How would you like a simple, effective strategy to manage intense feelings and defuse an argument with your partner? Read on…
1: Recognize the “Stuck Cycle”
As anyone in an intimate relationship knows, argument and conflict can feel really difficult and heavy. In an ideal scenario, the couple hashes things out respectfully — seeking to understand the other’s point of view while moving toward a solution both people feel good about. However, we all have experienced that moment when an argument shifts to what I call the “stuck cycle.” The tension has escalated, you no longer feel heard, and you realize that you and your partner are missing each other completely.
At this point, things can get volatile quickly. Yelling and unkind comments result, and the argument has the potential to do real damage. The actual reason for the argument may be lost. The vortex is real…and it’s easy to get sucked in.
2: Defuse an Argument: Press the Pause Button
It is important to be able to recognize when an argument has reached the stuck cycle. At that moment, when your heart is pounding and harsh words are on the tip of your tongue, be present with yourself. Step back from the argument and say (either to yourself or out loud), “Something’s wrong here. We’re not able to hear each other and I’m feeling myself getting destabilized.”
And when you hear yourself say that, you know it’s time to press the pause button and take a break to avoid saying something that is unkind or that goes against your values. Realizing that you’ve hit the stuck cycle, and extracting yourself from it, is a powerful thing to do to defuse an argument.
3: Take a Break
Think about what you need in the situation. Tell your partner you’d like to take a break, and do something for yourself. You may say something like this, “Hey, honey. Something’s getting in the way of us being able to communicate right now. I think we need to take a break and continue talking when I’m calmer.” You are not running away from the situation — storming out and leaving your spouse in an angry huff. You are consciously and intentionally taking a breather to defuse an argument.
Here are some suggested things you can do, by yourself, to calm down:
- Take a walk
- Listen to music that grounds you
- Read a book
- Watch something humorous on TV or the Internet
- Take a relaxing shower or bath
- Meditate or practice deep breathing
- Call and talk to a friend or family member who can listen and be present with you that’s also a friend of the marriage
- Stick pins in your voodoo doll (just kidding on this one)
Have this list ready in your mind or on paper, so that in the heat of the moment it is easy to retreat to a go-to activity that calms and regulates your nervous system.
4: Come Back!
After you’ve calmed down and the situation has defused, it’s important to revisit the argument. If both you and your partner feel better after a break, you may be tempted to move on and let the disagreement go. There are times this can be helpful, but most of the time it can become an unhealthy habit. While some arguments are okay to release, most need to be revisited. Coming back is particularly important if someone said something very hurtful or mean during the argument. Both partners need to know that all feelings are acceptable but not all words and behaviors are in the heat of the moment.
Revisiting the argument and calmly addressing what was said provides accountability and an opportunity for empathy and reconnection.When you push the pause button, make sure you communicate to your partner a time when you wish to resume the argument (which, hopefully, will then be a conversation). You can say, “Let’s reconnect in 30 minutes,” or “We can talk about this after we put the kids to bed.” And then follow through! Taking a break is the easy part, but coming back is what really matters.
Let’s Talk About the Research
Renowned psychologist John Gottman found in his research that when people take at least a 20 minute break during an argument, their heart rate calms down and they have more access to humor and affection. So it’s a biological fact — pushing the pause button regulates us and allows us to have a more productive conversation and defuse an argument.
Have you ever found yourself laughing with your spouse at the argument you had the day or week before? What seemed so intense at the time actually seems quite humorous after the fact. Well, imagine if you took that break during the argument and were able to come back and (respectfully) infuse some mutual levity into the situation. In this case, laughter truly is the best medicine!
To Sum it Up
The next time you are in an argument with your partner and you feel yourselves reaching that stuck cycle, stop and say, “Hey, I need to stop talking about this and take care of myself.” Tune in to where you are and listen to yourself, knowing that you will return present in the relationship and constructively engaged in resolving the argument. It’s a powerful thing to be able to take a break and take care of yourself, defuse an argument, and then come back at a specific time to show up and resolve the conflict constructively.
Knowing When to Seek Couples Counseling
Sometimes there are certain topics that couples just can’t discuss without getting into an argument. They try to take a break and revisit an argument, and they experience the same logjam. This can happen when talking about a betrayal in the relationship, or even about everyday things like sex, kids, parenting, in-laws and other topics. If you find this happening, it may be time for couples counseling.
Arguing with your significant other is an inevitable part of married life. Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp offer two mindful ways to help you soothe tension and tame reactivity.
- By Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp
- January 6, 2021
One of the unique quirks of the human brain is its propensity to mirror the states of others. When we see an eight-week-old baby smile, we can’t help but smile. It just sort of happens.
But the opposite is also true. When we experience our partner’s irritation and anger, we get pissed. We feel an instant surge of irritation and anger. It just sort of happens.
Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon. They call it “complementary behavior”: the natural human tendency to mirror the emotions of those around us. When we’re in the presence of someone else’s happiness, we feel happy. When we’re in the presence of fear, we feel afraid. It’s a fancy way of saying that, when your partner comes at you with anger or irritation, you’re wired to respond in kind. It’s a behavioral pattern that can lead to endless arguments and conflict.
The question is, can we break the cycle of complementary behavior?
Two Radical Tools to End an Argument
1. Admit When You’re Wrong
Most fights involve a struggle for one thing: being right. The attachment to being right is so strong that it leads some people to end their relationships altogether. One problem with our attachment to being right is that it’s often impossible to judge who’s wrong and who’s right. The other problem is that being right comes at an outrageous cost: living in a state of continuous anger and resentment.
So, just for fun, during your next argument, see what happens when you open up to the possibility that you are wrong. Or, perhaps you want to take this one step further: Admit that you’re wrong.
2. Opt for Non-Complementary Behavior
Now for the advanced practice. The opposite of “complementary behavior” is what psychologists call “non-complementary behavior.” It’s the radical practice of doing the exact opposite of your partner during a conflict. This is the Gandhi-style move of responding to your partner’s searing resentment with love. It’s extreme. It’s counter to our most deeply wired instincts.
And yet this is the move that can dissolve an argument in 30 seconds or less. Because when you break the cycle of anger by responding with genuine love, kindness, and curiosity, you change the game. Your partner might initially wonder what the hell is going on. They might ask if you’re feeling OK. But, eventually, your non-complementary generosity and love will become contagious and the argument will dissolve.
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- December 4, 2020
Why Personal Space Is A Good Thing in Marriage
Stay-at-home orders can complicate how we meet our needs for personal space. Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp make the case for creating a little breathing room—even in intimate relationships. Read More
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- November 13, 2020
Why Playing the Blame Game in Your Relationship Doesn’t Work
When things don’t go according to plan it can be difficult to resist the urge to blame. Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp offer two ways to shift from blame to accountability when emotions are running high. Read More
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- October 30, 2020
5 Ways to Diffuse an Argument with your Spouse
If you’re like most people, you don’t like to be wrong. You have in your head how you want things to be and, when they don’t go your way, it’s hard to see others’ perspectives. This seems to be especially difficult when it comes to communicating with your spouse. Like most couples, we argue. We also work, together, however, on finding ways to avoid arguments. Here are 5 ways that we’ve found to diffuse an argument with your spouse.
Remember Your Relationship
When it comes time to listen to your spouse, go into the conversation remembering the relationship that you share. If the topic is a heavy one, or you know that you might feel defensive in some way, focus, not on the uncomfortable feelings, but instead on the connection that you share with the other person and how much you care for them. Remind yourself that they would never do anything to hurt you, just as you wouldn’t want to hurt them.
We work hard to remind one another each day of our connection. When going into one of those talks, we always start it with a quick kiss or “I love you.” It helps us to take a step back and remember what’s important before discussing the topic at hand.
There’s a reason why advice, when you’re worked up, is to “take a deep breath and count to 10.” It is because it gives you a few seconds to collect yourself and think more clearly, giving you time to be sure that you’re being a good listener and giving all that you can of yourself to the conversation.
In our family, as we have challenging conversations, we often ask one another for time-outs. It’s not that we want to walk away and not return to the conversation, but that we need just a moment to think (and breathe) before we speak. This is a crucial way to diffuse an argument.
Get Past Yourself
As the conversation heats up, it’s often difficult to remember that your spouse feels strongly about his/her opinions too. Rather than placing all of your energy on trying to make him/her feel the way that you do, try to see things from his/her perspective. If you take a moment to collect yourself (and breathe, as already mentioned) try to think about why your spouse feels as strongly as they do.
When you return to the conversation, after trying to put yourself in the other’s place, enter calmly and try to use the phrase “I understand why you feel…” This approach has worked for us and has helped us to place the focus on our feelings for each other rather than the prideful desire to be right.
Have a Signal or Inside Joke
Setting up a signal to indicate that you don’t want to fight can be great for helping to diffuse more challenging times. Whether it’s using the “time out” sign, sincerely blowing the other a kiss or waving a white flag, a physical signal that you can show the other can help to indicate that you don’t want things to get out of hand and aren’t looking for an argument.
Similar to a physical signal, an inside joke can stop a fight in its tracks. If things start to get heated, referring to something that you both take joy in, or recalling something that you experienced together can help bring humor to both of you. Once you get laughing, you may be better able to talk through things, rather than argue.
In times where we’re having more difficult conversations, we take turns with “remember when we…” stories. They vary from one experience to another, but if we change the topic, just for a moment, we’re able to collect our thoughts and have a better thought-out discussion.
Walk away (Nicely!)
If you feel that an argument is imminent and you’ve tried everything else to diffuse it, it may be time to walk away. Rather than stomping out of the room and slamming the door (only makes things worse) explain that you don’t want to say anything unkind and need some time to yourself. Then walk away and go to another room. Once you both have calmed down, you may be better able to talk.
We work to remember that part of having a strong marriage is giving one another space…especially when talk gets heated. By removing ourselves from the situation we’re able to make sure that we are being respectful of one another and our relationship.
Do you have other ideas on how to diffuse an argument with your spouse? Please share what works for you!
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About Mike + Carlie Kercheval
Mike + Carlie Kercheval are college sweethearts + have been passionately married since June 2000. They have been blessed with three precious children and are in their 15th year of homeschooling. Together they co-authored of the best-selling couples devotional, Consecrated Conversations™. Mike + Carlie founded Christian Marriage Adventures™ to help couples create their legacy with intention. They co-host The Marriage Legacy Builders Podcast and Legacy Marriage Builders Monthly Marriage Mentorship program.