Every couple has arguments. You know the usual culprits: money, being on time, parenting, the dishes – to name a few. Then there are the fights. The ones that leave us roiling in confusion, anger, and can seem an unending war of words.
At times something small can suddenly steamroll out of control into a giant mess of who-said-what until no one even knows what you're fighting about anymore. In the midst of it all neither partner is listening and the truth is no matter how long you fight about it no one is going to win. Try these five strategies the next time you find yourself on the edge of a blowout to stop the steamroller in its tracks.
Start by saying something like: “I don't want to fight, so what do you need right now?” This is a joining phrase, to get you working together again, not against each other. When you say this openly and honestly it's because you realize that, regardless of what your spouse is saying and how they're saying it (albeit rudely, probably) it's because they actually need something from you.
They probably got stressed or frustrated and said something unhelpful or hurtful instead, but what is marriage if we can't give a second chance and let go of mistaken language and reach out? Keep calm, don't get sucked into needing to defend yourself. Repeat your joining phrase if necessary.
Start by saying something like: “Look, I think we're both feeling really hurt right now.” Often in an argument someone gets their feelings hurt, then they do something to hurt the other person back by calling a name or taking a dig. It becomes impossible to agree who started it because half the time we're not even aware that something we did hurt our spouse. Acknowledging that both of your feelings were hurt, and that for right now it doesn't matter how and why, can defuse the anger and disrupt the blame game. Another version of this is: “I can see that your feelings are hurt. I really did not mean to offend you.”
I hate the old adage, “Never go to bed angry.” I say, if you can't get anywhere in your argument and your evening is turning into The War of Roses, put your head on your pillow and turn off the light. Things might feel much different in the morning.
If it isn't anywhere near bedtime, you can start by saying: “I need a break.” It's super important when feeling overwhelmed and frustrated in an argument to be able to walk away. You and your spouse have the right – and often need – to do this and must respect it with one another.
Make an agreement to separate yourselves in different rooms and distract yourselves for five or 10 minutes. You'll be amazed at how much calmer you feel and how much energy and anger will defuse by simply pausing the interaction for a short time. The deal is to then come back together and try discussing calmly. If the argument sparks up again, take some more time.
Start by saying: “I can see how it may have looked that way to you, and it looked different to me. I realize we both see things differently.” The same experience can be completely different for two different people. The same conversation can sound and be heard drastically different. We all perceive things differently all the time and fighting about the past, old comments, situations, (even if they just happened five minutes ago!) does not work to solve a problem or come to common ground. It's like drinking poison over and over again – it just deteriorates you both. Validate both points of view and see if it doesn't feel good!
No, this is not another play on the most favorite and overused phrase of the century! It's serious advice and an absolute skill when stuck in an argument. Start by saying: “Let's move forward.” This is actually my all-time favorite phrase in an argument. When we find ourselves going nowhere and spinning our wheels, it's so helpful to stop say this out loud. It's a signal to literally let go of your anger and to think about a solution and focus on that instead. If the goal is to prove a point and make the other person see their faults, just stop. If the goal is to make a decision together about something, take a deep breath, and refocus. Make an effort to say something only if it's helping your cause, not hindering it.
If you want to stop an argument, reduce fighting, and defuse anger, get out of the power struggle and move in a new direction. Fighting about proving someone wrong or trying to make someone see your side is not productive or solution-focused. The first-class way to end an argument however, is the one and only, “I'm sorry.” Ultimately you're in this together. You're fighting for the same thing and even if you didn't do anything wrong, it won't hurt to say it, I promise. It might even help.