Have you ever been in an argument where suddenly it all goes out of control and you are not sure why? In these moments, you might find yourself saying things that you do not really mean and know you will regret, but it seems impossible to pull back. You take a position and find yourself defending it and refusing to give any ground. This is an example of our high emotional arousal taking over from thinking and reflection.
While these behaviors are very common, there are some tried-and-trusted strategies available that will slow an argument down – even if you're in the middle of it – and ensure it doesn't get out of hand.
There are many moments in discussions when there is a fork in the road, and we need to create the opportunity to make wise decisions about which road we should take. If your arguments usually end up in an impasse, heed the words of the poet Robert Frost that suggest you take the road less travelled! Do not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This tendency to do things on autopilot is very strong.
I must restate the importance of knowing what you really want to sort out and stating it as clearly as you can. It is useful for your partner but also for yourself. We can get really mixed up about what we don’t like versus what is really wrong and needs to be resolved. The coat on the chair may be irritating but it is not a serious crime! If in the middle of a discussion you find it going off point, it is useful to restate your original concern. Something like “I would find it helpful if we could refocus on the point I (or you) started with, as I am getting a little lost.”
It is also important to bear in mind that your needs and those of your partner can be very different. For example, someone who has low self esteem may find a lack of positive feedback in a relationship very, very difficult, whereas someone else may not be disturbed by it at all. One partner may physically suffer from the absence of a sexual relationship while the other is unaffected.
The willingness to understand your partner’s unique experience and their willingness to understand yours is a wonderful step towards intimacy and will help you keep relating as two human beings going through life together, rather than as enemies trying not to be defeated. It is useful during a discussion to check with your partner how the discussion is going from their point of view.
It can be helpful when you are beginning to change your discussion style to make a rule about this so that you encourage each other along the way. If one of you forgets and slips in an accusation or mind-reading comment, then please be kind and gently remind them of the rule.
Some couples use a code word to alert the other when they break a rule. Any fun or neutral word could work. If you can begin to be a little playful with this process you will find that it will work much better. Smiling seems to activate the wise mind!!
It might be a good idea to have a check on pacing. I argue very fast and I know from first-hand experience that it is hard for anyone whose style is to process things and take time to respond. The pace has to be one that makes it possible for both of you to be fully involved. Be prepared to slow down or communicate that you are “thinking” if you need time to respond.
Try to keep alert to signs that emotions are threatening to take over either you or your partner. Sometimes couples enjoy using a traffic light system either with coloured cards or by verbally stating the colour. If your partner is unsure if you are okay to continue, you can say “green” to communicate reassurance that it is safe to go on. Yellow can mean “tread carefully and “red” communicates the need for some time out.
If you can, try to signal your affection during the discussion. These gestures can be verbal, such as “thank you for listening”, “thank you for sharing that with me”, “I know you understand”, “that must have been difficult for you”, and “ I apologise for misunderstanding”. Or, if it feels appropriate, you might use a hug or touch to show your affection and connection.
Get into the habit of telling your partner when something positive happens in the discussion. Not only is it important to practice new and wiser behaviours, but an argument is also an opportunity to let your partner know what pleases you and what you would like to see more of. You may comment on your partner’s efforts to understand your point of view or their patience in helping you to talk about a difficult topic. This positive feedback helps your partner know how to behave in a way that helps you. They may not always get it right, but if you practice these things in less important discussions they are more likely to be available to you both when things are difficult.
Another useful habit is regularly clarifying when you do not understand or are unsure about something your partner says. The negativity bias we often have in an argument can force us to the worst conclusion. Instead, try saying something like “could you explain that a little more?” or “I really want to understand, so could you help me to understand what you mean?”. Be curious rather than jump to conclusions.
Hopefully these strategies will help your discussions stay on track and be more productive. If the anger becomes very intense or out of control or there is any hint of physical intimidation or violence, please end the discussion and ensure your safety and that of your partner by getting expert professional help if this happens in your relationship.
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Judith Lask is a Couple and Family Therapist and the former Head of Family Therapy Training at King’s College London.
She has presented at numerous psychotherapy workshops around the world and contributed to an easy-to-use measure of family functioning called SCORE. She is an Honorary Fellow of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).