thems fightin' words
January 29, 2009 11:18 AM   Subscribe

How do you & your SO stop big arguments before they start / if they've started, how do you calm down & make them stop?

My SO & I are about to move in together and we’re just totally into each other. It's the sort of relationship we've both always wanted, and we've been together for a rad and loving eight months.

But our big, fiery and stubborn personalities mean our fights are of a Jerry-Springer level of intensity and drama. Normally, we’re quite good at talking things out, and are very gentle and considerate. But other moments, we just bristle at everything the other person says, and we can escalate almost anything to gigantic proportion.

Our query: have any of you have dealt with a similar trouble – have you fell in love with someone who’s as passionate/stubborn as you, and your fighting is Oscar-nomination worthy? & subquestions:
How do you deal with it?
What are your mechanisms for de-escalation?
How do you recover when you have a big-time clash?
How do you deal when each of you need different amounts of time to bounce back to normal?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
de-escalation often means taking a break when tempers are high. if we wait about a half an hour, we can speak to each other like we love one another again. interruptions are sometimes the best thing you can do. (this is, incidentally, very hard for me. i want to win! or get it over with! or keep him from walking away from me! but i've learned over the years that it doesn't work well that way.)

also, before:

remind each other all the time, non-accusatorily, that you need to speak to each other like you are friends, not enemies.
posted by RedEmma at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2009

Best advice ever: Shut up and walk out of the room. If you can't discuss it rationally right now, don't discuss it.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

It might help to try to come up with some ground rules while you are not fighting and agree to try to stick with them when you are fighting.

Some good ones might be:

If either of you uses the words never, always, etc in a fight the other one can call you on it and you have to rephrase the statement to more realistically state what is going on. Typically when someone uses one of these words in a fight it's just hyperbole. For instance "You never do the dishes" might become "You haven't done the dishes this week"

You can only use a curse word once per fight. Then you have to come up with a new one. This can actually end a non-serious fight in hilarious laughter.

Actually, the first one up there can be good at preventing fights, if you do it to yourself when you start to fight with the other person in your head.

Depending on your situation, if you sit down with your SO you could be able to come up with other ground rules for fights that would be more helpful to your particular situation.
posted by jefeweiss at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2009 [12 favorites]

He usually goes out for a cigarette. Works great, not that I recommend smoking.
posted by sunshinesky at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I usually just admit that I'm wrong, even if I think I'm right.
posted by gnutron at 11:36 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Shut up and walk out of the room...

...but only after saying "I think we should talk about this later so we both have a chance to cool down."

Walking out of the room in a huff, without explanation, only leads to escalation, and it requires the other person to use their imagination waaaaaay too much, leading to false assumptions that and escalate things even further.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:40 AM on January 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

Some previous answers
posted by jouke at 11:42 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The worst fights I've had in relationships have all happened over the phone. The best fights - in that they never escalated to fights - have happened while lying naked in bed together. This doesn't really allow things to escalate past uncomfortable discussion, in my experience; a good chunk of your brain is going to be too busy thinking about how nice and warm you are, and how nice cuddling is, to give much energy to being defensive/angry.

Whatever technique works for you to head it off at the pass - talking naked, leaving the room, making up swear words - do that. Uncomfortable discussions are generally much more productive than screaming fights, anyway.
posted by rtha at 11:45 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you fight about the same stuff over and over again? If so, consider taking some time when you're not fighting to lay out some ground rules. Talking things out when neither of you is worked up is key. It will lead to more viable compromises and you'll both be able to think more clearly. Fights are like forest fires: simple precautions up front will prevent most of them.

If you fight about chores divide up responsibilities and consequences ahead of time. If someone fails to follow through (for instance, the slacker buys dinner the next day). Or, if money makes you both crazy lay out a budgeting system that you both find fair. I swear that the Yours/Mine/Ours system is the reason I have a happy marriage.

Also, essential is making sure that you each have some personal space. If you each have a place to go and cool off for a few minutes so you're not in each other's faces. I think the fact that my mom had a sewing room and my dad had a workroom on the other end of the house is the main reason that they've been able to weather some seriously trying times.
posted by Alison at 11:46 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The problem with preventing fights is that it can make things worse. Generally when a fight is going to happen, it's because someone wants it to happen. When you thwart that, you're only frustrating the desire for conflict and sweeping things under the rug.

My advice is to let the fight happen. The old line 'it takes two to tango' is, IMHO, complete bullshit. One person is completely capable of starting a conflict. If you find that fights are happening a lot, and that you're not starting them, the way to prevent future fights is to part ways.
posted by mullingitover at 11:46 AM on January 29, 2009

I know a couple who has a preplanned safeword for fights that they came up with during a happy moment. If either of them hits the point in a fight where they can't be productive or constructive or whatever, they just say the safeword and the other person has to respect it as a request to talk about things later, with calmer heads. Plus, saying something funny like "hippopotamus" in the midst of an all-out argument has a way of calming both people down pretty quickly too.
posted by vytae at 11:48 AM on January 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Shut up and walk out of the room...
...but only after saying "I think we should talk about this later so we both have a chance to cool down."

Yep, this is what my boyfriend and I pretty much do as a Step 1. It's what we did last night, as a matter of fact! We stumbled upon a tender subject where we both have very different (and emotionally charged) perspectives, and I knew that if I gave in to my knee-jerk reaction I was going to say something very mean that was going to get us much further from a solution that we would be if we just tabled the discussion for the time being. (In fact, I let one knee-jerk comment slip before I actually walked out of the room, for which I owe him an apology.)

Step 2: once we've both settled down (sometimes this happens quickly; sometimes we have to sleep the irritation out of our systems and start over the next day), we have a goofy phrase that derives from an inside joke, which we employ as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. It's essentially a code word that means "I love you and want to either A) drop this entirely because it's dumb and doesn't actually matter, or B) want to work it out calmly because it the issue does matter to me, but finding a solution together matters more."

Step 3a: if the issue really was just dumb, we both drop it immediately, then kiss and make up. No grudge-holding or scorekeeping is allowed, ever.

Step 3b: if the issue really is important, we start the discussion from the premise that we're ultimately on the same side, even if we're disagreeing about something in the moment. Therefore, we assume that we can find a solution together. Sometimes, if things get really heated, we'll actually hold hands during the discussion, so that we make ourselves remember that we're in it together. Above all, we do not approach it from the perspective that one of us is "right" and the other one is "wrong," and therefore that only one gets to "win." Finding a solution mutally means we both win the fight.

This has definitely not always been easy (in fact, at times, it's downright hard!), but in the end it has always brought us closer together and made our relationship stronger.
posted by scody at 11:50 AM on January 29, 2009 [11 favorites]

1) Do *NOT* say that oh-so witty, oh-so insightful, oh-so justified little barb. Just don't.

2) When your SO pipes up with that oh-so snotty, oh-so stupid, oh-so unjustified little barb, just let it fucking go.

3) If you can't observe 1 and 2, just say, "I'm upset, I'm all wound up, I need to just take a little break to relax." and leave for however long it takes you to get over it.

4) If you get to this step and find something to put here, let me know.
posted by Reverend John at 11:50 AM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I find that I get so angry I become irrational, and it helps a lot to just remember that I cannot possibly say anything productive in that state. So yes, I walk away. Sometimes in a huff, but my SO just lets me go. And waits. Eventually I can come back and talk to him, and we just go over what happened, and how we each saw what happened and how to make it better next time. He's an engineer type, and he likes to figure out what sparked the anger, or whether there was a trigger we could look for next time, and I find that to be very helpful. Because, yeah, sometimes some things just piss me off, and maybe it makes no sense, but it's incredibly helpful to know what those things are.

I agree with the always/never thing. I also have been known to say, "Neither of us can be productive right now. We need to stop discussing this til we calm down." But that was in a previous life, with a different SO (an insignificant-O?). It usually worked, but the problem there was that we never went back to the topic, and it would fester and create more fights.

Never go the "Ok, it's ALL me, I suck" route. Ever. Or "I know, it's ALL MY FAULT". Instead of blame I find it's a hell of a lot more productive to think of causes and ways to do better next time. Once blame comes into the fight, all bets are off. Keeping that in mind, it is always good to be the first to bring up where you thought YOU failed. "I could have done X better, and I'm sorry," or "I don't know why I got so angry, but I'd like to figure it out." This generally disarms crazy mad people and makes them realize that they were at fault, too. It's also important to know that fights will happen. People will get angry.

Oh. Last thing. Never ever ever make important decisions about your relationship when you are angry. Don't throw out the "I guess we should just split up," or the "Maybe you should find somebody else." And please never go to bed angry, if you can help it. It creates distance, and makes it harder to go back and resolve the issues. I swear.
posted by routergirl at 11:53 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

(on non-preview: yes, vytae's "preplanned safeword" is what I'm talking about in my Step 2. Definitely come up with it in a positive moment, so that it will have positive connotations of being on the same team, feeling romantic about each other, being silly, etc.)
posted by scody at 11:53 AM on January 29, 2009

(Um. On non-preview, it made me laugh that I said not to use Always/Never, and then proceeded to use Never several times in my comment. But um. You know what I meant.)
posted by routergirl at 11:54 AM on January 29, 2009

My late partner and I used to have terrible, tempestuous arguments, with yelling and recriminations and shoe-throwing and slamming doors. It was noisy and fiery and stupid and useless. It did nothing but break us down, make us enemies if only for the moment, make us stubbornly cling to the notion that "I'm right, dammit!" I'm quite ashamed of those arguments now, though at the time I thought they were inevitable between two people with passionate personalities.

My current partner and I have often disagreed, but rarely fought, despite our passionate and stubbornly held opinions about all sorts of issues. How? We know that we are a team, that despite small disagreements we have the same larger goal of making life better for both of us. He's on my side and I am on his side, even when we disagree.

When we remember that, the argument is no longer about winning or being right; it's about finding the solution that's best for the team. Sometimes that's my way; sometimes that's his way; sometimes it's a combination of the two; sometimes it's something totally novel that comes out during the discussion.

Some deceptively simple groundrules I find useful:
- avoid absolute language like "You never" or "You always"; it's rarely perfectly true and often inflammatory.
- describe how I feel about a situation; listen earnestly when he tells me how he feels, without imposing my own interpretations over his.
- keep on topic. If you're arguing about the mortgage payments, don't throw in an argument about who does the dishes.
- remember that you're trying to resolve an issue, not score points. Consider your remarks before speaking. Is it a useful point, or a zinger designed to score off your partner? Zingers don't further the issue, they just heighten tensions.


For me, this is no doubt the most important and most effective rule: stop thinking of your fights as "Oscar-worthy" performances. Disagreements within a relationship are an arena for fixing problems and finding common ground, not for staging a dramatic scene. You have a choice: do you want to be dramatic, or do you want to solve a problem?

If you're like me (or like I used to be), you may think it's impossible to tame your temper, and as long as you believe that, you're right. But with practice and discipline, you can do it, if you want to.

Now, sometimes one of us gets too heated to have a sensible discussion at the moment. (It's usually me.) In these cases, I think it's important to recognize that it's a feeling, not an abstract truth or a harbinger about either the argument or the relationship.

In those moments, when I can feel my confusion or frustration buzzing around my head like a hundred angry wasps, I elect to postpone the discussion, because nothing sensible will come of it anyway. I say "Listen, honey, I'm all worked up, and I really need some time to cool down. Can we talk about this later?" or "Listen, I have to get out of here for a while. I love you, and I want to talk about this, but I can't right now."

He knows me well enough to know that this is not a delaying tactic or any sort of manipulative strategy, but an observation that I have passed the point of sensible discussion, that I need to burn off some emotion before I can cool down and be rational. He knows from experience that we will pick up the discussion again with cooler heads and I will make every effort to find an equitable solution.
posted by Elsa at 11:57 AM on January 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

1. Remembering and saying to myself over and over again that the most important thing is that we love each other and work together on a solution. And reminding him of same, when he (like I) sometimes forgets.

2. Trying to shelve the flood of hurtful things to say (oh, don't the most sarcastic and terrible things come to mind when you're in a fight with your lover? It's like the Evil Emmy-Winning Scriptwriter lives in your head and it's just so tempting to say them) and boil the problem down to its very essence:

"This is how it makes me feel when you do/say/this.", or
"My reason for doing X is Y. But I didn't want to make you feel Z.", or

Or something along those lines.

3. Reminding myself that it's not about winning. The only way to win is to learn how to work things out with my lover so that we truly do get to spend the rest of our lives together.

Took me one failed marriage, and years of living on the planet, to figure all that out... and I'm still learning. The most important thing, IMO, is a sincere desire on BOTH your parts to make a bigger priority of the longevity of your relationsip than winning arguments. It's like that old phrase about not seeing the forest for the trees, otherwise.
posted by twiki at 12:00 PM on January 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I had a guy who would say, "you're getting worked up. I'm getting worked up. What's REALLY got you upset?" and then we would get to the root of the problem (I had a crappy day at work, his mom was sick, etc.). Inevitably, those emotional issues would cause us to snap at each other over petty things.

Stopping and saying, ok, is this worth arguing about? Does it MATTER who is right or wrong, and if it does, can we look it up together online... or whatever... has been helpful to me.

I also learned years ago to say, ok, if I am wrong, and I know after a rational discussion that I am wrong, I happily admit it and say sorry.

Then always, ALWAYS a very strong, very heartfelt hug where you tell each other that you love each other and that knowing that is more important than any petty squabble.

Don't ever be passive-aggressive (run away from the argument), don't say things you can't take back (you're so fucking stupid, shut up, fuck you, I hate you, etc.). Once you start saying things like that, a boundary is crossed and it can't be the way it was before.

Remember, this might be the last time you ever speak to each other. Always. End every conversation, good or bad, on a positive note (I love you, I'm sorry, I appreciate you understanding my point of view, thank you for listening).

I always get over arguments and being upset VERY quickly... sometimes within a matter of minutes. This has not been true of my past partners. I have found that giving the other person who takes longer to recover space and respect (going into another room and reading, calling a friend long-distance, leaving to run errands for the two of you, or doing some kind of chore the other person hates, that sort of thing) is positive for both of you because you are doing something productive while other person cools down.

It's hard, but practice makes habit and habit defuses tension. Productive arguing and open-minded debate are things most people learn in college, but it can be hard to apply that type of thinking to a loved one, especially when you live together. Best of luck in your quest to stay kind to each other... kindness and mutual respect really do matter more than you think.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:07 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

A couples therapy tactic that has become cliche because it works is to speak in the first person rather than the second - i.e. "I felt disrespected when you were late to the dinner I told you I was making" rather "You inconsiderate son-of-a-bitch". Note that the two statements are not incompatible.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2009

yeah seconding joe beese - use first person statements.

keep your sentiments very simple. avoid hyperbole. avoid drawing conclusions about larger issues unless you can clearly draw them from observable phenomena ie "i feel worried about your drinking because you have been falling-down drunk three nights this week, and you said you were not planning to do that any more". do not say things that are only meant to provoke an emotional reaction out of your partner - when you are having a fight you are performing the conversational equivalent of microsurgery and those sentiments are fucking shovels.

if you find yourself becoming too upset to perform the above, state clearly and without malice that you are currently too upset to converse reasonably and remove yourself from the situation.

and nthing the people who say that it is not about winning an argument. you are trying to reach a mutual understanding. for some reason the understanding is difficult. it is unwise to allow negative emotions to stand in the way of coming to an understanding.
posted by beefetish at 12:57 PM on January 29, 2009

I didn't have time to read all the responses, so apologies if this has been covered. Anyway, I have a thing I call 'The Asshole Test'. I use it myself and I've run it past a few friend of mine who are married/partnered too, and they seem to agree. This is coming from a guy's perspective, I don't know how it works the other way around, but I suspect that it does. With that caveat, it goes like this: If you're feeling tetchy, just about to start an argument, or are already ramping up the argument, stop and ask yourself this question: 'Is there any, possible, remote chance that I'm being an asshole about this?' If there's even a glimmer of a yes there, then you're being an asshole. Take a step-back, apologize and realize that you're taking out your bad mood or your frustrations on your partner and that this is not the way to resolve the issue.
posted by ob at 1:08 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

No matter what they say, no matter what they do, you keep your eye on the ball. Never waver from it.

The ball is not "winning". The ball is resolving the situation to maximal mutual benefit. You won't get heated up and angry when you're too busy steadfastly working your way to the root of the issue.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:17 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of good stuff above.

We made a rule early on that we would never joke about nor threaten to leave. Those words are reserved for when they are meant in all seriousness, never as a club to beat the other into submission.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:46 PM on January 29, 2009

Paying attention to body language is helpful. When people start getting angry, sit down close to each other and hold hands while talking. Crossing arms or pacing around reinforces bad feelings.
posted by dreamyshade at 4:46 PM on January 29, 2009

Count to 10.
posted by webhund at 5:32 PM on January 29, 2009

Take your clothes off
posted by fullerine at 6:11 AM on January 30, 2009

Ban serious conversations after 10pm.
(Adjust to taste and shift patterns.)

In my experience, you're too tired to achieve anything by talking and your emotions are messed up.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2009

FWIW, apologizing or just simply giving in that your SO is right when you feel you are right for the sake of diffusing the situation would be an error. That would lay the ground work in the future for your SO to go back and say that you gave a conflicting opinion if the said topic were it to come up again.

It sounds like in your relationship you are equally passionate/stubborn so this may not happen; suffice it to say that if there are differences in a couple with their emotional reaction to disagreement, the calmer partner can often be tempted to give in just to have the argument go away.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:07 PM on February 3, 2009

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