Ways to Stop Arguments from Escalating
By: Lauren Day
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: Parenthood is probably my favorite show of all time. I love the depth of the characters, the combination of sweetness and silliness, and the complex ways they show so many different parts of marriage and family life. But in the words of a friend’s husband: “Is Parenthood the show where they’re always yelling at each other?”
While I won’t say that’s true ALL the time…they definitely do yell a bit. Sometimes when I’m watching the couples in the show argue, I’m amazed by how quickly arguments turn into loud yelling matches where each person shouts their own perspective without actually listening at all to what the other one is saying (especially Crosby and Jasmine. I love them but their marriage is a hot mess sometimes).
The wannabe therapist in me loves analyzing the ways these different couples interact and applying some of that to my own marriage. Over these last five years of dating and marriage, we’ve definitely learned a lot about who we are as people and our go-to styles of conflict.
While we definitely aren’t masters of conflict, our time meeting with older couples, some marriage counseling, and lots and lots of real conversations have helped us to see some practical things we can do to stop arguments from blowing up to the point of full on screaming matches (or like some of our sweet friends have said, arguments where the you-know-what hits the fan and actual stuff starts flying). Since these things have helped us immensely to stop arguments from escalating, I figured I would share them with y’all!
1) Understand Your Marriage Conflict Cycle
If you’ve been dating or married for more than a few months, you’ve probably noticed patterns in how each of you feel and behave during conflict. Be students of yourself and your partner, and take the time to understand how and why you both act the way you do. Taking the time to do this BEFORE conflicts arise will help you significantly to work through conflicts faster and with less emotional destruction when they do arise.
2) Process Your Emotions BEFORE You Initiate Conflict
One of the best ways for me to prevent myself from becoming super upset and emotional during conversations is to spend time writing out my feelings and thoughts before I even talk to Jordan. Sitting down and processing these thoughts with God helps me to separate what emotions are worth confronting Jordan about and which emotions come from a place of my own brokenness and sin (or sometimes a combination of both those things). Take a walk, journal, and process through your emotions so you can be more prepared to present them to your spouse when emotions are high and vulnerability gets harder.
3) Choose The Right Place And Time To Talk
I think our pre-marital counseling class had some creative acronym for this, but we’ve apparently forgotten it. Basically, try to start conversations that might escalate quickly when the cards aren’t already stacked against you. If you’re hungry, late, stressed, or tired, you’re much more likely to blow up for no good reason. If at all possible, wait to have those hard conversations until your bodily needs are met and you’re less likely to blow things out of proportion (I know this might be harder when kids are in the picture and you’re pretty much always tired, so just try your best to find what times work best for you!).
4) Listen With The Goal of Understanding
This is where it starts to get real, y’all. When I do my armchair psycho-analyzing of tv show characters (am I the only one?) this is the #1 thing I see. People are so focused on getting their own point across that they completely ignore their partner, with each person feeling more and more hurt, angry, and misunderstood as the argument progresses (cue the yelling!). When our goal is only to express our own concerns or feelings, we will miss out on a chance to learn more about our partner and their experience of us, our relationship, and the world.
When we did marriage counseling last year, our counselor recommended that we try to really listen when our partner talked. Then, when one of us finished talking, the other one would repeat back in their own words what they’d just heard. It feels silly at first, but this is HUGE because it allows both partners to feel heard without needing to yell or talk over the other person. Some people pass an object back and forth to make sure only one person is talking (we felt too cheesy to rock this method, but feel free to try it!). Do whatever it takes to make sure you are listening – not just planning your next rebuttal or attack.
5) Validate What Your Partner Feels, Even If You Disagree!
Oh man. #4 might have been big for us in general, but #5 was the biggest one for me. Even if we don’t mean to, sometimes our attempts to defend ourselves in a situation can make our partner feel completely invalidated in what they’re feeling. If I was hurt by something Jordan said and he responded by saying, “Well, that’s silly because I never meant to hurt you! I love you!” I’m left feeling dumb and ashamed on top of feeling hurt. Even though he was just trying to show me his own good intentions and heart, I was left feeling invalidated and embarrassed for my own emotions.
In our pride and our sin, we may not agree with our partner that what they feel is our fault or “right,” but in the big scheme of things, that’s not what matters. We have to look at who our partner is and at the experiences that make them who they are and shape the way they feel and understand the world. Then, we can say to them with confidence, “It makes sense that you feel that way, even if I can’t understand it fully or I don’t feel the same.” This doesn’t mean you agree with them about the cause or effects of their feelings, but it validates that what they feel is legitimate and takes them off the defensive to prove their feelings to you.
6) Be Willing To Press Pause
Last but not least, if you’ve done all these steps and you still feel yourself getting more and more heated, you might just have to press pause on the argument and take a break for a while. I could talk about emotions and heart stuff till the cows come home, but it starts to wear on my husband after a while, and sometimes taking an hour, an afternoon, or even a day or two to press pause on an argument can be just what we need to better understand our perspectives and re-approach the topic later. Marshall and Lily, a couple on How I Met Your Mother (another favorite show of ours) are famous for saying “Pause!” in the middle of an argument so they can make out, go to work, or do another random life task before continuing the argument. It’s silly but it can help a ton!
I know we’re not supposed to “let the sun go down on our anger,” but I think the idea there is more that we shouldn’t let anger and bitterness stew and grow in our hearts over long periods of time. If you and your spouse are committed to each other and to working through conflict, then find a good place to stop, say “I love you” and mean it, then press pause until you are in a better place. As long as you agree that one of you or both of you will re-initiate when you’re ready to come back and talk, this can be a valuable way to prevent a conflict from becoming angry and hurtful.
Working through conflict in marriage can be exhausting, especially in seasons where it feels like every other day brings up another hard conversation. But letting arguments escalate into screaming matches rarely leaves either spouse feeling fulfilled, loved, and ready to move into deeper intimacy with their partner.
Let’s value the hearts and perspectives of our spouses enough to be intentional with the ways we approach conflict: before it happens, during those hard conversations, and after them.
When we truly share our hearts, bodies, and souls with another person, conflict is inevitable. If we can take the steps to make our conflicts as loving, honest, and peaceful as possible, we are one step closer to being fully one and reflecting the heart of the One who designed marriage in the first place.