All couples who have been together for any reasonable length of time have fights. While it is a good idea to let off some steam now and then, arguments also have the potential to escalate into breaking points. So if you have come dangerously close to that, here are a few ways to step back before arguments get out of hand and ruin a relationship.
Apply the brakes. Just like knowing how to put the brakes on a speeding car is an essential part of learning to drive, knowing how to pull back from an escalating argument is crucial to the health of a marriage. Marriage researcher John Gottman calls these efforts to brake during an argument, repair attempts. Once you find an argument with your partner getting stuck in the cycle of accusation and counter-accusation, try to introduce a statement or action that will help the negativity from spiraling out of control. It could be as mundane as asking for a time out or a more thought-out response like focusing on the present issues instead of emotions and past actions.
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Learn to pick up signals. Just like you need the emotional maturity to put the brakes on an argument, you also need to be able to pick up repair attempts from your partner, even if they come couched in angry words. During a heated argument, your partner might yell at you not to change the subject. This is his/her way of saying that let us resolve the issue and not keep it simmering enough until it explodes in our faces. Such repair attempts do not come sugar-coated and are thus difficult to recognize. However if you ignore them, your partner might feel you are no longer interested in making things work out and give up. So no matter how feeble his/her repair attempts, practice learning to accept them and work things out with each other.
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Don’t forget humor. One of the most effective but often neglected ways of defusing tension is to use humor. Any word or action as long as it is silly enough to make you both break out laughing is good. For instance a couple might be fighting whether or not to move to a bigger house, but as soon as the woman puts her hands on her hips in a funny imitation of their toddler and proceeds to stick her tongue out, her husband beats her to it by doing it first. A gesture as simple as this not only prevents an argument from getting out of hand but sends the message that both partners love and value the same things and people in their relationship and are sure to work out any issue that may be affecting it.
Break the cycle. One of the biggest causes of an argument spinning out of control is a vicious cycle of blame and defensiveness. When one partner accuses the other of doing/not doing something, the latter is immediately put on the defensive and in turn launches another accusation as a way of response. Soon the argument is embroiled in a self-perpetuating cycle of blame and counter-blame with the issue that started it being almost forgotten by now. It is difficult to break this cycle unless one of the partner agrees to take a step back and an easy way of doing this is refrain from making statements that start with a capital ‘You’. Instead of using accusing sentences like “You never listen to what I am saying” or “You are always flirting with other men/women”, spell out what you are feeling, like “I feel unimportant when you have the TV on while I am speaking” or “I feel neglected when you are paying more attention to others at a party”. Focusing on your own emotions will make your partner realize that you are not blaming him/her for your own responses but are nevertheless concerned about what is going on.
Stick to the present. Very often hurtful arguments start out as only minor disagreements. A comment about your partner’s way of leaving a wet towel on the floor can quickly lead up to an argument going back to several years and encompassing money, sex, former partners, families and what not. When at the receiving end of your partner’s attempts to dig up the past, it is tempting not to pay back in the same coin. However the one who is emotionally more mature here will recognize the situation for what it is – not a disagreement about a wet towel on the bedroom floor but about all the other unresolved issues in the relationship. In order to prevent the argument from getting out of hand, agree to stick to the present matter and find a quick solution. At the same time, accept that there are certain other issues in the relationship which need to be addressed but later, at a time when you both are better capable of reasoning.
Set personal boundaries. Despite all your attempts to apply the brakes on an escalating argument, you are not responsible for your partner’s words or actions. At the very most, you can suggest how to go about a disagreement but you cannot prevent him/her from saying or doing what he/she wants. This means that you need to set certain boundaries in an argument beyond which you are entitled to leave. Some of the responses which you may decide not to tolerate are raised voices, personal insults, disrespect to your family/religion/group and of course physical violence. In case you find your partner crossing the line, leave the room saying that you are willing to thrash out issues when he/she is a more reasonable frame of mind. However it goes without saying here that you should be willing to follow the very rules which you expect your partner to keep to.
Finally, how willing you are to stop arguments from getting out of hand depends on how committed you and your partner are to the relationship. If both of you want to make this work, there is no reason why you cannot have a fight now and then and yet not lose sight of the larger picture.