De-Escalating Arguments with Your Partner: A 4-Step Approach

Mature adult couple sit on rock talking openly and smilingEver had an argument? Most of us have. But have you stopped to think about why we have arguments?

Arguments in relationships are often based on the emotional response of feeling unheard. You’ve said it a thousand times, and still … nothing changes.

You would think you’d finally be listened to when you said something for the 1001st time. But when that doesn’t happen, when you still feel unheard, you are frustrated. You may even be angry.

Of course you’re frustrated. Of course you’re likely to get mad.

But try not to get mad. This often only makes the argument worse. What’s more, you still may not feel listened to.

Why Aren’t They Listening?

For just a moment, let’s consider things from your partner’s perspective to see how your attempt to be heard is being processed. They may be thinking something like this, “Oh, there they go again. Are they ever going to stop harping on about this? I feel like I’m living in purgatory!”

They’re not listening because they feel like your repeated attempts to discuss something important is actually you nagging at them. They may feel attacked and accused. They most likely feel defensive. They probably shut down faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”

So no, they aren’t listening. They may never have been listening. They don’t want to hear blame or criticism.

In the beginning, when you first brought up whatever it was, you likely had no intention of casting blame or criticizing. You just wanted to share something, something you wanted done or changed or understood better. But your partner took it as criticism.

That was not your fault.

Children, particularly children in troubled homes, learn survival habits and skills early. They then take those survival skills into their relationships. In a relationship, these skills may be more of a liability than an asset. But how would someone know otherwise if they’ve only ever known a family who said hurtful things it would have been better to not hear?

There could be a number of reasons behind their interpretation. Maybe they had a parent who did nag at them, possibly mercilessly. Maybe they didn’t get love or validation from that parent, either. If that was the case, it probably made perfect sense to develop the habit of tuning out.

Children, particularly children in troubled homes, learn survival habits and skills early. They then take those survival skills into their relationships. In a relationship, these skills may be more of a liability than an asset. But how would someone know otherwise if they’ve only ever known a family who said hurtful things it would have been better to not hear?

So it’s not their fault, either.

Whose fault is it, then?

It isn’t anyone’s fault.

The sooner both partners realize this, and stop thinking in terms of blame and fault, the sooner the conflict can not only be resolved, but changed permanently.

This leads me to my four-step solution to a problem many couples experience: escalating arguments.

A Four-Step Solution

1. Do something different.

A good way to break a harmful cycle is to try something different. You feel like you’ve said the same thing over and over but still aren’t being heard. Instead of reacting with an explosive outburst, take a deep breath and consider that it might be time to try a new approach.

What are some different things you could do to get your loved one’s attention?

  • Send a text or email.
  • Better yet, write a note by hand.
  • If you feel creative, write a silly song and set it to music.
  • Another option is to plan a nice, relaxed dinner together. Over dinner, in a calm, quiet voice, bring up what’s on your mind.
  • Try saying what you need to say with a smile, in a calm tone.

There are as many options as there are creative ideas. Let them be surprised at what you come up with.

You might wonder why you need to be “all sunshine and roses” when your partner is the one who isn’t hearing you. You might feel like it isn’t fair.

And maybe it isn’t fair. But answer this: Do you actually want to change the dynamic and finally be heard? Or do you want to keep going in circles, forever?

2. Don’t diminish yourself.

One outcome I hear from people is that somehow they ended up stooping down to the level of the other person. Whether your partner is yelling, speaking in a belittling way, or doing any other unpleasant thing, you have the option of responding in kind or not. You can choose how you react.

A reactor, I often tell the people I work with, is like the knee-jerk reflex. When a doctor taps your knee with the little hammer to check your patellar reflect, your knee kicks out as if it has a mind of its own. That is being reactive. Your knee can’t choose to react in that way.

I encourage you to not be a knee. Decide in advance that you will not lose your temper, that you will not demean yourself by reacting negatively. Instead you’ll keep calm and maintain your dignity and self-respect.

3. Be grateful you had a different experience. 

To do this, there’s no need to put down your partner. Simply note with gratitude that in your growing-up years you didn’t need to learn to block out painful words of shame or rejection from your parents or caregivers. If you did have that similar experience, be grateful you were able to handle it better. You don’t tune out the people in your life. You don’t ignore requests for help or understanding.

Remember your partner reacts the way they do as a result of bad experience, not choice. Their actions are the product of a habit. They likely don’t even see what they’re doing and how destructive it is. Be grateful that no matter what you’ve been through, you can see how destructive this behavior is. Have compassion and empathy for those who are stuck in a rut of tuning out those they love.

When you reach this step, the first step will be much easier!

4. Breathe and meditate.

There is one final solution that is simple but still amazingly powerful. Slow down your autonomic nervous system and turn off the stress hormone cortisol in your brain, simply by deep breathing.

Research has shown that taking 20 minutes to meditate is great, but this length of time is not necessary. Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful if you have 20 minutes to do it. The result we’re looking for here, though, can be achieved by taking only one minute, 10 times a day, to breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe2Relax, an app you can download on your phone, can be tremendously useful for this.

To make this exercise even more powerful, hold positive thoughts in your mind while doing the deep breathing. Even if you only do this for one minute, you can retrain your brain to respond in a healthier way to the irritating situation.

Steven Stosny, the preeminent researcher working with aggressive and uncompassionate men, suggests people visualize, 12 times a day, themselves reacting to stress in a way that makes them feel more valuable. While doing this, note the good feelings that come with reacting in a more valuable, positive way (as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction of irritation).

This means doing the deep breathing while at the same time visualizing—for example, speaking to that tuned-out partner with love and understanding—and noting how good that feels. Repeat this 12 times a day. Stosny explains that this works because it creates a habit, one we can feel good about. And the beautiful thing about habits is that with practice, they become part of us.

If you and your partner are struggling to stop a cycle of arguments, or if one or both of you feel unheard, know there is help available. A qualified, compassionate couples counselor can offer support and guidance as you work through relationship challenges.

Reference:

Stosny, S. (2013). Blue-collar therapy: The nitty-gritty of lasting change. Psychotherapy Networker. 22-20, 54.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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