How to diffuse arguments over touchy subjects?
June 14, 2010 9:03 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are looking for resources and tips for diffusing arguments before they escalate into big fights.

We don’t fight often, but probably quarterly we’ll get into a real battle royale with yelling and tears and one of us leaving the house for a while to cool off. (Note: these fights never become violent, and only in the very worst of them do either of us resort to name calling or hurtful cursing, i.e. “Fuck you.”) We know what issues are most likely to provoke arguments – finances and distribution of household labor – and we understand why those are touchy subjects for both of us. We know what our triggers are – raised, angry voices for my partner due to growing up with parents who communicate entirely by screeching at each other, and for me, a feeling of not being heard or having my opinions disregarded due to my own past experiences. Unfortunately, when I feel I’m not being heard, I tend to get louder and more aggressive, which triggers my partner who then shuts down and shuts me out, which triggers my fear of not being heard, which makes me louder and more aggressive and, well, you can see that this doesn’t go anywhere productive.

Having a major fight every three to four months might seem reasonable, but we’re seriously considering having a baby, and there’s nothing like a baby to increase the amount of conflict around finances and household labor. Because of our familial backgrounds, it is very important to both of us that we don’t raise a child in a house full of anger and conflict. We’re looking into couple’s counseling and will likely meet with someone for some first-hand help, but we are also interested in books that offer advice on how to diffuse arguments before they escalate into major fights as well as techniques that have worked for you in this situation.

Neither one of us has any intention of or interest in dumping the other motherfucker, so no calls to DTMFA, please. And thanks for the help!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
...and one of us leaving the house for a while to cool off.

If you're prone to really getting into it, why not do this before the fight? All of a sudden your voice is raised about the laundry or the bills and a lightbulb should go off saying "oh shit eject eject." Because you know the louder you get the less responsive your partner will and that's pointless. Then you get some air and come back and talk about it reasonably. That last part is important, don't just go cool off and bury the issue.

And, don't worry, this doesn't sound like a DTMFA case in the least. You just have different ways of handling arguments and they're incompatible. As long as you're both willing to put in the work to learn a functional way of handling disputes (hey, you know what they teach you in couples counseling? Exactly that.) it'll all be okay.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

My wife and I have a standing agreement to call for a non-negotiable eskimo kiss just for these occasions. We do it the second one of us starts to feel hurt or angry and it instantly reconnects us and gets us talking about things from an external perspective. We still argue occasionally... but it's the most civilized arguing I've ever heard of.
posted by jwells at 9:20 AM on June 14, 2010 [18 favorites]

I've recommended this before - fight via email. You type it all all your grievances out, then reread it and edit it several times before sending. Better yet, save it as a draft and come back and look at it later and see if you still want to send it.

The first couple of emails might still be pretty heated, but as you go along, with each person getting the opportunity to say every single thing they wanted to, you may find that you've each been misinterpreting things the other said, and the intent behind them.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:24 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've recommended this before - fight via email.

This is a terrible idea for couples where one is way more confrontational than the other. If the pusher says something out of line enough that the other person shuts down and refuses to respond, that will inevitably lead to a much bigger blow up than necessary.

My partner and I have the same dynamics as you, OP. As the "pusher", I make it my responsibility to make sure we never get to the point were SO has to shut down to survive the fight. If we're both tired/hungry/cranky, it's even more dire.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:41 AM on June 14, 2010

this reminded me of this episode of This American Life
(Act One)

which leads to this link:
posted by Bwithh at 9:42 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have a safeword.

When things get heated, the safeword indicates the argument is tabled until you're both ready to talk about it again. Until then, find something to do individually to calm down.
posted by Twicketface at 9:43 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Patterns are only broken if someone breaks them, which isn't the other one. So. You could consider working through your fears and your background story in order to learn how to raise your voice less often. Announce in a calm moment that this is what you intend to do. Ask for some assistance and patience; 'it's difficult, and will take some time'. You could also tell him how to react, so you have an easier time believing he hears you, before you feel the urge to raise your voice.
This is only possible if your goal is mutual. Otherwise it may look like you're bargaining for something of which only you will benefit.
It's probably also important to work out whether running away and cooling off has the same bad-bad implications for the both of you. Maybe that's not even the case.

Then, if something's already brewing, (yeah, thinking 'eject-eject' might work too) it often helps to force oneself to accept the situation no matter what. Makes it much easier to keep one's calm. So try not to panic like "oh here we go again, I wish this wouldn't happen all the time", but rather try to think, or ideally feel "ah one of those situations. Stay on course, you'll be fine."

(Unfortunately and absurdly, bad previous experiences make the last bit easier. You can think "no matter what happens next, it is unlikely it's going to be as bad as when I fought with X back then. Nobody deserves to have had such experiences, so take my word for it, it's well worth spending some thought, time and energy with solving these matters early on)
posted by Namlit at 9:59 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do your fights tend to happen at a certain time of day? For example, are your most heated arguments first thing in the morning or late in the evening? If so, fatigue may be contributing to a general sense of less patience, irritability and contention. If you notice that this is your pattern, then agree that all arguments before 8am or after 10pm have to be called short. Literally, look at the clock when you're in an argument and if it is beyond a certain, agreed-upon time, then say "Honey, we agreed to not fight after 10pm. It's 10:05 now. Can we stop and address this issue in the morning?" It is hard to do sometimes, but has made a difference for us on more than one occasion.

Another time of day that gets a minor pass is right after work when we're just walking in the door. Everyone deserves a few minutes to settle into the house before issues need to be tackled.
posted by onhazier at 10:02 AM on June 14, 2010

Sort of like the eskimo kiss, I once had someone tell me that they argue holding hands. We haven't tried that, but I can see how it would work, especially when one person tends to be more shouty and the other one feels less listened too. How can you shout at someone whose hands your holding? How can you not listen ton someone whose hands your holding? I think it's something about reconnecting.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:03 AM on June 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also: we tend to start fights over something stupid (the toothpaste cap is missing!) but really the fights are about something else. After the cooling off, we always try to refocus on whatever it is that someone was actually upset about (it's never really about the toothpaste).
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:04 AM on June 14, 2010

As someone who's DH fights via email, I would highly suggest don't do it. It leaves behind a trail (he saves his) and if you have a baby, break up, and have custody issues, they can be used against you.

Plus depends on the person's character. Mine argues for 8 friggen hours back and forth while I'm at work.

I think leaving is a good idea and so is the safeword.
posted by stormpooper at 10:05 AM on June 14, 2010

Hi! You're me and my husband before we went to couples therapy! Although we were having these more like twice, three times a week.

You guys already have a bunch of great coping strategies, and clearly a very healthy relationship. You are so smart to be addressing this issue now, pre-baby, that I can't even tell you. The best advice I can give is to try to turn a potential fight into a discussion of how hurt and angry you feel, as soon as possible. This requires both being willing to cop to transrational reactions and being willing to accept your partner's transrational emotions, because the first time your partner says "It really hurts me when you do XYZ" and you say "Well that's just stupid," the whole process goes to shit.

So, for example, you say "Honey, could you get to those dishes tonight?" and your partner says "Sure, I'll get to it sometime this weekend." And you start to get that hot-behind the eyes feeling that means you're about to boil over, but instead of saying "SURE you will" or whatever, you instead say "Hey, can I talk to you for a second? I'm feeling a lot of resentment over these undone dishes right now; they've taken on a whole life of their own in my mind, and I'm finding it really hard to be calm and accepting about your assurances that they'll get done. I know it seems like a small thing, and I know I could do them myself, but I really, really don't want to; I really want you to do them."

And then that's your partner's cue to say "I know you do. I've been feeling increasingly guilty about not doing them, but I am so frickin tired and I just want to sit here and veg and watch TV. Your request is not unreasonable, and I have no rejoinder to it except that I, also, really, really do not want to do the dishes."

And then you go from there. If you want specific book recs, the cringingly-titled but incredibly-helpful "If the Buddha Dated" and "If the Buddha Married" are really good ones here.
posted by KathrynT at 10:25 AM on June 14, 2010 [17 favorites]

IMHO, based on what you've written here, you don't need couple's counseling so much as you need some coaching. When you find someone to work with, make sure to specify that you don't intend for this to be a lifetime commitment, but rather some short-term counseling to help give you some tools to work with. You'll know for sure if you can recognize whether you're fighting better/smarter, or if it's the same fight all the time and you never seem to be able to get past it.

If you weren't planning on getting pregnant, you might be able to work this out yourselves with some books and if you were able to talk about it. But the getting-pregnant thing does increase your timeline.
posted by micawber at 10:45 AM on June 14, 2010

When our relationship got serious, my ex-husband and I laid out some rules for fighting, and we promised each other we'd stick to them. Our feeling was that at any given sane, rational moment we truly loved each other, so we weren't allowed to take away the love just because of a disagreement. Plus, we could get pretty competitive with one another, so it gave us the smug knowledge that whoever breaks the rules effectively loses the tournament. It helped that we both defined arguments as release valves; we were allowed to use them, but we had to follow the rules. You know, like the rumbles in The Outsiders. If those greasers could follow rules, then goddammit, so could we.

The rules were:

No name-calling. We don't sink to that level because we're adults. And it's hurtful, and it could do long-lasting damage, so that's off the table. (No "nice name"-calling either, as that can be construed as passive-aggressive -- we're angry at each other, so no insincere "honey" or "baby" was allowed.)

No comparisons of us to our family members. He's not his dad no matter what he's done, and I'm not ever just like my mom. (We both came from rather crazy families.) Unfavorable comparisons are clearly only said in the heat of the moment, so it's off the table during an argument. The stakes can get high, so no trying to "ruin" each other in that way.

No bringing up past relationships during an argument. We've moved on from those people, and if they were that great anyway we should have just stuck with them. Shut up about it and just deal with your past yourself. We're not responsible in any way for anything the other did before we met. None of our business, in other words.

No leaving the house during the course of an upset unless expressly consented to by the party who stays put. This was essential for us. At that point in my life I had some serious abandonment issues that didn't need to be trotted out every time we fought. We promised to never do it, and we didn't. We were allowed to leave the room to get alone because sometimes that's just necessary, and we agreed to try hard not to slam doors. Yeah, we slammed doors, but each time we did the other person sort of "won" that battle, so we would always regret having done it afterward. Kind of kept us in check in a weird way.

No hitting, no pretending to hit, no throwing of stuff, no any-type of threat of physical violence whatsoever, not even to a wall or an ashtray. It was never a problem for either of us, but we both felt better knowing it just wasn't allowed anyway.

No mention of friends' opinions about a matter. Meaning, no saying, "Well Jim agrees with me on this, so..." Yeah, not allowed. If you're right about something, you're right; there's no need to claim backup on it. It's weak.

No over-cursing or using "absolute" language. He's not the worst person ever, and I'm not the most stubborn person ever -- no proof, and... well, we're really not. Just stick to the facts. (This rule was implemented because I'd tend to over-emphasize the importance of things, and he'd tend to really hate that.) If you truly want to win an argument anyway, it's best to try to keep the vocabulary respectful so that you can make a believable point. This had to sound really funny to the neighbors, and it worked exceedingly well. We both liked to think we were fairly intelligent, so it led to our trying to one-up each other with our stunning displays of civility, and sometimes it would dissolve the fight because we'd get sort of locked into that mode and end up laughing at how carefully worded and ridiculously watered-down the accusations and defenses would get. Seriously, that could be very, very funny at times. One thing we absolutely shared was a sense of humor, and in general if one of us laughed, the other would end up following suit.

No beginning your sentences with the word "no." I love that rule. It's a pet-peeve of mine when people do that. It's so rude and dismissive if you're not answering a direct question.

Aside from run-of-the-mill couples fights, we had an end-game rule: if one of us wants to end the relationship (there were no complicators, i.e., children), we should speak up and not pussy-out by keeping hideous secrets. At the end of the day, no one wants to be stuck in a shit relationship, and no one wants to be clinging to someone who doesn't love them back. We effectively always left each other an "out" that way. We were in the relationship because it was good. When it ceased to be good, well... And the day eventually came when one of us did want out, and we discussed it as fully as possible, and we split on pretty mutual ground because of that rule, I think. Probably the best rule of the bunch.

We had one additional overriding rule that we lived by in our relationship that had nothing to do with arguing, and it was, instead, just a fun rule. We were both atheist, so if one of us "got Jesus" at some point in the relationship, the other person would get everything in the divorce. We both signed up to live a certain way, and if someone decides to take that path, then they forfeit everything. (Besides, Jesus will provide, right?) This was always a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it kept us realizing that we'd made certain agreements about who the other person was, so if the other person wanted to jump onto a totally different path, they would have to bear in mind that the other person would be dramatically, negatively affected by it. It never happened, but we both agreed that was the best rule evarrr.

So my advice is to set some rules if you think it'd work for you. It's surprisingly liberating, believe it or not.
posted by heyho at 10:58 AM on June 14, 2010 [14 favorites]

Crap! I forgot one of the best rules of all. We were always allowed to set down the fight, even if we were in the middle of it by saying the magic words (which were also counted as a forfeit): the words were, "Look, I really love you and I don't want to fight with you." This honestly worked every single time it was used. This was all him -- it's one of the best lessons he ever taught me. That it's okay to just set shit down if you feel like you're not gaining any good from it.
posted by heyho at 11:03 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Our discussions go like this:

Step 1: Think about whether this is something I'll be angry about tomorrow if it doesn't get resolved. If yes, continue to step 2. If no, we take a little break from each other -- usually about 10-15 minutes of one of being outside for a bit or being in another room. Then, we hug and kiss.
Step 2: Fight about whatever it is we're fighting about for thirty minutes max. If the fight takes longer than that, then we really need to think about what we're really fighting about. If we need to discuss what we're fighting about more than thirty minutes, proceed to step 3. Hug and kiss.
Step 3: Each person thinks about what really is going on and why we're so upset about this particular issue. We talk about it; no interrupting! We usually snuggle while we talk about it. When we're holding each other it's easier to keep in perspective just how much we love each other, and we don't do ugly tactics. Then, hug and kiss.

Other ground rules:
If the issue is way more important to one person than the other, we defer to the one who it's more important to. This may seem obvious, but my partner and I have trouble sometimes distinguishing between "I would like to have" and "I need to have."
No ugly names, no cussing at each other, and no bringing up past ugly fights.

We don't always follow these, but we try to stay as close as possible.
posted by superlibby at 11:31 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a terrible idea for couples where one is way more confrontational than the other.
Er, no it's not. That exactly describes my relationship, and I'm the confrontational one. And using email enables me to stop and look at what I'm about to say (or send, actually), and tone it down.

As someone who's DH fights via email, I would highly suggest don't do it. It leaves behind a trail (he saves his) and if you have a baby, break up, and have custody issues, they can be used against you.

Well, no. Again, the point is, you don't send it immediately. You think about it, and you realize that what you're about to send is not right, so you don't say that part. If it's some thing that could come back against you, then maybe you shouldn't be saying it to this person that you love, that you in theory would never want to hurt, and who in theory you are always giving the benefit of the doubt to. Maybe you could word it differently, so that instead of it being accusatory, it's in the spirit of compromise? If you're worried that the other person may someday use this paper trail against you, then I say this with all kindness - maybe you deserve someone better?

Anyway, the whole point of doing it via email is that it slows the process down so that you're not having these issues.
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:28 PM on June 14, 2010

This might not apply to your situation but I mention it anyway.

Mrs. W and I tend to have a fight about a week before we go on vacation with her family. It is always the same argument that we have had for years. I told her this summer I was going to schedule fight on the calendar for "2:00 p.m. on July 11" and that we would arrange to be out of the house during this time. The house has heard the argument before, so it can do the entire argument on its own. Then, we will come back after the argument has ended. I haven't actually tried this yet, so I cannot guarantee it will work, but I have high hopes.
posted by wittgenstein at 4:40 PM on June 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Couldn't you guys just make some sort of deal: when you're not feeling heard, you can like, raise your hand to request an "active listening" repeat of what you were trying to say (raising your hand is a lot less confrontational than shouting), and if he's feeling you're being loud, he can raise his hand to ask for a volume reduction? I'm sure it's not quite so simple, but maybe?
posted by salvia at 5:46 PM on June 14, 2010

Your dynamic sounds very much like the one my wife and I were stuck in for a long time. Some resources we found extremely helpful:

We both felt really good about the ideas conveyed in Harville Hendrix's Getting the Love You Want. We worked through the exercises and learned a great deal from them.

David Richo's How to Be an Adult in Relationships gave me all sorts of profound insights, though my wife didn't read it quite as enthusiastically as I did.

John Gottman's "four horsemen of the apocalypse" helped us see just how important it was that we learn to be kind to each other while working through disagreements. Also, his repair checklist gave us particular phrases to help us deescalate discussions before they go too far off the rails.

One of the most helpful things we do, when a discussion starts to get heated, is to just sit with each other absolutely silently for a while. Sit close together, hug, give footrubs - whatever, but no talking, of any kind, until your heart rates and breathing slow and the tension goes out of you. Then you can deal with whatever the issue was.

Whatever the discussion, adopt this mantra: "Safety, safety, safety." A sense of safety is a critical prerequisite to any actual intelligent discussion or problem solving. If either of you feels unsafe, all sorts of fight-or-flight responses get triggered, you tense up and become inflexible, you overreact, you get entrenched in your position, and you can't hear or understand what your partner is saying. So, when either of you feels seriously threatened, the conversation can go nowhere. If you really want to solve whatever issue you're having, put your partner's sense of safety ahead of everything else, and ask him to do the same for you. Safety is not a luxury you can do without if you simply grit your teeth and force your way through; it's the whole ballgame.
posted by jon1270 at 6:03 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of the most important things that I learned about relationships, ever:

One person can almost always fix a dynamic like this. This doesn't always dawn on us, because we often think about it in terms of what both people bring to the table; but the reality is that when there is constant tension over interpersonal issues that feed off of each other from both sides, one person can learn to short circuit the infinite feedback circuit such that it's not possible to continue the cycle. It just takes one person to step up and do it, regardless of the perceived consequences.

Your situation sounds eerily like my wife's and mine. Early on in our relationship, I would feel the need to push for a resolution to our problem, as I felt that my wife was not hearing me, not affirming what I would say, barely indicating that she heard me. But the more I pushed, the more she shut down. And I would often repeat myself, because I felt that I wasn't heard, and then she would shut down from the tone of voice... ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The problem, as I saw it, was that if I didn't push, the problem would never get addressed. If I walked away, she would never be the one to suggest bringing it up again, because she didn't like conflict. And this drove me bonkers. I felt as if it was a no-win situation.

So what fixed this? I decided to take care of my own stuff, and stop worrying about her. I decided that my relationship was more important than being right. So I had to learn to 1) not let myself get worked up; but also to 2) trust that I could walk away from a relationship issue and be 'all right' in the end.

What ended up happening was that, not only did I gain a sense of peace, even without a resolution, that prevented the infinite feedback cycle to begin, but it also allowed some space in our relationship for my wife to open up and feel that she could address things with me, rather than sitting on them, because it was now a safe place for her. So although I feel that we both brought things to our disagreements that were both of our fault, me working on myself as the highest priority was enough to help us fix it.

One reason, also, why this works is because when one person decides that they won't get caught up in the cycle, it reflects the other person's behavior back at them pretty efficiently. Sometimes one person responds pretty negatively because they feel that they are justified in doing so, in light of the fact that the person was mean to them first. If the other person is kind and gentle, even in the face of some negative reaction, it's almost impossible for that cycle to continue, and brings the conversation down to a manageable level.

There is one other relationship thing I just thought of. Something that was seriously helpful for our relationship is when I learned to speak to my wife in ways that she interpreted as love, and she spoke to me in ways that I interpreted as respect. We found out that our disagreements often occurred when one person wasn't getting the particular thing that they needed. Realizing this also gave us the framework for understanding why the other person was reacting negatively. I've lost count of the number of fights that have been resolved because I realized that my wife interpreted my response as being unloving (or from her, as lacking respect), and things were able to be corrected by acknowledging this to the other person, and finding another way to express the concern.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:43 PM on June 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I, personally, cannot cope with raised voices in an argument - my own or others'. They reduce me to tears and speechlessness in very short order, or alternatively, trigger absolute blind rage, or both, which have much the same effect in terms of being able to resolve the current issue.

Getting around this has involved a lot of meta-discussions about precisely how my husband and I communicate. How we speak to one another, what phrasing we use, what tones of voice, etc. We have, over the years, come to a place where we may disagree, and have to Have A Talk about an issue, but we very, very rarely fight. I think the last time we had anything resembling a fight, as such, was ... mid-2008, I think. There has, of course, been times since then when we had issues, even problems, but they've been discussed rather than giving rise to fights.

There are a bunch of triggers for general unhappiness with each other, and they're the usual set - fatigue, stress, poor health, being in pain, lack of sufficient socialisation or solitude. There's a few others that relate to earlier-in-life experiences, family and whatnot. Over the years, learning to recognise within ourselves when we're in these triggerable states, and where our topical triggers lie has been a major help in avoiding/disarming said triggers.

As others have suggested, a safeword or gesture can also be very useful in short-circuiting an argument, as well as helping both of you to learn when the other person has reached a threshold. Sometimes those thresholds are very difficult to spot, and learning where they are is a very valuable tool in learning how not to approach them.

Written communication can also work. It is a tool which we have rarely used, but it is used when necessary. Writing something out longhand takes time, and thought, and composing your thoughts can often lead to clarification of the issue in your own mind. It also tends to be calming, because it requires concentration and focus to express yourself well in that medium.

I guess the short list is: Calmly discuss your communication styles, and how they can be improved, so that the relationship works better for both of you. There is no right or wrong here; only what works and what does not. Use a safeword during arguments to prevent them getting out of hand, and when it is used, note to yourself what you were doing when your partner used the safeword, and try to change that. Be careful at times of stress or illness or fatigue, and take those into account. Consider writing letters the hard, old-fashioned way, to clarify your own thoughts about major issues.
posted by ysabet at 12:56 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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