How To Fix Combative Relationships: Case Study

Are you stuck in a combative relationship?

Or do you have a combative personality and want to change it?

You have found the right article.

By the end of this article, you will know exactly what combative relationships are, and how to fix them.

What Are Combative Relationships?

I will define a combative relationship as:

A relationship where one or both partners are more intent on showing superiority than on supporting each other

Combative relationships are defined by nasty games of “one-upping” and put-downs.

A combative partner will often use verbal and nonverbal attacks as a way of demeaning their partner, such as:

  • Making fun
  • Highlighting partner’s mistakes
  • Focus on “winning”
  • Refusing small favors “out of spite”
  • Diminishing partner’s accomplishments
  • Belittling partner’s ideas and contributions
  • …..

Let’s see a few mainstays of a combative relationship:

Sign 1: Covert Aggression

Partners in combative relationships are in constant bickering.

Criticism is not always an open act of aggression like yelling and shoving though, and that’s why some people fail to diagnose where the problem lies.

Sometimes the criticism is nasty jokes, backstabbing, indirect criticism, covert aggression, and sarcastic put-downs.

Here is an example to stress the difference.
Imagine the couple who is having difficulties parking, these are the two different approaches:

Direct Aggression: Of course there’s enough space to park, you’re a terrible driver, switch seats and lemme do it!

Indirect aggression:

Indirect: “Ahaha are you really asking me if there’s enough space? Ahaha a 30 ton truck could park there…

The first one could be mean, but the person saying it doesn’t hide and is not making fun of the other.
It deals with the issue straight on and focuses on fixing it.

The second one is sneakier because it undermines your partner in an indirect way by making fun of her.

It’s also not solution oriented because it doesn’t solve the issue.
Indeed the unconscious aim of the aggressor is to leave the issue open and up for longer discussion or escalation.

Look at a few real-life examples here:

They all seem like jokes.
But it’s aggression presented in the guise of joking.

Psychology of Covert Aggression

Why do partners resort to passive aggression?

It’s a mix of power and insecurity.

It’s because, by highlighting the partner’s shortcomings the aggressor asserts his superiority in the relationship.

The aggressor’s comparative status increases and the aggressed diminishes.

Most people think it’s a question of low self-esteem, but that’s not correct.
It’s egotism with high but fragile self-esteem that most often leads to aggression.

This is what social psychologist Roy Baumeister writes:

When researchers began to conduct careful prospective studies of family violence, however, the evidence for low self-esteem disappeared.
The new buzzword among researchers on family violence is status inconsistency.
The violent husband is the man who thinks his daily life is not confirming his exalted opinion of himself.

Status inconsistency refers to the willingness -and belief- that one deserves the leadership role in the relationship.
And whenever he feels under threat by her independence, he needs to lash out to re-assert his power and control.

The Hide and Seek Game of Covert Abusers

Since combative personalities are often insecure, accusing them usually goes nowhere.

The aggressor will hide behind the smoke screen of “it’s not true, it was just a joke”.
This is a typical passive-aggressive technique.

Maybe they will even add a gaslighting zinger such as “don’t be so touchy”, just to push you on the defensive.

One Aggressive Partner Is Enough

In many combative relationships, it’s not both partners who are aggressive.

It’s instead one partner who feels the need to assert his superiority while the other partners the other party reacts in defense.

In a way, both are trapped in a combative relationship, but neither knows any better and so it keeps going on and on forever.

How it Should Be

A relationship with endemic aggression is a failed relationship.

No relationship, and least of all a romantic one, needs aggression and you should not settle for it.

Your relationship should be your sanctuary of understanding, warmth, and support. When you don’t get warmth and support from your partner you might as well (try to) string a one-night stand after the other.

Read more on how to turn criticism into constructive feedback:

Sign 2: One-Upping

Covert aggression is terrible, but one-upping is even sneakier.

The Psychology of One-Upping

The partner one-upping the other is in need of feeling superior and protecting their ego.

Albeit not exclusively, it is mostly a men’s issue, and it often goes hand in hand with a fixed mindset.

A partner with a fixed mindset believes that their qualities are set in stone, and their qualities define who they are.

So any time a man sees a woman outperforming him -smarter, more confident, richer, etc.-, they feel inferior to her.
This is hard to swallow for many men and particularly so for fixed mindset men because they see every single instance as another proof of who they are in general. So every single “loss” mean they are “losers”.

So they are constantly struggling to prove themselves better than their partners in an endless, incessant “who’s better” war.

Notice the very first skit here:

Elena brags a bit about her number of followers on Instagram.
Cardone is quick in highlighting how her followers are actually his followers.
He basically negates her notoriety and one-ups her to show he’s the real boss and the real star of the two.

To address this issue at the core:

How it Should Be

One-upping people means tearing them down.

But people in healthy relationships don’t tear each other down. People in healthy relationships build each other up.

Confident men who care about their partner don’t negate their wife’s successes, but compliment, congratulate them, and make them feel great about it.
See the difference:

Weak One-Upping Man:

Her: I have just hit 10k Instagram fans today!
Him: Oh, cool, and do you think that makes you a better person now? Who cares about followers… 

If she’s bragging about it, it’s obviously important to her! If she’s bragging about it to you, she cares about what you think.

The man here probably doesn’t have 10k fans and is afraid of being inferior because of it.

So he tries to tear down her whole metrics of success and, in the process, her whole judgment (very, very demeaning).

Confident Man :

Her: I have just hit 10k Instagram fans today!
Him: Wow, congratulations baby! Give me a hug, we should have a toast to that! How do you feel about it.. 

The difference is light day and night, right?

Here the man is making her feel great for her accomplishment.
But he is also communicating something deeper: that he appreciates her and her successes and that he can partake in that success because they are a team.

This second man is the kind of man she will want to be around and share her stories with.
And, very possibly, her whole life.

How To Fix Combative Relationships

First off, you need to understand you’re in a combative relationship.

And if you are a combative personality, you need to admit it to yourself.

If you are reading this article, you either looked for it and you know, or you know now.
So own it.

If The Combative Partner Is The Man:

In all frankness, a proverb springs to mind:

The smallest dogs are the ones who (need to) bark the loudest.

Men who are leaders of their relationship do NOT need to state it and do not need to prove it.

If you are the one aggressing then, you need to work on yourself first and foremost.
In the meanwhile, fake it till you make it:

  1. Stop aggressing
  2. Consciously replace aggression with warmth

Breaking the vicious circle is sometimes all that’s needed.
Everyone prefers a supportive relationship and once you experience the benefits you will not want to look back.

You will still probably regress from time to time, but keep staying vigilant, and little by little you will completely stamp out the aggressive behavior.

If Your Partner Is Combative: Show Them The Alternative

If your partner is the aggressor, try this:

Make them feel loved and appreciated in spite of their shortcomings.

People long to be who they are. But they are scared that they are not enough, and that’s why they put on all that big fight.
But deep down, we all naturally long for a place and a relationship where we can let our guard down and be loved for who we are.

Teach Them The Right Way

But of course, before you get there, you might need to do some teaching.

You will not just show warmth, indeed, but you will also “punish” first the bad behavior with some tough love and operant conditioning.

To show how we will move away from the Instagram example and use the situation from the video where she rudely refused to give him his pen:

Her (swats his hand away)

Him: (warmly, genuinely hurt) why are you doing that. I need a pen, I would happily lend you my pen if you needed one

Her: Sorry that was a bit rude, maybe but why should you take my pen, get your own pen

Him: No, I just needed it for a second, but the pen is not the point, it goes deeper and I’ve seen this dynamic a few times now and I feel we should address it.

The point is that we’re together now and if you needed a pen right now I’d be happy to help you with a pen right now.

And if tomorrow you need help in some other way I can help you with, say a shoulder to cry on like it happened last week, I’m happy to help you in that way.

Because I want to see you happy.

I see relationships as a way of helping each other.

So if one day, it’s me who needs your support, I’d also appreciate you to help me too. I believe those are the best relationships, the ones where we are a team. You’re my co-pilot and we are stronger as a team. Don’t you think that would be a better relationship?

Her: Yeah.. Sorry I just thought you wanted to steal my pen

Him: All good

The first time you do it, your partner will likely feel ashamed of their behavior.
And that’s great because it means they understand and care.

Do it a few times and your relationship will quickly grow stronger and more collaborative than you thought possible

Of course, not everyone can be fixed.
Fringe cases are the real narcissistic, heavily egocentric, power-hungry, abusive, controlling, and jealous-paranoids.

Loving Relationships Mindset

These are the mindsets of benevolent relationship leaders:

  • You understand that the mindset of trying to win and showing yourself superior to your partner is ultimately a weak one driven and motivated by internal deficiencies
  • You know that strong and confident leaders don’t push other people down and don’t feel the need to show their superiority.
  • You know that enlightened leaders do the exact opposite: they help the people around them get nearer their level, make them feel great, and build them up.

Men in great relationships don’t dictate but instead, make their woman part of their common decision-making.
Or even delegates to her in any realm where she’s better suited to lead or decide.

Ironically, the moment you stop “proving” yourself superior and focus instead on caring about your partner is also the moment you become the leader of that relationship.

improving combative relationships


Combative relationships are often the consequence of weak egos and keep going out of vicious circles’ momentum.

But the moment you interrupt it that vicious circle and replace it with something better, chances are high it will change for the better.

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