How to Stop Having Destructive Arguments

Research shows that most arguments begin with low-grade niggles about leaving sock-fluff on the carpet, unwashed plates next to the sink or flicking TV channels. Starting out seemingly simple, these situations can quickly escalate into a full-scale row, in which underlying issues get brought into the argument and both parties end up in The Bad Place. We end up feeling bewildered as to how things got so out of control. What’s more, we can easily fall into the same predicament again, and so the process repeats itself.

When conversations escalate, they tend to go through a series of stages:

Stage 1: Creating the spark for an argument.

The spark for an argument can take many forms, such as a throw-away remark or critical comment, and the tone of what’s said may be more important than the content. Equally the spark may be something that hasn’t been said, where a positive comment or acknowledgment was expected.

Stage 2: Accusations and justifications.

Conversations can deteriorate very quickly when accusations are made. This leads to counter-accusations and justifications. The speed of the conversation starts to accelerate; we stop listening and the more we interrupt each other, the more the conversation gets jammed. This in turn means that the intensity level increases, because we feel increasingly frustrated or angry. At this point, the ingredients are in place for a full-scale argument if neither side backs down.

As an argument starts to escalate, we become more interested in being right about our point of view than in resolving the issue.

Stage 3: Comparisons and threats.

If the argument continues, it becomes a contest to see who can win; both sides are looking for ammunition to support their case. We must remember that the whole process is happening at high speed and we are being more strongly influenced by our emotions than relying on logical thinking.

Tactics include:

  • Comparisons such as, ‘You’re just like your dad’.
  • Gross generalisations such as, ‘You’re only interested in yourself’. In particular, this includes phrases like ‘you always…’ and ‘you never…’
  • Heat-of-the moment threats such as, ‘This relationship is over’.
  • Dragging up whatever historical issues come to mind, from flirting at last year’s Christmas party to a comment made 5 years ago.

These tactics are all designed to gain an advantage. Like boxers in a ring, we are looking to get the upper hand but, in doing so, we are pouring fuel on the fire, and increase the intensity of the argument.

Stage 4: Crescendo and conclusion.

When an argument is reaching its climax, we want to have the final word. This could be a last volley of accusations, or a slammed door and dramatic  exit. Alternatively we might take the moral high ground by saying, ‘That’s a low blow. I’m not going to stoop to that!’

These are all strategies for winning, even though they may seem absurd in retrospect, once the heat of the moment has dissipated.

Stage 5: Separation and reflection.

At the end of an argument, we find ourselves in The Bad Place, meaning that our sense of connection has been temporarily lost. More often than not we smoulder, feel wronged, and then start to reflect on what’s happened. In doing so, we engage the logical side of our brain and usually get to see a wider perspective. This may lead to an apology or we simply move on from the argument with no bad feeling. Or it may require coming back to the conversation at a later point to clear up any outstanding fall-out.

It’s important to say that arguments can be a thoroughly healthy part of any relationship. But if they get out of control on a regular basis, and aren’t cleared up effectively, they can have a toxic influence on the relationship.

What can you do?

In summary, these are worth bearing in mind:

1. Notice the process of escalation as it unfolds.

The more we understand the dynamics of an argument, the easier it is to redirect it along a different course. In particular, it’s important to notice the Warning Lights as they occur.

2. Slow down. 

Reduce the pace of the conversation by listening rather than interjecting. This isn’t easy because your ‘fight or flight’ instincts may be in full flow, but it can be done. Let the other person finish their sentences and actually seek to hear what they are saying.

This doesn’t mean you need to agree with what your partner is saying, but it gives your conversation some oxygen. By doing so, it allows for more rational thought to enter.

3. Press the STOP! button.

Putting a conversation on hold is easier than you might think. You can create some distance from the conversation by removing yourself physically from it – even for a minute or two. You can do this is saying, ‘I’m upset and need to take a break from this conversation’. Your partner may not want to back off, since you are changing the dynamic of the interaction.

However, it will give you some crucial thinking time and help you regain your balance without having to get into The Bad Place first. So often, this can prevent a bad conversation from becoming toxic. After a few minutes of cooling down, the moment has passed and you start to move on.

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