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Are Your Arguments Getting Out of Hand?

How to stop arguments spinning out of control — and get back on track if they do

Have you ever been in an argument with your partner where suddenly it all goes out of control, and you’re not sure why? 

In moments like these, you might find yourself saying things that you don’t really mean and know you’ll 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 rational 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.

How to defuse an argument with your partner

Take the road less traveled

There are many moments during an argument 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 traveled. Don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This tendency to do things on autopilot is very strong.

Know what you want to resolve

I must state the importance of knowing what you really want to sort out and stating it as clearly as you can. It’s useful for your partner but also for yourself. 

We can get mixed up about what we don’t like, versus what is actually wrong and needs to be resolved. The coat on the chair may be irritating but it’s not a serious crime! If in the middle of a discussion you find it going off point, it’s can be helpful 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’m getting a little lost.”

Pay attention to each other's needs

It’s 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. 

During a discussion, check with your partner how the discussion is going from their point of view.

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Avoid judgments and mind-reading

When changing your discussion style, make it a rule to not accuse or judge each other. 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!! 

Watch the pace

It might be a good idea to check on pacing. I argue very fast and I know from first-hand experience that it’s hard for anyone whose style is to process things and take time to respond. 

The pace of an argument has to make 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.

Stop, look, listen

Look for signs that emotions are threatening to take over either you or your partner. Sometimes couples enjoy using a traffic light system either with colored cards or by verbally stating the color. 

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.

Use kind and healing gestures

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 apologize for misunderstanding”. 

Or, if it feels appropriate, you might use a hug or touch to show your affection and connection.

Give positive feedback

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 behaviors, 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 could 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’re more likely to be available to you both when things are difficult.

Ask for clarification

Another useful habit is regularly clarifying when you don’t 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.

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About the writer
Judith Lask
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).
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