How to Prevent Fights from Escalating

We all have certain issues that really trigger us, meaning certain topics that we are not able to resolve with our partner. Sometimes their tone of voice or the way they look at us that makes us feel very emotional. When we get upset or angry we usually try to talk about it with our partner, we try to make them see our point of view and hear our feelings about this. However, when couples we are really upset, that usually doesn’t go very well. We get angry, we start yelling and we don’t really listen to them and usually they do the same, and the fight escalates and we end up feeling more distant from our partner.

Why do we get into trouble

It is important to understand is that when we get really upset, our mind goes into fight mode. This is actually a biological response – there is a part of our brain that is in charge of helping us deal with dangerous situations. When we are really upset with our partner that part of the brain tells us that we are in a dangerous situation. In these situations we feel we have to either fight or flight (meaning withdrawing, running away). So when we try to talk, we don’t have our full capacity. Our intellectual capacity is significantly reduced and our ability to empathies, meaning our ability to really understand our partner’s point of view is lowered significantly. Therefore, we end up saying things that we don’t mean and we are not able to understand our partner, so we can’t resolve the conflict.

Taking a time out

Consequently, when you feel really triggered or there is something that makes you feel really upset and emotional, the best thing to do is actually to take a time out. A time out means to take a break from the conversation and return to it in a later stage when both of you are able to have the conversation in a much more calm way. This is an important skill and there are few guidelines of how to use it:

1. Agree about time outs – you have to make a clear agreement with your partner that you are going to use time outs when you are feeling very emotional or escalated because it’s important that your partner understands your intention when you are doing it, and that you are actually doing that in order to make the situation better.

2. Ask for the time out clearly – if you are in a situation in which you feel like the conversation is going the wrong way, it’s important for you to ask for it clearly and say: “I want to take a time out right now”.

3. Agree when you will talk about the issue – if you are the one that takes the time out, you should say when you are going to continue the conversation. You can say something like “Let’s talk about it in a few hours”, “let’s talk about it after dinner” or “let’s speak about it again tomorrow morning”. It’s really important to be specific, because then your partner gets the message that you are going to go back to talk about it and you are not just trying to avoid the conversation.

In the meantime, during the break, it’s important for both you and your partner to learn how to relax yourself and get a bigger perspective about the situation. Ask yourself – why is this issue is so important to me? What am I really trying to tell may partner? And maybe also think about what are they trying to tell you? What do they think about the situation? Then the two of will be able to talk about the same thing in a different way.

Do you need more help? In marriage counseling San Francisco CA our couples therapists have worked with hundreds of couples and will be happy to support you in learning how to negotiate conflict in an easier way.