We’ve all been there. What starts out as a robust discussion – a mild disagreement, even – turns into a really horrible argument. And you didn’t even see it coming.
It can be any number of things that make it happen. An unkind tone. A disdainful look. Sometimes, it’s a deliberately insulting comment.
Arguments are part and parcel of any normal relationship. In fact, arguing occasionally can be a good thing. It can mean that you and your partner are letting each other know what’s on your mind, instead of keeping things inside and growing resentful.
But if your arguments are turning really unpleasant on a regular basis – or you find you’re stuck in the same negative patterns over and over again – then, over time, you can cause real damage to your relationship. It can make your relationship feel like a battleground – one that, sooner or later, you may want to seek safety from.
But how do you get out of these negative patterns? How can you regain control of a disagreement before it turns into something worse? Here are our top tips for de-escalating an argument.
Don’t let things get heated in the first place
Ok, this might sound like an obvious point, but it’s one worth making. The best way to avoid an argument is to not let things get to the point where one is likely.
On a basic level, that might mean trying to recognise – and address – any negative patterns of communication that you or (although in any relationship, it’s usually ‘and’ rather than ‘or’) your partner might have gotten into.
One of the most common of these is using language that is likely to make your partner feel defensive. This often comes in the form of language that is accusatory – ‘you won’t listen’, or ‘you don’t care’. When someone tells us who we ‘are’ or what we ‘do’, it’s very common to feel attacked, with the result often being that you attack back. One way around this is to use more ‘I feel’ statements: ‘I feel unsupported’, ‘I feel hurt when’, ‘I don’t feel like you listen’. The difference with this type of statement is that you’re focussing primarily on your own feelings – letting your partner know the effect of what you perceive their behaviour to be, but not presuming to know the intention or flaw that has caused it.
Another habit to beware is the use of polarised language – ‘we never’, ‘it’s always like this’, ‘this isn’t even worth it’. Most of us are guilty of this – these little exaggerations that feel like they’re helping us express our point, but also can make the situation feel worse than it is. There can be something a little defeatist about using polarised language, as if you’ve already given up on the chances of the situation changing. And, again, it can increase the chance of your partner feeling like they’re being attacked – that their behaviour is so bad that it’s not even worth engaging with. It can be much less provocative to use softer language: ‘I’m feeling a bit upset,’ ‘this does seem to come up sometimes’, or even just language that is more factual – ‘you don’t always do it, but you did yesterday’. This way, you can still get your point across, but it’s less likely to sound like an insult, and more like an act of communication.
Stop – and take a step back
So what do you do if you’ve tried the techniques above and you’re still hurtling towards a big bust up?
Well, at this point you may need to take a step back from the situation and have some time out.
Again, this might sound like obvious advice – clearly, it’s better to walk away if you feel your emotions beginning to take control. Who doesn’t know that?
But it doesn’t always feel so obvious in the moment. One of the unfortunate truths of arguing is that, despite what we might like to believe, there’s a big part of us that may want the chance to have a fight with our partner. Because, if you think you’re right – or that you’ve been wronged – it can feel really important to make sure your partner understands that. The alternative, we might feel, is to let a big injustice take place – to be insulted or hurt without actually doing anything about it.
The truth is that sometimes avoiding an argument can mean swallowing your sense of pride and putting peace over justice – prioritising resolution over satisfaction.
That means seeing what’s about to happen and rejecting the temptation to allow it continue. It means taking measures to allow the situation to cool off – walking away until you’re ready to approach things again in a more constructive manner. Usually it’s good to accompany this with some brief explanation: ‘I don’t think we’re heading in a good direction right now. I’m going to take a few minutes and then I’d like to talk about things when we’re a bit calmer.’ You might then go for a quick walk, or just take a couple of minutes in another room to allow your anger to dissipate.
This simple manoeuvre can be enough to make the difference between a discussion that well and truly goes off the rails, and one that you’re able to bring back under control. And it’s not just a physical technique that’s good for interrupting anger. It’s also a gesture to show that you’d rather sort things out properly than indulge in a row – that you’re putting the harmony of the relationship over your emotions.
Examine from a distance
From here, it’s going to be much easier to take a more objective view of what’s happening.
One of the techniques practiced in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is attempting to interrupt certain patterns of negative thinking by avoiding engaging automatically with them, before examining them from a more objective standpoint.
Using this technique, you might realise you’re beginning to think something you usually think in response to certain situations – for example, beating yourself up after making a mistake at work. But rather than allowing these thoughts to continue, take a moment instead to recognise what’s happening, and observe the process as you might observe something external to you. From this perspective, you might be more able to analyse the thoughts – and the reasoning behind them – without getting caught up in the related emotions.
The same principle can apply when it comes to arguing in relationships. If you’re on the edge of an argument and, having taken time out so you can take a step away from what’s happening, you might then like to try and take a more objective view of the reasons behind the argument – to understand it without getting carried away by it.
When we argue with our partners, it’s not uncommon for the actual cause of the argument to be different from the apparent cause. A husband who gets really angry at his wife because she’s always fifteen minutes late to things might be angry about this on a surface level. But, on a deeper level, he might be upset because he feels his wife doesn’t respect him enough, or pay enough attention to his needs. These kinds of embedded, complicated resentments can often erupt in response to seemingly trivial behaviour.
As such, it might be a good idea to think, quite simply: why are we actually arguing. Are we really angry about the things that we are claiming to be angry about, or is there something else going on here? Is either of you acting disproportionately angry about something seemingly small? Or becoming extremely defensive around a specific topic? It might be that there’s something about what’s being discussed that has a bigger significance to you or your partner – that speaks to a larger anxiety or dissatisfaction in the relationship.
This doesn’t mean that your relationship is really problematic itself, or that you don’t work well as a couple overall, but it might mean that there’s something that one or both of your isn’t talking about openly – and that it might benefit both of you to address.
It can be tricky getting to the bottom of this stuff. Often, our feelings are hidden not only from others, but also from ourselves. But understanding our feelings – or trying to – is the first step towards being able to discuss them.
Arguments and emotional abuse
In a typical couple argument, often both parties are trying to get their way on a specific issue. However, in abusive relationships, a dynamic can exist where the perpetrator deliberately creates conflict and then blames the victim for ‘starting it’. In a scenario like this, the intent of your partner is to control you, so that you will agree with them or do what they want.
This is gaslighting behaviour and is totally unacceptable. You should also be very concerned if arguments like this become a pattern in your relationship.
How Relate Plymouth and South Devon can help
If you feel like discussions with your partner often turn into arguments and you’re struggling to change this, you might like to consider counselling.
You counsellor won’t take sides in arguments or tell either of you what to do – they’ll simply listen, and help you figure out how you might have reached this place.
Talk to someone at Relate Plymouth call 01752 213131
For South Devon Relate call 01803 299001
If you are concerned about emotional abuse, please visit the National Domestic Violence Helpline website which is run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge. Or you can call them on 0808 2000 247 – it’s a 24 hour freephone number.