforting you, was it a sibling, grandparent, friend, neighbor? What kind of comfort were you desperately longing for from your parents that you didn’t get? Engaging in these questions can help you begin to explore your core needs associated with comfort. 

Two core needs for all children, and therefore all adults, is to be heard and seen. Your past experiences of being comforted say a lot about what you hope/expect your partner to do in a conflict. A parent who held you when you cried can imprint the felt need to be held by your partner when you’re experiencing big emotions. If a partner is unaware of this need, or doesn’t understand it and therefore doesn’t oblige, you are in a stalemate. 

 Or how about the parent who neglected to take action to comfort you? This most often solidifies the belief that only you can soothe yourself. So, when your partner attempts to hug you when you are upset, this type of comfort may feel foreign and cause you to become more frustrated and distant. 

There are a host of other wonderful questions to help you unpack ‘how you got here’, that are more beneficial to be discussed in a professional setting with a trusted therapist, such as, how did anger function in your family of origin? What are the obstacles keeping you from hearing your partner? And what is your attachment style? All these questions can further unpack how you got here, and how you and your partner can move through a stalemate.  


How, though, do you keep getting yourself stalemated in conflict? Three things are likely to happen: (1) your insanity play, (2) disconnection, and (3) leaving your zone of social engagement. 

You’ve probably heard it said before that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Continually yelling at your partner expecting no retaliation gives way to false hope to leaving a stalemate. Continuing with this closed mindset is going to create even more frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness. In a similar vein, expecting your partner to make the first change, is bordering insane play. It is only by fear and pride that you cross your arms and say, “I’m not changing until they do!”. 

You may be saying, “I’ve tried so many different things, and nothing seems to be working”, which leads you to the second way of keeping conflicts stalemated. By not exploring the questions of how you got here you set yourself up for repeating harmful patterns. Without a deep understanding of your childhood, you are disconnected from your hurts, deficits, and needs. You are ultimately disconnected from how deeply impactful your childhood is for your romantic relationship. As much as you may have tried to get out of the stalemate, you carry your childhood wounds into the relationship.

Finally, you continue to be stalemated by leaving your zone of social engagement. Social engagement is the first stage of polyvagal theory, developed by Porges (2018), which explains social behavior. Social engagement is when your body is calm and settled. In this zone, you can have rational conversations with openness and curiosity. Another zone includes fight or flight/flee. If your body registers that talking things out calmly isn’t going to resolve the issue, you immediately move to zone two. Can you fight this, or do you need to flee? Your fight can be anger, yelling, criticism, insults, or defensiveness. When you flee, you might physically move away, or you can flee the conversation by switching topics that are less contentious. If neither of these techniques work, you unconsciously shift to the final zone. This final zone, freezing, is when you shut down, become numb, dissociate, or feel helpless/hopeless. 

Remember, moving in and out of any of these stages isn’t a conscious choice. It’s something your body does automatically, because you are trying to find the best and quickest solution to resolving the real or perceived danger/conflict. Your body learns to shift to fight, flight, or freeze through many past experiences of being in conflict. All this to say, when you are stalled in conflict with your partner, you are continually being activated to leave the social engagement zone and simultaneously moved into fight, flee, or freeze with your partner. 


Being in a stalemate doesn’t have to last forever. You can move towards freedom by engaging in curiosity, developing boundaries, and offering compassion. Curiosity first starts with your own self. Ask yourself the “how you got here” questions listed above. Start to make connections between your childhood and your romantic relationship. As you continue increasing 

in self-awareness, ask these same questions to your partner. Odds are they too have witnessed unhealthy modeling that they play out during your stalemate. Once you know your triggers, you can easily develop boundaries that keep you from the insanity play. Before blowing up at your partner or going silent, let them know you need to take a personal time out, cool down, and that you will rejoin when you have returned to the social engagement zone. Finally, working through past hurts, previous unhealthy conflict models, and ways you were set up as a child to show up in relationships doesn’t happen overnight. Offer compassion to yourself and your partner as you both work towards experiencing yourself and your relationship in a new way. 

While this may sound easier said than done, you are not doing this work alone. You and your partner can work as a team towards freedom from the couple’s stalemate. 

*If you want additional help to move towards this freedom, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional therapist.  


Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory (Vol. 1). Prentice Hall: Englewood cliffs.

Porges, S. W. (2018). Polyvagal theory: A primer. Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies50, 69.

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